Author’s Note: If you are looking for writing tips from a professional writer — STOP! You have come to the wrong place. Alexander Freed, author of Star Wars Battlefront: Twilight Company has an informative and immensely helpful website if you’d like tips from a true professional. I am writing this article simply as a man who has spent the last fifteen years in the Navy, and who therefore cringes when he watches Battleship and can no longer bring himself to watch Crimson Tide.
Recently a friend on Twitter messaged me saying that he loved to write science fiction and wanted to make his military scenes as realistic as possible. Noticing that I was in the armed forces, he kindly requested to probe my mind on this topic. As you may have guessed, I am highly passionate about military writing so I agreed. I answered his questions but realized there is so much more that can be written about this, so here we are. I realize that science fiction is about escapism, but the more realistic the dialogue and the action sequences are, the more the reader can immerse himself or herself into the story. That’s my goal here.
A couple more quick notes first. When I give examples on how to apply these principles, I will reference Star Wars. Why? Well, just click on my profile for that answer. Secondly and lastly, while my experience comes directly from the Navy, most of these principles can be applied to any branch of the military. Okay, now that we got that out of the way, let’s go!
#1 — DO YOUR RESEARCH.
Remember how I said I can no longer watch Crimson Tide? That’s because there are no dogs on submarines! (Among a plethora of other inaccuracies, of course.) Never write about a sailor on a vessel and say, “He went downstairs to go to bed.” That is something we do not say. Instead, write something along the lines of, “He had to go down two levels in order to find his bunkroom.”
Whether it be an aircraft carrier or an Imperial Star Destroyer, directional and geographical words remain the same. For example, “left and right” do not exist, but rather “port and starboard.” Learn how to use words like “amidships” and “dorsal.” For speeds, don’t settle for, “They went as fast as they could go to catch them.” Instead, thrill the reader by saying, “In order to prevent the escaping pirate ship from making the jump to hyperspace, the Gozanti’s captain ordered it to flank speed in order to intercept.” Please note that flank and “full speed ahead” are not the same thing.
How do you this research then? NOT by watching films like the aforementioned. If you find a writer you enjoy (like Alexander Freed, whom I mentioned earlier), feel free to incorporate their style into your writing approach. For actual information on vessels, tactics, etc. however, I would recommend military history books, the internet (trust but verify), museums, or just converse with someone that has firsthand experience like I was. Bottom line: the more realism you bring to your military scenes, the more the reader will be able to understand the deeper meaning of your story.
#2 — So what do we talk about anyway?
I cannot count how many times I have seen or read such forced dialogue between members of the military in movies or books. Truly cringe-worthy. Do you want to know the most realistic dialogue in all of Star Wars? It’s the stormtroopers discussing new or outdated speeder models, or responding to a creeping Jedi by saying, “Probably just another drill.” (Note to reader: we hate all the drills.)
When we are in the middle of operations, communications must be entirely formal. Orders are given and they are acknowledged. Once completed, they are reported back as such.
But in our downtime? Oh, man. We talk about anything and everything. We talk about the new movies (holos) coming out that we are regrettably missing because we’re out on this stinking patrol. We talk about relationship fails and also the ones that went really, really well (if you catch my drift). Most importantly though, don’t forget that all of this conversation is to help us cope with the fact that we miss home greatly. Naval warships are routinely out for months at a time, sometimes with little to no communicate back home. Babies are born two weeks after you leave and are eight months old when you get back. You can rest assured that if you live on Coruscant and you are patrolling the Outer Rim, this would be the exact same case.
#3 — Ships require A LOT of work. And things break all the time.
When you witness the Rebel armada and the massive Imperial fleet clash above the forest moon of Endor, what you are seeing is the culmination of months of tedious work. The ships amassing near Sullust needed to have carefully calibrated navigational systems to make an accurate jump that landed them right at the doorstep of the unfinished Death Star. Dozens or even hundreds of crewmembers worked on those systems to make that happen.
Those turbolasers that hit with pinpoint accuracy probably have all kinds of maintenance issues. In numerous scenes they are furiously venting, so perhaps they experience overheating. Their targeting systems undoubtedly have failed diodes and capacitors, so the gunners would have to aim manually until that is fixed.
Well you might be saying, “No one wants to hear about a technician replacing a turbolaser circuit card.” Think about some of the most memorable lines said in space, though. “Bring me the hydrospanner!” Don’t forget Rey gleefully saying, “I bypassed the compressor.” Not only does equipment breaking lead to stressful situations and exciting dialogue, but you can also make powerful use of the mundane tasks. If two technicians are tirelessly and seemingly endlessly working on the hyperdrive, think about how much you can reveal about those characters over the course of their conversation. This is gold in character development. (We all want to be Han Solo evading Star Destroyers, but that is only made possible by Chewbacca thanklessly maintaining the ship back on Hoth.)
So these were just a few tips on how to bring more realism to your science fiction military scenes. If this helped you in any way or would like to read more tips on writing action scenes, please drop me a comment and let me know. As always, thank you for reading and may the Force be with you.