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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Spaceships are the cell phones of tomorrow by Erica Hayes

Do you know precisely how your cell phone works? Probably not – because you don’t need to. It just works.

The same applies when you’re writing futuristic tech: it’s just the stuff your characters use every day. Whether it’s a spaceship, a light saber or a pair of telepathic wave-generator goggles (see? I just made that up, and you get it) – the people of the future will have gadgets aplenty.

But how to include them in your story without bogging down in dull technical explanations?

Back in the old cyberpunk days (nostalgic sigh…) we decided we didn’t care about golden-age sci-fi exposition. We just threw the gadgets out there and moved on, a metaphor for the fast-moving, techno-sick society.

And ‘less is more’ is still a useful rule. If you’re writing futuristic romance, the story’s about the characters, not the gadgets. So give the tech the attention it deserves – it’s like living wallpaper. It’s the world-building, the same as the magical system in a fantasy or the werewolf pack hierarchy in a paranormal. It’s not the core of the story. So give a basic explanation of what it is and what it’s for, and move on.

You wouldn’t launch into a full explanation of the physics if your hero made a cell phone call. So don’t do it when he goes to warp, either. Just give the reader enough to understand what’s happening. And remember, readers are used to sci-fi movies and TV – where all they get is a bunch of visuals, without anything explained. They are smart. They’ll get it.

Unless you’re writing hard sci-fi, in which case readers want those details. Or, if you have a gadget that’s particularly important to the plot, you might need to go into a fuller explanation. But generally, if you’re genre-bending with a futuristic romance or a space fantasy, keep it simple, colourful and visual.


Focus on what it does, rather than how it works. If your pan-galactic megaspace ion drive (or whatever it’s called) propels the ship faster than light, that’s cool. Just show it doing that, and move on. We’ll suspend disbelief and kick Einstein to the curb for a while. It’s when you try to explain too much that readers lose faith.

Keep your explanations in the character’s point of view, rather than stepping aside into infodump. For example, you could go for:

The communicator was black, and had a metal ‘press-to-talk’ button on the side, with a light that flashed when the device was out of range.


She thumbed the metal button on her communicator. “Are you there?” No response. The little red light flashed. Damn. Out of range.

A basic ‘show, don’t tell’ rule, yes? But it’s an easy trap to fall into when you have a lot of exposition to deal with. And if you absolutely must infodump? Try using dialogue, even if it takes longer. It’s far more interesting to read two characters bickering for a page about how the hyperdrive works, than a dry paragraph of explanation.

Don’t forget visuals. Like I said, readers are familiar with sci-fi movies and TV. They expect to be shown what things look like – the cooler, the better. Also, your visuals are a symptom of how things are in your futuristic world. There’s a galaxy of difference between the Starship Enterprise and the Serenity. What do you want your world to look like? Is it shiny and clean, or is everything rusty, broken and ill-maintained?

Don’t forget other senses, too. Details will bring your tech – and your world – to life. Does your heroine’s plasma gun buzz and warm up in her hand when she fires? How does it smell in the bowels of your deep space freighter? What does it feel like for the passengers and crew when the spaceship breaks the light barrier? Make your reader feel as if they’re right there.

And finally: if in doubt, leave it out. Readers are smart. They’ll get it. And don’t forget to use a good beta reader, who’ll pull you up when you’ve glossed over something important.

BIO: Erica Hayes is the author of DRAGONFLY, a kick-butt sci-fi adventure from Momentum Books, as well as the Seven Signs paranormal romance series from Berkley Sensation. To find Erica on the web, or to read an excerpt, visit http://www.ericahayes.net -- or chat with her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ericahayes

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