I have a story where I adhere strongly to plausible physics for space combat (some behind-the-scenes development for the story: How to Conduct Plausible Space Combat Intercepts and Tactical Options Available at Worldbuilding.SE)

The problem is: in the actual battle itself, how do you keep Newtonian physics and explanation to the reader easy to understand and NOT involve a series of complex mathematical equations that include Kepler, Newton and Tsiolkovsky?

  • I would suggest season 7 of Star Trek: The Next Generation
    – Stu W
    Apr 26, 2016 at 22:12
  • @StuW WHAT?! kills StuW Apr 26, 2016 at 22:13
  • The first question should be "Is it necessary for the story?" If the answer is no, then leave it out. While there are definitely going to be people who appreciate the effort, most readers won't really care that much. If you want to include the mechanics of space combat, it may be better to put it in an appendix or some other supplementary material.
    – GordonM
    Jun 26, 2017 at 10:20
  • As an addendum, if you do feel the need to include such details in the main body of the story, try to do it in an engaging way. For example Mass Effect 2 includes a nice scene where a serviceman is being given a serious dressing down about shooting very dangerous weapons from the hip. It both gets some detail across whilst also being an interesting (and funny!) scene in its own right. youtube.com/watch?v=hLpgxry542M
    – GordonM
    Jun 26, 2017 at 10:25

5 Answers 5


Describe the effects, particularly where the effects in space without the presence of air resistance/friction differ from the familiar effects in an atmosphere where friction slows things down.

Thucydides' answer to your question in Worldbuilding SE gave several possibilities, e.g. "Kinetic energy weapons will go until they run into something." Since your scenario takes place in a war, the effects will kill and injure people, injecting drama, which your scenario sorely needs. At present I doubt one in a ten readers has done more than glance at it, and this is on Stack Exchange where the geeks hang out.

Include vast-hulled spaceships smashing together and bouncing apart in near-perfect elastic collisions like billiard balls. Include tragic mistakes where someone forgets in the heat of the moment that any object expelled at speed will go on forever until it crashes into another object - that object could be an allied ship or person. Or maybe they do know that if you fire a kinetic weapon then whatever platform you fire it from is going to move backwards - and do it anyway, suicidally projecting themselves beyond the reach of aid, so long as their shot harms the enemy. Include triumphs as a result of clever use being made of Newton's laws, or the relativistic departures from them.

Include emotion. People will understand if they care.

  • 1
    So, describe them similar to how a game of bowling works (albeit deadlier) or billard (minus the bouncing balls) works, hmmm? Fair enough. And I can add that drama. This is just the buildup I am working on. :P Apr 27, 2016 at 15:14
  • Your mention of projectiles continuing forever until they hit something reminded me of youtube.com/watch?v=hLpgxry542M , which is also a nice way of getting some of the details in and still being engaging.
    – GordonM
    Jun 26, 2017 at 10:23

You need to ask yourself "Is the 'Why' relevant"?"

I mean, watching a real life war movie I tend not to be overly concerned with the ballistic trajectory of bullets or the propulsion quality of jets. I assume they are realistic because I have no reason to assume they are not.

Sure, you may want to show that you did your homework, but the better way to that is to never defy expectations when it comes to physics, rather than devolving into a science lecture.


According to the Iceberg Theory, you:

1) Work it all out in detail, making sure YOU understand every aspect
2) Write into the story only what the characters experience, understand or think about.

So, if it took you three weeks to work out trajectories, but your character only sees a flash of light, and hears a loud noise, that's all you write. But, if you know that some arcane law of physics means he'll hear the noise first, and then see the light, you write it that way, and it adds depth and richness to your depiction.


I know in Jurassic Park by Michael Creighton, he described code in a way that emphasized what it DID instead of getting into the intricacies of it. He'd be like "Bob sent a command to locate the virus--the command failed." I don't know if this helps you, but the code was described in such a way that it didn't get in the way of the story. Maybe check it out?

  • Michael Creighton describes fairly complex issues in a simple manner. But he would do a thorough research on what he wrote.
    – Jagte
    May 3, 2016 at 11:43
  • True, but that doesn't mean that the reader becomes bored by what he/she reads. Creighton did thorough research to make sure he got the details right. He didnt tell all of what he knew to the reader, otherwise it would have read like a medical textbook. May 3, 2016 at 17:10

Choose the level of description you give to the readers. From Space Odyssey to today, readers have certainly gain a knowledge level about "how things are" in space, in average. Choose your level - the average today reader; Somewhat lower? Somewhat higher?

Choose what you describe with a set of rules. Is that the events protagonists/actor experience? Some tech you need to explain for any reason? Just everything happening? Only things that if you do not explain lie traps for disappointment?

Choose the properties of your science fiction world. Space itself is hard to explain when needed in a story. Space combat goes tremendously farther. Just to mention consistency - the same event with the same parameters happening twice may have slightly different results, but definitely not much different or opposite. This will embarrass regardless good Newtonian explanations or not.

Think of some properties of your space combat:

Does combat spaceships commonly have crews or not? Can a crew be better in combat than a self combat AI controlled ship? Why a crew is superior against a quantum CPU calculating trillions of trillions of scenarios every second? If your setting is highly advance, i believe combat crews will be absent. If not, certainly present.

Does spaceships have shields or equivalent? Because if so, you probably need 2 kind of weapons, shield buster and mass buster types. Same here, higher tech says yes to shields, lower means no.

So obviously, having unmanned AI combat ships without shields is contradiction.

Uniqueness: Are combat ships what most imagine, or something different. What if one fleet is as we know and the other is one carrier, few protectors and trillions++ of nano-battleships, each one capable of e.g. enter a thruster and explode it inside out. Or enter the ventilation and kill the crew.

Reason, define why your combat sides are as they are: Combat designs always have a reasonable source, a need, always driven by evolution. Galleys were just to get combat to see. With oars. Then sails some. Sails remove oars. Then cannons come. Cannons remove archers. Then steam comes. Steam removes oars. Internal combustion engine removes steam. Heavy armor removed Wood and low armor. Airplanes prove heavy armor useless. Let's see ground combat. Unorganized group fights overwhelmed by organized groups - units. Phalanx defeat plain units. Cavalry defeats phalanx. Artillery and muskets defeat cavalry. Tanks defeat artillery. And so on. There are some not that true statements above but you get the meaning. So the question is, about your space combat, the fleets that will engage where they were designed from? What is the past chain of events lead to their creation?

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