The Starship Enterprise Editing Technique
A long time ago, I saw something online that, of course, I can’t find now. I’ve not been able to find it in all the years of looking, so bonus points for you if you can track it down.
It’s an anecdote about Gene Roddenberry talking to William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in the original Star Trek series. One or the other of the actors questioned Roddenberry about the sensors. Wouldn’t the viewers need to know how they worked? Would they believe in the sensors if they didn’t understand the technology?
Roddenberry said something like, “Don’t explain the sensors. Just use them.” The story went on to say that Roddenberry’s theory was that if the actors simply used the technology, that would be good enough for the viewers.
I don’t know about you, but I never questioned the sensors. Obviously, they worked because the actors used them, and they provided essential information about the planet surface or the life forms aboard the other ship. In the same way, I never questioned Bones McCoy using futuristic salt shakers as medical instruments.
There’s a good parallel here in terms of editing your work. While there is a greater necessity in high-science sci-fi to make sure the world is created properly (within the world of the story), for the most part, your reader doesn’t need to know how familiar or unfamiliar things work in your book.
Readers will accept that the people in your manuscript can turn on Netflix without understanding how streaming works, or put an old-timey vinyl record on the turntable without needing to know how a stylus works. Characters get into cars all the time, and we generally don’t find out from the author how the car works. The character simply drives it.
I like to think of this in a Kafka-esque way. By the end of the first sentence of The Metamorphosis, we know Gregor Samsa has woken up transformed into a giant cockroach. Kafka’s subtext might be, “This is the world I’m giving you. Take it or leave it. Go with me or don’t.” Kafka never explains why or how Gregor is now a giant bug. He just is. It’s our job as the reader to go with it, or not.
This idea can be applied to our work as well. We can trust that our reader will stick around even if we don’t explain how everything in our book works. In fact, they’re more likely to stick around if we don’t tell them everything.
If you find yourself explaining how something works in your writing, ask yourself if it’s enough to see the character/person using it. To find those spots where you may have over-explained something, read your work and see where you skim or skip. Ask yourself why you didn’t read that bit. Is it boring? Are you over-explaining? If you skim past your own writing, why should your reader read it?
Were you ever bored by Spock’s reports on what he saw via the sensors? Me neither. But I would have been bored if this is what we’d heard: “Captain. The sensors are futuristic technology, which allows us to detect life forms outside this ship. It was developed stardate 2629 and was pioneered by Captain Yawning of Star Fleet. Sensors indicate four life forms aboard the unidentified vessel.” I’d also have been bored senseless if Dr. McCoy stopped to explain his medical equipment to the captain before beginning the life-saving surgery.
OHMYGAWD. No. We want to hear this: “Captain. Sensors indicate four life forms aboard the unidentified vessel.” All the while, hearing Uhura in the background: “Hailing unidentified vessel. This is Enterprise. Please respond.”