One of the most frequent comments I get about my books are that they read like a film. My writing wasn’t always that way, though. I remember one of my writing teachers getting everyone in our writing group to draw a piece of equipment I’d described in a chapter. The drawings were completely different. Worse, none of them was what I’d intended.
Since then I worked on it a lot, and also read more SF authors to see how they described new worlds, ships, aliens, and artefacts. Scientists like to use precise measurements, but most readers don’t want to have to do algebra while relaxing with a good book. But basic geometric shapes can be used. Colours are important, but I avoid basic colours (red, green, etc.) and try to add texture. Names can be all-important to help the reader ‘bind’ the information into a conceptual whole, i.e. a picture. Here’s a description of a space ship:
The approaching ship was somewhere between an elongated cone and a javelin, the outer hull laced with metallic scarlet and purple shades rippling from the tip back to the aft section. Its texture reminded him of a moonlit lake, but its sleek lines suggested power, and above all, speed. It was hard to gauge the size, but as it approached Hannah filled them in.
“It’s a Scintarelli Star-piercer, according to the onboard database, Level Eight design, about two hundred meters in length, minimal jump drive, built for inter-stellar non-Transpace flight. Crew complement two, registering as Mannekhi, a Level Five race.”
Micah tore himself away from the screen to face her. ‘Two?’
Note that at the end I try to increase the ‘wonder’ factor by having Micah state the obvious question – why such a long ship for only two people?’ Having characters relate to the item being described (in this case the ship) brings the ship off the page, and avoids the description sounding like a tech-spec document. Note also that he had to tear himself from the screen. This is one cool ship…
Another approach is to give skeletal information and let the reader fill in the gaps. This can be made more interesting by adding suspense or mystery. In the next excerpt, three men are standing on a glass platform in a cave above an underground ocean. One of the men, Rashid, who is blind, can 'see' something in the ocean's depths via a sonar band he wears around his head, called a ‘dolphin’:
Blake had to ask. “So, what exactly is in the ocean?”
Rashid spoke softly. “A ship, like no other we have ever encountered.”
Blake turned to see where Rashid was staring, but only saw the dark sheen of the ocean reflecting from the domed cavern’s glow. “I don’t get it, Rashid – your sonar shouldn’t be able to detect a ship through glass, air and then water. The dolphin’s just not that good.”
Dimitri spoke while turning on a small apparatus lying in the centre of the glass floor. “Yes, Rashid, I am also intrigued. I only found a signal when using the ultra-low frequency scanner.”
“It is breathing,” he replied, “very slowly.”
Blake stared first at him, and then glanced down again through the glass floor.
Dimitri focused instead on the screen illuminating his face in green. “Come, Commander, take a look.”
Blake saw fuzz at first, then a figure emerged. He made out a triangular section like an arrowhead jutting out from a narrow neck, joined to the body of the ship, which was shaped like a semi-circle at the top, tapering down at the bottom. The ship resembled an elongated crossbow, pointing straight upwards out of the ocean.
“Arjuna,” Rashid said quietly, gazing through the floor, since he could not observe two-dimensional displays. “The mythical archer from the Bhagavad Gita. This is a noble ship, if ever there was one to behold.”
Blake read the scale on the scanner. The ship was ten kilometres long.
Arjuna is described as Blake sees it: first he picks out the geometric components, then he uses an allegory, in this case a crossbow. Again, in this case I use Rashid’s Indian heritage to add some mystique to the ship, to ‘bring it off the page’, and then add the scale at the very end to increase the impression.
‘Landfall’ is one of the parts of a Scifi story I always look forward to, when our heroes (or villains) approach a new planet or space station. Here’s one of mine from a chapter entitled ‘Gridfall’:
Grid Station 359 Alpha grew large in front of them on the viewscreen, reminding Micah of a giant sea urchin, hundreds, maybe thousands of electric blue spines stretching out into space, myriad ships docked at the ends. The central hub was lozenge-shaped. Every part of it – and his ‘resident’ told him it was forty kilometres long – glinted dark phosphorescent indigoes and blues. But the hub wasn’t the most impressive item on their viewscreen.
The space-port acted as a node on a ringway, a conduit of sliding colours. Micah recalled as a kid seeing a cuttlefish at the Monterey aquarium, how it changed colours fluently, different shades of browns and greys rippling up and down its surface. Yet this was on a more majestic scale, and wasn’t just about aesthetics. The light show was a side effect of the type of radiation his resident translated as Eosin harmonics, propelling ships around the Grid without the need for fuel. Occasionally a swathe of colour, like the aurora borealis, whip-lashed from the hub to the ringway’s horizon, indicating that another ship had just been catapulted into the Grid network. The ten kilometre diameter conduit lasered into space in both directions from the hub, cutting a bold line across the black tableau of space.
Here I’ve borrowed twice from undersea creatures (sea urchin & cuttlefish), and tried to give the impression of ‘vastness’, and used words like ‘majestic’, and ‘hundreds, maybe thousands’ – implying the viewer can’t count them all and is overwhelmed by how many there are, and the final touch of this huge conduit lasering into space towards infinity, giving the sense of space and distance we look for in ‘space opera’.
