Your spaceship looks soooooo cool.....but does anyone care?

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Hillsy7

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So I realised I have a thing where I use design to introduce colloquial language, certain cultural themes, and other...feels?....into my world. And, of course, certain things you just want to look awesome. A good example of this is Star Wars - Instead of AT-ST you have "Chicken Walker"; instead of the often grubby, functional design of the rebel fighters you have these pristine tie-fighters with design themes of hexagons and geodesic curves and mass production; when you see a star destroyer its brutalist, geometric design tells you its a militaristic machine of oppression.

It's a useful tool in film - and great for creating iconic images associated with the IP. And can be applied to books. However, it tends to be done in more abstract and thematic language. Take the Expanse for instance. The Laconian Magnetar ships are alluded to as looking like they've been grown, and are slightly Martian in origin. They mention their size and presence, but a clear description is not forthcoming. Hell, even the Rociante is not that well described - "It looks like a big chisel with an upturned coffee cup on it's back" - Praxidike Meng.

So, I get it. You can use a few short sharp sentences and character PoV to really distil down the themes of design, and then just use a consistency of language to build that colloquial layer over time. Sprinkle in a few details, here and there, and you have a vocabulary toolkit to do the job. Great.

But what if you want to properly convey the image of the spaceship in more detail? What if it looks cool and you want to show that - because something in the design stands out and you want to burn that image into your reader's brain so they all could draw something roughly the same?

The way I see it, you run into a couple of problems. One is simply the language is drier and more technical - try describing the Enterprise-D and it starts to sound a lot like a written tutorial for building it in Blender. Just calling the it a 'disc' doesn't do that gorgeous shape justice. And you're likely to use the word 'eclair' at some point. Secondly, it uses a lot of words. If you really want to get across a ship design you're going to have to accept you're going to spend a couple of paragraphs, which expands even more if you want to include some sort of functional explanation for later use. You can loosen this descriptive stodge up a bit in the same way you do with exposition, but that just leads to even more words (Show don't tell also means a higher word count)....

And lastly, does anyone really care that your ships look a certain way at all? Are the 14 words used to describe the Rociante enough, and the rest is just characters endlessly commenting how good it looks? Or simply calling it a Klingon Bird of Prey and leaving it at that?

So what do you all think? Is it worth the word count, or do you just accept it's a first draft flourish purely for you, the writer, to enjoy and that it's going to end up cut in the first draft? I'm interested to know where you think the line sits between truly building an image, and just building the toolkit you need for your story.....
 

shortstorymachinist

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I think that generally speaking, efficient yet evocative is best. As you said, a few well-drawn details create an image the reader will quickly understand without the need to drag out the blueprints.

That said, if you're doing more than just describing a ship--if you're doing world building or providing character insight--then I think you could get away with more. To continue with the Star Wars example, if I'm not just describing the Millennium Falcon but also describing it from Han's POV, then I could get away with talking not just about what it looks like, but why it looks like that and why he's attached to certain things about it, to inform the reader about his character via a description of the ship.
 

Lakey

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Hi Hillsy. I think that if you choose the written word as your medium, you have to accept that your readers will not visualize your world in precisely the way you do. And that’s fine, because creating that matching visualization is not your goal as an author. Rather, your goal is to create an emotional experience in the mind of the reader, by connecting them to the experience of characters.

Using well-chosen similes to describe the shape or protuberances of the ship is great, but ultimately it has to come through the perspective of character or it’s just not going to be all that interesting — I imagine some readers would skim through the description, rather than piecing together the detailed visual image you were aiming for.

Instead, always offer description through character POV. You say you want to convey that the ship looks cool — looks cool to whom? If you capture on the page that character’s experience of the coolness, then your reader will experience the coolness too. No, if you ask her to sketch the ship, it won’t look the same as your Platonic form — but that is not what writing is for. What her interpretation of the ship will share with yours is some core essence on which the character’s emotional experience of the ship — and the reader’s emotional experience of it — turns.

