Friday Speak Out!: Science in Fiction: How Not to Write Like a Textbook

Friday, November 17, 2023
By D. J. Green

The scientific process is truly creative. Scientific writing, however, can feel anything but. Having spent more than thirty years working as an environmental and engineering geologist, I’ve written my share of technical reports, most of which were not at all exciting, even when the science within them was. They got the job done, but they would not engage a non-geological reader. When I decided I wanted to communicate the wonder of geology to a wider audience, I had to find another way.

So, how to write about science without it reading like a textbook?

Like so much of writing, one answer is—show, don’t tell. Create a character who is a scientist faced with a problem or exploring new questions. Put that character in a place—for a geologist that place is “the field”—which could be anywhere on this big, beautiful Earth. For a chemist, it could be a lab. For a marine biologist, it could be a coral reef. That list goes on and on.

Give the character a life, in addition to their scientific one. Most scientists do (have a life, that is), and if they don’t, maybe they’re too one-dimensional to develop as a character. But maybe not, you decide.

Put the character in action. What do geologists, or chemists, or marine biologists, do that motivates them, or fascinates them? These are people who devote years, even decades, to their studies. Reveal why. Show what the character is doing, and how. Write sensory details—not only what the character is seeing, but engage all their senses. There’s likely to be some telling, and that’s okay, just tell it well. Better yet, let the character tell it.

In my novel, that character is Will Ross. He’s an American engineering geologist who has traveled around the globe to work on a dam in Turkey where construction has come to a halt due to problems with the foundation:

Refik, Will’s assistant, huffed up the trail just as Will reached for the Estwing rock pick that hung on his belt. Its handle was smooth and contoured to his hand, shaped over years of study and work. He swung the hammer. Metal rang on stone. Rock dust drifted up, depositing a thin film of grit on his lips. He blew the dust off the specimen in his hand.

“Travertine,” Will said, holding the rock out to Refik. “Each of these layers”—he pointed to them—“was precipitated when hot, mineralized water surfaced and cooled. Cooler water can’t hold the minerals in solution that hot water can, so when the water daylights, minerals get deposited layer by layer by layer.” He traced them with his finger. “Like this,” he said.

The scientific process is a story all its own—and science, in fiction, can make a good story great.

* * *

D. J. Green is a writer, geologist, and sailor, as well as a bookseller and partner in Bookworks, an independent bookstore in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She lives near the Sandia Mountains in Placitas, New Mexico, and cruises the Salish Sea on her sailboat during the summers. No More Empty Spaces, her first novel, will be released in April 2024.

Author website:


Instagram: @geologistwriter



Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your guidance and insight! Great article and I'm looking forward to the publishing of your book.

D. J. Green said...

Thank you! Check out for info on pre-ordering it - and think about supporting a locally independent bookstore, please.

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