Thursday, January 2, 2020

Putting Description into Your Story – Star Trek Holodeck style

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

I love Star Trek. You may too. But even if you don't, you may still be able to benefit from the brilliance of their world-building. The producers of the TV shows and the movies are masters of description, although they don't use words. 

Writers do use words and putting description into your story can be as easy as watching a few hours of television.

The one I watched this week was Voyager, with Kate Mulgrew playing Captain Kathryn Janeway. The episode used the Holodeck to create an Irish pub and surrounding area.

I've been to Ireland and had Guiness Irish stew at a pub in Dublin. The only real difference between Voyager's pub and the one where I ate, was that one was very real and one was not. But maybe there's another difference—how they were created.

The Dublin pub was old, with soot-covered rafters, mirrors behind the ancient, wooden bar, and scratched tables. It smelled like good Irish whiskey, just as it should. The Holodeck version probably had all that too. But it wasn't generated by centuries of people who laughed and cried, hated and loved, around the tables. The Holodeck came from a series of 1s and 0s, code entered into a computer.

Writers, of course, are closer to the data entry side than the natural progression of age. We build our worlds with words (a series of letters and 1s and 0s), adding all of the descriptions needed for a particular scene or character. To make an Irish pub in a story, we add item after item to "populate" the scene. Does our character—let's call him Ian-- need a drink? Immediately, we create a shot glass full of whiskey. How about a place to sit? Does Ian prefer a booth, a table, or a bar stool? Why? It will depend on what is to happen next, whether a private conversation, a flirtation, or a brawl. 

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. A camera in a movie has the advantage of panning across the entire scene. Writers don't. So, we need to put bottles on the shelves and an old carpet on the floor and beveled windows with light streaming in, all depending on how old the pub is and what year the story is set. 

So imagine you're in the Holodeck, telling the computer what needs to be in the scene. The room starts with bare, white walls and ceiling. Ask for each item and, poof!, it appears. If you ask for four round tables with chairs and then decide you like square ones better, it only takes speaking the right words and the change is made. Star Trek's Captain Janeway is attracted to a man in her story and, with a simple set of commands, makes him taller, smarter, wife-less, and attracted to her. We have that exact same control in our stories. We can "say the words" and create things and people to use them.

In my Deep Point of View blogs (LINK HERE), you can read about Belinda, a soon-to-be-ex-wife. When the doors of the courtroom open and she steps inside, the room is populated, just as if it had been there all along. But in the Holodeck, we have to add them. All of the "normal" things you'd see in a courtroom: benches, a jury box, the judge's bench, a witness box, etc., are ordered, one by one, with our words. Slowly, the room fills up. If we don't like something, or it doesn't fit correctly, we change it to what works better. 

We also want to give a writer a chance to utilize an object. Description revolves around how each "thing" moves the story forward. Don't use too much description – the reader won't read paragraphs of unnecessary description. Make sure each thing described will make the story better.

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over sixteen years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at or

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.

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