One Quick Tip To Add Some Atmosphere To Your Sci-fi Story

2014 Artwork Sci-fi Details sketch

Well, I’ve recently started re-watching the first three seasons of “Battlestar Galactica” on DVD and I noticed something really cool about the show that I’d almost forgotten about. It’s a really subtle thing, but it adds a lot of atmosphere to the show and this technique can easily be used in other sci-fi stories too.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this technique here before, but if I have, then I apologise (I’m still feeling fairly uninspired at the moment, so it’s more than possible that I might be inadvertantly repeating myself here).

So, what is it?

Simple. Subtly change the names and/or shapes of ordinary things. Yes, you heard me correctly. They do this a lot in “Battlestar Galactica” and it really adds something to the show.

For example, all of the books and sheets of paper in BSG have diagonal edges rather than square ones. Likewise, instead of using the word “RADAR” for their navigation system, they call it a “DRADIS” – even though it operates in exactly the same way as a radar system.

And, lest we forget, the show also brilliantly managed to get a lot of realistic informal dialogue past the puritanical American TV censors by using the word “frak” as a stand-in for one of the best and most versatile words in the English language.

Although these all sound like fairly subtle things, it really adds an extra level of “realism” and atmosphere to the show because it gives you a sense that literally everything is different about the “world” of the show.

You see, one of the best ways to show the passage of time is to look at the subtle details. I mean, twenty years ago, no-one carried a smartphone, no-one took selfies and no-one posted things on Twitter (although whether this is a good or a bad thing is debatable).

See what I mean about how small details can really capture the atmosphere of a particular period of time?

So, how do you do this in your sci-fi story?

There are a few ways of doing this, but a lot of it can be done from the context in which things are shown.

Basically, if you show your characters using something in a way which people recognise – then you can call it what you want and people will still understand what you mean (without having to add a glossary to the end of your story or anything like that).

For example: “Laura leant back on the sofa and stared at the HoloVis, there was literally nothing but chat shows and static on there.

As you probably guessed from this example, a “HoloVis” is some kind of futuristic television. You could replace the word in my example with literally anything (eg: “Unit76B”, “VisionTel”, “Dataportal” etc…) and your readers would still guess that it was some kind of television. Seriously, it’s that simple.

Another thing to bear in mind is that you don’t have to change literally every detail in your sci-fi story in order to give it a more futuristic atmosphere. This is one of those “less is more” type of things.

A few changed details can make your story unique, but too many can just make it confusing. So, think carefully before you change anything.


Sorry for such a short, basic and possibly repetitious article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

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