Better Writing Through Chemistry

Publishing guru Noah Lukeman advises writers to be specific in their descriptions.  In his book The First Five Pages, he says, “Instead of saying ‘bugs hit the windshield,’ name the bugs; instead of saying ‘birds flew overhead,’ name the birds.”  For science fiction writers, there is no greater tool for being specific than the periodic table of the elements.

Every material thing in the universe is made from atoms.  The periodic table lists these atoms, a.k.a. elements, so that all the elements in a column or row share similar chemical properties.  Carbon and silicon, for example, are in the same column, which means silicon can serve some of the same functions as carbon (like maybe carbon’s function in the creation of life).

Titanium is an element.  Rather than describe some futuristic gizmo made of metal, why not say it’s made of titanium?  Being specific makes the gizmo tangible.  Most people know what titanium is, have held products made from titanium in their hands, and recognize the term even if they don’t have degrees in chemistry.  Elements like osmium or technetium are a little less recognizable, but they’re still better than plain, generic metal.

I’m not saying you need to memorize the periodic table, but it’s a good idea to learn what the various numbers and symbols mean and do research on some of the elements’ special properties.  My own customized periodic table (still a work in progress) includes bullet point notes on what each element is commonly used for.  I also included pictures—just for fun.

Here are some examples.  Click on them for better resolution.

While creating my own periodic table, I learned a lot even about elements I thought I knew well.  I had no idea uranium has so many uses besides nuclear bombs and nuclear reactors.

Even if you don’t write science fiction, the periodic table is a useful resource.  We’re living in an increasingly scientific world, and readers are increasingly familiar with science.  Whatever kind of fiction you write, it’s still set in a world made of atoms.

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