As I've mentioned multiple times, I'm writing a military sci-fi novel. The focus of the story is war, and that happens far away from Earth. However, I'm starting with my MC's "normal", on Earth. It is this "normal" that I'd like to ask about.

I've set the story in the future because for it to be possible, I need FTL, as well as the technological ability to start colonising other planets. To the extent that the MC is supposed to be "the boy next door", I don't need much of a technological or social change on Earth. Moreover, significant changes from the modern life we know would distract from the story I wish to tell.

It's not that I cannot accommodate change. I have my characters getting around on autonomous drones rather than cars - that's easy. And I can mention in passing that Manhattan is all underwater now, if I like, but it would serve no purpose in my story, it would just be there.

Basically, if I set my story 100 years into the future, some things on Earth will have changed. Quite a few of those things my characters would be aware of, but they do not serve my story in any way. Those changes include technology, society, politics, climate...

How do I balance keeping my setting realistic (that is - presenting the future as I imagine it is likely to be) against avoiding flooding the reader with information not directly relevant to the story?

For example, climate change is likely. During the MC's time on Earth, he would naturally see the effects of climate change, such as a different rain pattern from what we have today. He wouldn't see it as "different", he'd just have rain when the reader wouldn't expect that. However, such rain is not directly relevant to the story, and might be confusing to the reader. I can avoid having that rain, but then the setting is less realistic.

Each particular detail (such as the rain example) can go either way, but put together, they create a picture that I'm struggling to balance.

  • I have to chuckle thinking about the implications of "he'd have rain when the reader wouldn't expect that". I don't think I'd ever be weirded out by rain! Like, there's no season, month, or time of day in which I would be seriously surprised by rain, so I'm really wondering what you would write there. "Outside, the sun was shining. Peter took the umbrella from the stand and put on his shoes. He went outside. It was raining buckets, as he expected it would."
    – PoorYorick
    Mar 26, 2019 at 15:09
  • @Spectrosaurus The Hebrew language has words for 'first rain' and 'last rain'. Language is a great indicator of what one "expects". Normally for us, first rain is in the second half of October, and last rain is in early April. Rains out of season aren't just "unexpected" - they ruin crops, as bad as draught. (In fact, all our agriculture, and our culture in general, have a strong focus on preserving water, mitigating drought. Ironically, we deal with it better than we do with out-of-season rains.) Visiting the UK, I'm always weirded out by rain in July. Mar 26, 2019 at 16:04
  • 1
    But do you see the problem? As a reader I would have to know about the climate in Israel to know whether rain in July is something that is odd. Since I don't know that, I'd think it's a weird detail to mention. It's just... too subtle, I believe. Now if you wrote something like "The monsoon was heavy this year over the jungles around Tel Aviv", THAT would get people to realize that something is off.
    – PoorYorick
    Mar 26, 2019 at 16:39

5 Answers 5


Make the bizarre mundane.

To your characters, traveling around in autonomous drones is as mundane as driving a car is for us. If a significant change in [technology, process, climate, etc.] needs to be introduced, think about how you would describe a character going through their morning routine. It's also important to keep some of the mundane things we have today in the future. Don't make things so unbelievable that they're distracting.

Here's a brief example today:

Kevin brushed his teeth over the sink. He tended to dribble toothpaste from his mouth. The door on his medicine cabinet wouldn't stay closed, so he held it closed to make sure he looked semi-put together. Matilda called to him from the kitchen that his coffee was ready. This would be his second pot this morning.

Now, 100 years in the future:

Kevin felt the bristles scrape against his teeth, splattering toothpaste down his shirt. The rays passed his person and let him know he looked "semi-put together". He needed to fix his toothbrush so it stopped ruining his shirts, he wanted a "lookin' good!" Matilda beeped twice from the kitchen. His coffee was done, his second pot today.

If it doesn't add to the story, don't add it.

You mention Manhattan is underwater, but that it's not relevant to your story. Don't include it. If I read that, I might expect to see the characters travel to a Bioshock-esque Manhattan (which would be rad). The more you tell us about things that aren't relevant, the more I start asking questions that distract me from the story. Why is Manhattan underwater? Is the whole east coast underwater? Write what we need to know.

As ashleylee already wrote, trust your readers. Trust that your readers don't need their hand held through all the changes that we might see 100 years down the line. Readers fill in the gaps.

