Captain Jaxx U’dala double-checked his flight suit’s oxygen hose as he mounted the telescopic ladder to his F-101 Silver Falcon starfighter-bomber. The Host were advancing into the Ceres system with terrifying efficiency, annihilating countless strategic fortifications and civilian settlements as they went. Even the pre-emptive mass-destruction policies of the new Federation President Sal Raen did little to slow their progress. It was very possible he thought, as he armed his fighter’s twin plasma cannons and fired up the afterburners, that this would be his last flight.
Jack climbed into his burly starfighter with a weary grunt, itching his nose like crazy. A lifelong nervous twitch, to hide the twisted-knot feeling in his stomach. He flipped bright switches and kissed his fiancé’s clear plastic crucifix, dangling from the eject handle. The Host were burning through Ceres like a plague, harvesting everything as they went. Thousands of families were dying by the minute, and there wasn’t a single fucking thing that anyone could do to stop it. Raen’s trigger-happy false-hope policies were too little, too late. Gripping the thrust, Jack fired up the engines to thundering white light. Tried his best to bury a dirty dark dagger of a thought. This might be the last time I fly.
These are two very different ways to tell the same sci-fi story. The first is all about procedure, accuracy and military precision (well, the best I can do with those anyway). The second version is all about immersion and relatability. Personally, I prefer the second style both to write, and to read.
If you can get readers to relate, you can tell them anything. That’s the grand prize in fiction writing, and it can be hard to do. Not every reader will like this style, but many folks will. Each to their own. But this post is for the people who prefer example two – and want to look at the tricks we can use to write in a more immersive, relatable way.
The first thing to note about example two is the shorthand. I’ve tried to say more, with less.
- Fiction is always about people first. As a writer, it’s your job to do the heavy lifting in helping your readers to relate. We don’t care about the operational status of Captain Jaxx U’dala’s flight suit’s oxygen hose. Most of us have never seen an oxygen hose, and it’s probably not even called an oxygen hose. In the first example, we’re missing the point – which is that Captain Jaxx U’dala is nervous. We’ve all been nervous, and we can all relate to that. We all know what it’s like to have that knotted feeling in our stomach. Don’t forget that, as living beings, we are our gut. There’s a rudimentary brain connected with it. Gut feelings are powerful immersive tools to transport your readers into your hero’s head.
- Captain Jaxx U’dala is basically just Top Gun in space. Top Gun’s a human thing, so just make him human: Jack. We should already know by now that Jack is a captain, so just Jack will do fine. We know Jacks; we’ve met Jacks. But we’ve never met a Jaxx… so how can we relate?
- Most readers don’t care what a spaceship’s called and what specific flavour of warfare it’s designed for. It’s just a spaceship. Or a gunship. Or a starfighter. People have seen Star Wars; they already have an idea in their heads. Instead, focus on the description that’ll communicate the most about its look and feel. It’s burly. Big, mean, grey… full of guns and shit. Just burly.
- I’ve taken out all the military-speak too. I have nothing against it, but it’s not for me. Too many efficiencies, strategic fortifications, pre-emptives and plasma cannons can make a story sound less like a story, and more like a marketing brochure from a weapons developer. It distances the story from its audience, and crucially, damages the human element that we’re trying to big up.
- There’s always a risk of getting down in the weeds; getting caught up in the little things that don’t matter when you’ve already made your point. I do it myself, especially with my crybaby superheroine, Tabitha. But I’d sooner get bogged down in human thoughts and emotions than the cold specifics of weapons, hardware and procedure. Again, that’s just my preference.
- Crucially, in the second example, I’ve used objects. Not oxygen hoses, but things that we can relate to and that tell a deeper story. By including his fiancée’s crucifix dangling from the fighter’s eject handle, we glimpse deeper stories underneath the current one: that Jack has someone he loves deeply; someone to protect and fight for back home. That he, or his fiancée, is religious and holds to certain beliefs and moral codes. And, that that eject handle is on Jack’s mind. Maybe, subconsciously, the mental image of a cross even conjures up a kind of religious weight and biblical fable of good versus evil, and lends that gravity to Jack’s story. (Or maybe not). But objects and clutter focus readers’ minds, and create much more immersion in a story.
- As another object, I’ve included a thrust control too. It’s a mainstay in sci-fi movies, action movies, driving movies… everyone likes a forceful shunt on an important lever. Who knows why, it’s just satisfying. Especially if it makes the jet engines on a burly starfighter begin to thunder with white light.
- And finally, the last line in the passage: This might be the last time I fly. Whereas the first example tells us what he’s thinking, the second example shows us. It’s a perk that’s unique to the written word, and its great treasure: that we can inhabit other people’s thoughts. Read their minds. It’s not something that movies can do. Comics rely on thought bubbles. But novels can talk to you, the reader, in the person’s thoughts themselves.
So there you go. I hope this has been useful in dissecting some different ways to write fiction. As I see it, all good stories are blueprints for human behaviour. They derive from it, they inform it, they reflect it. They can even shape it. The more a story sticks to human behaviour, the better.
Err on the side of immersion, emotion and relatability in your writing, and you stand a much better chance of suspending readers’ disbelief and, crucially, making a story about anything (even the outlandish) matter more to all the vastly different people who’ll read it.