:e2coffee:
 

be frank

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One other thing to consider is if you're planning to self pub, you can always just put lovely, detailed images of your ships on the cover.
 

Laer Carroll

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Excellent advice.

I especially agree that we need to give readers a FEW but CRUCIAL details to help them build up images in their imagination. Each image will be different for different readers, as they use their own unique experiences to build those images.

Also use the emotional responses of the characters to describe images. One character's response could be awe, another's ho-hum.

...if you're planning to self pub, you can always just put lovely, detailed images of your ships on the cover.

I'm an artist as well as a writer. So I create my own covers. You can see them in my sig.

Also in some of my books I include artwork. Usually this is on the page opposite each chapter. I use different images. One might be a map. Or a character. Or a device.

england_ireland-map-copy-2-aw-resized.jpg
snow-white-superhero-cropped-resized.jpg


combat-hovertrike-for-the-bar.jpg


You must be at least a decent artist. An amateurish image is worse than none. All those I show as examples here I am confident are decent. (If you disagree, that's your right, but I create my books and my art to satisfy me, no one else.)

You must also be competent at some fairly esoteric technical details, such as the differences between RGB and CYMK color images for printed book covers. For printed book interiors you must know how to convert color to greyscale images which will show up well.
 

be frank

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I mean, I was just thinking the OP could potentially hire a cover artist or commission someone to bring their ships to life if they have the means to do so. :Shrug: Plenty of self-pubbers outsource their artwork.

(eta: Obviously this isn't an option if they want to trade publish)
 
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Introversion

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And lastly, does anyone really care that your ships look a certain way at all? Are the 14 words used to describe the Rociante enough, and the rest is just characters endlessly commenting how good it looks? Or simply calling it a Klingon Bird of Prey and leaving it at that?

I don't think everyone cares, but some will. Maybe that's your audience? Geeks who adore ship details?

Does it help you to write detailed descriptions of your ship? Does it make them feel more "real", more authentic when you write your people in and around them? Then I say go ahead and write the loving descriptions. You can always trim them later, if reader feedback suggests you should, or if otherwise your book will be 300,000 words. :tongue

Me, I have a tendency to wax on for paragraphs about the landscapes my characters find themselves moving through. Usually way more than needed. But it sometimes helps me to fix the observer's character in my head, by the way they react to it. And sometimes it's an easy way to break writer's block, and get out a bunch of words. Sometimes none of it survives my own editing. But if it helps me to understand my people better, to write them authentically, then it was worth it.
 

Laer Carroll

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Does it help you to write detailed descriptions of your ship? Does it make them feel more "real", more authentic when you write your people in and around them? Then I say go ahead and write the loving descriptions. You can always trim them later, if reader feedback suggests you should, or if otherwise your book will be 300,000 words. :tongue

Quite right. In the first draft do whatever helps you finish your book. In the rewrite you can always move stuff around, or delete it, or even add to it.
 

Roxxsmom

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When you think about it, people probably wouldn't see space ships that often from the outside, at least not the huge kind that operate entirely in space. They're generally very far away from one another. Maybe your space station has viewing ports, that would allow characters to admire them when they are docked? That would provide an opportunity to describe a ship, though a really big ship might still be only partially visible. I agree with the others that physical descriptions of complex objects, and people for that matter, tend to work best when the writer focuses on a few essential elements.
 

Introversion

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That would provide an opportunity to describe a ship, though a really big ship might still be only partially visible.

Ian M. Banks, who wrote some of my favorite space opera, had starships that were many miles long. Often their size was only partly solid matter, the rest being envelopes of fields and atmosphere. Sometimes a visitor to one of these behemoths would watch as their shuttle or smaller ship docked, and the descriptions of flying through the outer shrouds, then entering the atmosphere and seeing essentially a large city, sometimes with water features (rivers or waterfalls) between parts of that city, with thousands of people flying about for fun, and smaller ships navigating carefully through the space, etc really gave a great sense of the scale of this. It worked much better for that than just saying ship So And So was twenty miles long, five miles wide.
 

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