Kristen Elise: Making Science Thrilling

[Note: this is a departure for me in two ways. One, I rarely write about writing. Second, the Burrow’s never hosted a guest writer before. But Kristen Elise, author of The Vesuvius Isotope, has done something I signally failed to do in three attempts: write a thriller that involves science. So how does that work, anyway? Here’s Kris with an explanation…]

Putting the Science into the Science Thriller

Professor Ben Hoffman braved a terrified glance backward as he ran. His post-doc, Malachi, was gaining, the pistol in his hand glistening in the late afternoon haze of Los Angeles.

“What does he want?” Hoffman wondered desperately. He could feel his breath growing shorter, and he knew that he would never be able to outrun the much, much younger man. “Perhaps he wants the molecular sequence for the anti-viral plasmid, the precise arrangement of nucleic acids that comprises the DNA molecule, which will be translated by a ribosome in the cytoplasm of the cell, thus forming a new protein complex that inhibits the …”

Wait…what? (Reader goes back and reads passage again, and then again. Reader closes book and takes a nap.)

The above example is an excerpt from no real work. And yet, it represents an all-too-common mistake in science thrillers. There is a time and a place to present the science. When someone is running for his or her life is not it.

A true science or medical thriller can feature a bona-fide, detailed scientific conundrum as part of the plot. Or, any novel in any genre may simply include a piece of technology that makes a cameo in the lives of the characters. Either way, it is up to the author to make the science credible and clear. Here I present a few tricks of the trade for incorporating technical gibberish without overwhelming the reader or killing the action.

Define Your Target Audience – Then Write Them Into the Story

A scientific component must be clear, but…clear to whom? This is the first question the author needs to ask. Personally, I like to target the intelligent adult who does not (necessarily) have a background in science. Whoever your target audience, one way to cater the science to that person is to have characters in the story who are that person…and then, make it critical to the plot that those characters understand the science. This permits the novel’s technical expert to explain the science in dialogue, in the very same way I routinely explain to my (non-scientist) friends and family members what I do for a living. They typically seem to get the gist of it.

Incorporate Science During a Lull – But Hint at it During the Action

Every thriller has its deliberately planned breathers to break up the hair-raising scenes. During a breather is the best time to flesh out the difficult concepts, when the reader has time to process them without losing the momentum of an action-packed sequence. That being said, an action-packed sequence is a great time to raise the question or reveal the plot element that makes the science relevant to the story. Perhaps Professor Hoffman should have stopped short at, “Does he want the molecular sequence of the anti-viral plasmid?” With this approach, the pace of the current scene is maintained and, at the same time, the reader is given a clue that the anti-viral plasmid (whatever that is!) will be important. So when the later info-dump comes in, there’s a stake in paying attention to it.

Break it Up

I’m a professional scientist, and I still have a point where my eyes start glazing over. That point comes faster than you might think. So I can only assume that people who did not choose to spend 8-10 hours a day on this stuff might have an even lower threshold. But that’s OK. You have an entire novel through which to develop your scientific concepts. Keeping the scientific sections short, with just one important concept per section, makes them much more readable than trying to throw a lot of info into one massive scene. Then, intersperse the non-scientific chunks of your story in between, to wake up the reader before he or she dozes off.

Beta Readers – You Need Both Kinds

It’s critical to have beta readers who are new to the science. They can tell you when they don’t understand it, when it bores them, and when they’ve just had enough for one sitting. It’s equally important to have those who know the science, even those who know it better than you do. Those readers will keep you honest.

Whether your book is a true science thriller or just features a bit of science, the scientific element can make or break your credibility. If done well, it can also up your wow factor.


Kris Elise photoKristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at and The Vesuvius Isotope is available in both print and e-book formats.


Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00011]The Vesuvius Isotope

When her Nobel-laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.

2 thoughts on “Kristen Elise: Making Science Thrilling

  1. Elliott Reply

    I’ve recently been writing some heavy science scenes in my own work-in-progress, so these reminders are especially helpful!

  2. Seeley James Reply

    Great post! I’ve been reading more science and medical thrillers lately. I’ll have to add this one to my list. Peace, Seeley

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