  • For the "Manhattan underwater" example, even that one can be worked in using the classic "bored headline skim". "Kevin glanced up at the silent holo-news ticker on the ceiling of the subway car. 'Third Manhattan Underwater Salvage Expedition Disappears; Kraken Likely to Blame. Reagan Elected to 4th 2nd Term. McDonald's Lunar Division Reports Shortage of Ketchup; Mustard Supplies Unaffected.' New day, same old shit." Mar 22, 2021 at 16:52

First of all, if your story is set 100 years in future, with all relevant technological advancements in place, you would want to make it all clear from the very beginning. You don't wont to create a "today" image like TV Tropes' "Next Sunday A.D." and then suddenly say "Let's go on interstellar trip!" Thus, discrepancies with today's world are unavoidable. What you can do is limit how much of the futuristic details are shown to the reader.

Those futuristic details can be classified as "plot-relevant" and "world-(or mood-) relevant". For example, the mode of transportation used by everyday people (flying cars, teleportation etc.) is likely plot-relevant as it can set expectations regarding what is possible in this world and what to expect in space combat.

Other details (like flooded New York in A.I. Artificial Intelligence) may be not really plot-relevant, but provide the look and feel of a futuristic world. You may want to have some "world-relevant" details as well, even if you are writing a story about a boy next door. His day-to-day life may be not very different from ours, but the big world out there should be very different. Have the reader prepared! Or you may want to choose to discover the world as story goes - your boy had never left his small town before, and then he suddenly catapulted on a space-bound adventure. Have the reader amazed!


I find myself in a similar position with my novel and it's in the modern age (1995, with a couple quick chapters in 1942 and 2020) and in the past in a time and place that actually existed (even if the story I'm inserting mine into is more mythology than history).

No matter where and when your story takes place, there are going to be countless details you don't include. Every character has a backstory. And a family. Every neighborhood has a history. If I included everything, I'd take longer to write one book than George R.R. Martin takes to write 7.

My method is to research the hell out of it. And take copious notes. I have files on different elements.

For example, a boat figures prominently in my story, but mostly only in a couple chapters. So I researched boats of the time and have an entire Word file filed with quotes, notes, and pictures. I decided my boat would come from particular time and place and that it belonged to one character's grandfather. Then I discovered that this time and place happens to be famous for boats like these, that there was a special bit within this character's ethnic group, and that the wood the boat was likely to be made out of just happens to be the exact type of wood needed for a building project in the past.

Had I decided to barely mention the background and therefore not bother to research it, I never would have figured this out. Now that history is summed up in a single line by the boat owner's son. The type of wood will come in later, but it will be very brief as well.

For other background research, it's not what I mention but what I don't mention. For example, foods available to people of a particular class and group in the past (different from the foods in history works because they focus on what royals ate). What I leave out is just as important as what I put in.

Your behind the scenes setup will inform other parts of your novel. For example, you might decide that southern Florida is underwater but, instead of saying so, you can just mention that a character took the ferry from Havana to Orlando.

You do want a few future technologies mentioned, otherwise the jump to FTL travel is going to be jarring. But most people aren't going to fill their homes with it anyway. My house was built in 1956 and the basics are the same. Some updated appliances. Newer versions of flooring, paint, etc. But it all works about how it did in 1956, only my TV's in color (and thin). My landline is digital and cordless, but I still have a house phone.

Mention what you need to for the story and keep it matter of fact. Some details will be the same as what is possible today. Some will be slightly advanced. A few will be very advanced, like the cars. The balance is in how you focus your attention and also by assuming that old tech (even new versions of it) will stick around for a while. Like my lovely analog clock. Not in a wooden case with a hand winder, but in cheap plastic with batteries. But still a clock.


At the risk of repeating myself (repeating myself): Iceberg Theory, Iceberg Theory, Iceberg Theory! You, the author and creator of this future world, need to know all the large and small details about what is different. But the final reader needs only to see and pay attention to what the character sees and pays attention to. This makes the future world seem more real and fully realized, without bogging down the narrative.

Samuel Delany (from whom I first learned this advice), is a master of this technique. His future settings are a mix of the vividly familiar, and the startlingly bizarre and different, but we take our cues on what to take for granted and what to be surprised by from his characters' reactions.

Isn't this confusing to the reader? Not in the case that the story makes clear emotional sense. In other words, if we know what the character wants and needs, and what the stakes are in each scene, we can navigate some unanswered questions about the setting. Note that this is VERY DIFFERENT from saying the background mysteries don't matter. If you don't have a strong sense of them, you'll be inconsistent, or shallow, and the world won't seem three-dimensional. But if you do know all the answers, the part the reader gets will seem grounded, even though it's incomplete.


Trust in the readers.

Describe those future-yet-to-be-invented-things, and the future environment casually, offhandedly.

You might want to keep a list of what they are... and what technology were used to make it happen to maintain in-story consistency

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