I'm writing fiction set in the near future (~15-20 years). The world is still mostly the same and thus familiar to the reader, but an important part of the story is that a few things are radically different in subtle ways.

I wonder what some ways are to show those subtle differences without being too blunt?

Example: Let's say that in the future, TVs track how many people are watching and refuse to show certain content if too many people are watching.

My character could say Man, remember in the old days when you could cram an entire classroom into your living room and just watch a movie? That new system sucks!, but that is rather blunt.

One option is to have the characters run into the restriction head on: Henry arrived late to the party. To the great anger of the group, the TV detected him as an additional viewer and refused to show any more until the extra group fee was paid.

But it may not always be feasible to have the characters run into that restriction, sometimes I just want to show it's there without the characters really paying attention to it since to them it's perfectly normal.

While the exact solution greatly depends on the story, I wonder if there are established techniques for that?

1 Answer 1


It's actually totally easy. Just let your characters interact with their environment in a natrual way.

Here's a real world example, showing different systems of paying the fare for a public bus:

  1. Out of breath from running to the bus stop, John was still struggling with the ticket machine when the bus approached around the corner. (Konstanz, Germany)
  2. The conductor was blocking the aisle, so Pete sat in the last free seat with a grin while John had to unpack half his rucksack to get at the money for their ticket. (Russia)
  3. The bus driver did not want to accept John's 50 Euro bill, claiming he had no change. "Either you have change or you get off," he said in a bored voice. John promised himself never to come to Germany again. (Reutlingen, Germany)
  4. John was about to push a coin into the slot of the ticket machine, when the bus suddenly started, throwing him off balance, and the coin rolled away below the seats. (Tübingen, Germany)

All examples explain where and how you pay for your bus ticket (a machine outside the bus at the bus stop; a conductor riding in the bus; the bus driver; a machine inside the bus) in a way that someone living there would tell what happened to him to another local and without breaking the action. Do the same for imaginary environments:

John walked down the hot orange plastic of the street, wondering if his implant had enough credit for the hoverbus.

If, as in your example with the viewing restriction, things are "just there" but don't activate, people still take note of them. For example, Henry, being late to a pre-paid viewing, would think about the potential problem of not being paid for. E.g.:

Henry arrived late to the party, worrying he would interrupt the movie. The payment detector blinked, slowly counting the changed number of viewers, but obviously Bob had paid one extra, because the tv kept showing the movie.

If you can, give the appliance a name, and chose a descriptive one. When you navigate your own world, you constantly notice and name stuff in your head, so let your characters do the same, it will appear normal (see the "hoverbus" example, which tells everything you need to know about public transportation with one word).

  • 3
    Excellent; very well put. Great examples. Commented May 24, 2014 at 11:54
  • 2
    I was going to add this as a separate answer, but it's really just an addendum to yours: Apparently (according to Delany) the great SF writer Theodore Sturgeon recommended planning out all the minute details of any setting used in your book, but writing only about those that the characters actually notice. The basic idea is that knowing the rich details of your setting is important, even if those details don't all make it into the actual story. Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 13:58
  • @ChrisSunami Excellent addition (and worthy of its own answer). I often search for photos or (in the case of imaginary landscapes or objects) for drawings or movie stills to better visualize what I'm writing about. Sometimes I make a quick rough sketch or draw a floor plan or even create a 3D model, if it helps me.
    – user5645
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 17:45

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