Vividness, and visual clarity, must also work on a small scale. Here for example is some ‘encounter gear’ called a ‘shrouder’, designed to protect the wearer and others from potentially lethal microbial infection.
The encounter gear was less cumbersome than he’d imagined, amounting to lightweight self-fitting copper-coloured suits, a matching metallic headband, and two pencil-width booms curving around from the ears to the chin, leaving a gap for the mouth. His resident confirmed the shrouder device was operating, neutralising microbes exiting the mouth and nose, and any foreign flora which might try to enter. Despite a glove-tight fit, he didn’t sweat inside the suit; again, something inside acted on his sweat immediately. So, aside from looking like some cheap, decked-out retro-punk rock band leader, he felt relaxed, at least until he exited the ship.
I’ve not over-complicated it, and left fine details up to the reader’s imagination (e.g. does the copper-coloured suit have a zip? Any emblems? Up to you...). The last part is mildly humorous, because none of us really ever enjoy wearing protective clothing (do we?).
Last for this blog, when describing aliens, I use a light touch, giving outline details, and usually at least part of the alien’s anatomy can be related to something familiar. In the last example below, the alien eels at the end are not intrinsically interesting, until our heroes see what they get up to…
Before them stood a Christmas tree-like array of hemispheres, each about the size of a football stadium. Micah could see ten at any one time as the tree slowly rotated. The tree was in the centre of a vast honeycombed sphere, with thousands of bubbles – more like blisters from this viewpoint – like the one they stood in right now, encircling the tree. He couldn’t see inside any of the others, but the overall effect was a thousand insect eyes gazing on the tree Sandy had aptly christened Babel. Fine opal tubes snaked from the hemispheres to some of the blisters, reminding Micah of a sea anemone’s tendrils waving in the sea currents, hunting plankton.
“Hey, boys, you’ll want to try this,” Sandy said, exuberant again. She had picked up a metal visor from several lying on a shelf, and was studying the habitats.
Micah took one and held it to his eyes. At first nothing happened as he looked towards the tree. Then as he noticed a liquid environment he unconsciously tried to focus, and the image immediately zoomed in, spying various creatures, some like ancient marine dinosaurs on Earth, others squid-like, though none looked like actual fish.
“Infini-vision,” Zack said, “every pilot’s dream! Mil-tech tried to develop this just before the War. It must senses eye muscle movements and amplify accordingly – but this is real smooth!”
Micah found four basic environmental types – air-like, heavy gas, liquid, and dark. The dark ones were opaque to the visors, although Micah thought he saw shadows moving within the blackness.
He focused on one of the air environments, finding a menagerie of alien life-forms, from grey mushroom-shaped creatures whose means of locomotion escaped him, to a quadruped beast with an upper body of a scarlet manta ray. Numerous lime-coloured, diamond-shaped organisms with four rings around them rolled around the alien food market like gyroscopes, the diamonds remaining upright. His resident produced names for the various aliens he saw, but he paid no attention, just feasted on the abundance of forms life had found according to planetary demands and environmental niches. Darwin could have worked here forever.
“Hey, check this out,” Sandy shouted, “fourth level down the tree, last habitat on the right, central section.”
He pulled back from the visor, located the hemisphere, and then re-applied the optical device. At first he couldn’t make it out, but then he saw what she must be referring to. A black eel was lengthening itself impossibly into fractal patterns, in front of a white, straight eel. The white eel began to do the same thing, interlacing and meshing with the black eel. At first the fractal patterns made no sense, even though it was kaleidoscopic to watch, but then he realised that this dance was generating a black and white cube. A number of other alien life-forms had gathered to watch.
Sandy laughed. “Shouldn’t they get a room?”
A few guidelines I use.
The first is that I need to be able to see it clearly in my head, rotate it, see it in light and shade, and see how it moves. It is too easy for me as a writer when writing first draft, to let the words drive the image, that is, to write down text that sounds cool, before I have the actual image. By second draft the image has to solidify and have words driven by the image, not vice versa. By third draft the image is clear and I have foreground and background.
Second, I test all my images with a pool of people, because only then do I find out if it is working. Sometimes people go ‘Huh?’ Then I have to rework it.
Third, I don’t overdo it. This is Scifi (same goes for fantasy), not conventional fiction like Thomas Hardy describing every loving detail of the English countryside. Scifi readers like to exercise their imaginations. I sketch enough visual details to give the reader a ‘handle’ on the image, and let their minds do the rest.
Fourth, I have my characters interact with the environment and relate to it. In today’s economically-obsessed society, I could say I leverage emotional engagement from characters to objects and settings. Or, to put it another way, and as Chekhov (the writer, not Sulu’s pal) might have said, you can describe the pulse pistol sitting on the table with as much detail as you like, but it only gets truly interesting when someone picks it up.
All the above extracts are from Eden's Trial, available on Amazon (currently free with Amazon Prime)
The first book, The Eden Paradox, is also highly visual, and is available from Amazon in ebook and paperback, and Waterstones, UK.
For battle scenes, check out my other blogs tagged 'battle'.