When you’re writing there’s always the choice between the easy description and the difficult one.
Media is so pervasive today that almost any idea brings forth an image. If I start describing action on the bridge of a starship, many people will accept very limited description because the mind often jumps to the bridge of the Enterprise on one of the Star Trek series, or some other recent tv or movie ship’s bridge. If I refer to a character as an orc, again the mind jumps and I’m seeing one of those handsome critters from the Lord of the Rings. I could offer numerous examples, but I think you get the point. The problem is this makes for lazy writing and lazy reading.
It makes for lazy reading because the reader has to put in little effort to picture what’s going on. You might get “I loved it!” on Goodreads, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that within a week your book will be forgotten by the same reader who “loved it.”
It makes for lazy writing because once you’ve established the setting without much effort, all you need to do is toss in some snappy, if clichéd, dialogue, add a cup of action scenes and a pinch of stock characters (possibly Klingons) and a viola! You have a novel.
I’m just not interested in taking that route.
Truthfully, when we start to picture scenes or events in a novel, we generally delve into past experience – our memories of places or things – to start. Now, to be fair, most of us have never stood on the bridge of a real starship, or wandered through an ancient wood or castle with an all-knowing wizard at our side, but we do have the memories of those movies. Okay, so use those as a starting place and then move on.
In a novella I’m working on, “And The Last Shall Be First”, the story takes places on a generation ship – it’s on a forty year voyage. Forty years is a long time. What do you do to keep the crew at least reasonably sane? Well one thing that might help is the environment. In most stories you walk along corridors in the ship that are gray or white or whatever. It struck me that wouldn’t do much for the mental health of the crew, so I decided to play around. Here’s a scene where two of the characters leave an office:
The office door slid open and the two stepped out onto a glowing white path through the blazing reds and yellows of a northern temperate forest in early autumn.
“Explain to me one more time why this failure wasn’t critical,” asked the Prime, changing the subject as he turned right along the path.
“Well, we’ve kept the program running in a dummy mode — it’s actually not running anything. We’ve been gauging the rate of decay and, barring a sudden catastrophic failure, it looks like it would take about five or six weeks to reach the point where the shield fluctuation would be dangerous.”
“Barring a sudden catastrophic failure,” mumbled Koeberl. “You have such a great way of reassuring me.”
The engineer started to laugh, but suddenly cut it off with an oath. A large gray wall panel had suddenly appeared at the edge of the glowing path.
“Damn!” muttered DeShay. “These panels were guaranteed by the manufacturer to be good for at least twice the length of our voyage.”
“Barring a sudden catastrophic failure,” suggested the Prime.
DeShay shot him a pinch-faced, evil look. “I’ll have Naguchi look at it immediately. Might just be a bad connection.”
So what does this scene do? Well, first off it tells the reader about the holo-technology used throughout the ship, but then it also shows that things are far from perfect, or as promised. The use of holo-technology makes sense from my viewpoint because plopping people into a steel box for forty years would strike me as almost guaranteeing mental strain (or breakdown) for at least some of the passengers. Be that as it may, I hope it makes things different and more interesting for the reader.