7 Tips to Writing Underwater Adventures

From Disney . . . Duh.

First, I really wanted to find a cool underwater adventure picture or gif, but nothing worked.  So, I got frustrated and went with Sebastian from ‘The Little Mermaid’.  Okay . . . Moving on.  This is a simple post about a subject that came to mind when I was thinking about adventure types.  There are many times when water is involved in a story because characters need to travel.  You have rivers, oceans, and lakes that can stand in the way of progress.  The journey can be a grand adventure in itself, especially if you can’t stay on the surface.  We don’t go under the waves as much as above, so what happens if the only way forward is to submerge?

  1. If your characters are underwater without a ship then you need to explain how they can function.  This sounds like a duh, but it really isn’t.  Not only breathing needs to be considered.  It’s hard to move underwater and talking isn’t possible without special abilities or gear.  Don’t just toss them in and expect the audience to be okay with there being no preparation for the inevitable problems.
  2. Magical gear for traveling without a ship is a good way to handle the issues that #1 went over.  Do NOT have the equipment abruptly get pulled out by one of the heroes as if everyone carries it around.  The only time this can work is if they are well aware of the crossing and one of them has a way to procure what is typically specialized gear.  To have the bard suddenly hand out water-breathing rings that they picked up for ‘just such an occasion’ doesn’t work with most adults.  Consider utilizing some foreshadowing here or even having them stumble onto those who attempted the adventure earlier, but died.  It’s still a stretch with that last one, but easier to swallow.
  3. Communication underwater is a challenge for those that live on land.  Magical gear and spells aside, there is an easier way to handle this.  This would be sign language and facial expressions.  Pointing, gesturing, frowning, head movements, and everything else that comes with verbal communication can still be used in the absence of words.  It isn’t that difficult to do either if you keep it simple.  There’s no need to research real sign language.  Make your own signals or stick to universal ones.  I’d recommend the second option more because everyone can translate those.
  4. Research what it’s like underwater to get a basic understanding of the mechanics.  The pressure and resistance to movement are essential.  Visibility isn’t the same as above and you need to get a sense of how far down the sun can go in your world.  Go over a few ocean maps can give you a sense of how currents travel across the globe.  This one might be the most important since it can dictate which way is easiest to travel for the heroes.  Do they go with or against the tide?
  5. This one is fairly simple: Remember that things get wet and react to water.  Pulling out anything made of paper underwater typically means it’ll get destroyed.  Long hair will not stay in position unless bound in some fashion.  Drinking from a flask means sucking in water and spoiling whatever is inside. Same goes for food because the character will inhale their surroundings.  Projectile weapons will meet resistance if they aren’t propelled by enough force.  Just keep all this in mind.
  6. If you are using an underwater craft then do some research on submarines or sea creatures to get a sense of how it can move.  Magic can counter a lot, but you want to demonstrate some level of knowledge here.  The ship needs to be airtight, handle pressure, give some visibility for steering, and being a home for the crew.  Rapidly rising to the surface has negative effects too, so don’t think this allows heroes to escape quickly.
  7. Let’s get to the big one.  SEA MONSTERS!  Go wild, but remember that they’re underwater.  Feathers and fur can be hindrances.  It’s very cold, so blubber or some other form of temperature control may be needed at least in your head.  Don’t be afraid to make an amalgamation of real creatures.  Bioluminescence is a trick to consider when you want to go deep too.  Finally, not every sea monster needs tentacles or shark parts.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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21 Responses to 7 Tips to Writing Underwater Adventures

  1. L. Marie says:

    Great tips! Undersea adventures are so much fun. I can’t help thinking of the Aquaman movie, Atlantis (the Disney movie), and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I also think of The Abyss, which I saw years ago.

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  2. I’ve never ever thought of writing underwater stories (am more of a cyberpunk guy), but your article has given me a few ideas. Thanks for sharing, Charles!

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  3. I don’t contemplate an underwater story but I have to say this was entertaining. I think a PB&J sandwich might not be suitable under the water.

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  4. Great topic today. It works well in steampunk adventures or dieselpunk settings. I suppose you could go full Aquaman, too. It would be hard to use the written word to describe sign language dialog. I’ll take a headset of some kind, thanks.

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    • You could just do it through narration or establish that they’re talking in signs. That way you can still use dialogue.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Possible, I suppose. Why do we have similar problems in space, but nobody worries about those? It’s odd that we can accept superheroes talking in a vacuum, and nobody cares. (Or not needing to breathe) Your juice box would freeze solid, too. I think I’m more on your team here. At least some minimal explanation to bridge those issues.

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      • Because humans have been more successful exploring space than the ocean. It’s easier to understand because we have the suits, spaceships, stations, and the like. With underwater, we don’t have much since even a submarine can’t go all the way. It’s actually a lot more terrifying since you can get crushed and drowned with no suit to protect to you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sounds reasonable.

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  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from Charles Yallowitz with 7 Tips to Writing Underwater Adventures

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  6. V.M.Sang says:

    Interestingly I have a part of a novel underwater. My protagonist has to visit 4 worlds associated with the 4 elements. On Aqua, the land of water, he meets merfolk who provide him with a magical gem attached to his nose to allow him to breathe. They communicate telepathically when under water, and this gem allows that.
    I already established that on all worlds, magic is used through gems.
    Underwater, I have them use bioluminescent creatures as they dive deeper, and the water gets less buoyant when they near where a freshwater river enters the sea. They meet sea dragons who have the ability to heat up the water to boiling point, rather than breathe fire.(useless underwater).
    And they eat raw fish as they can’t cook it underwater.

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  7. You mean our characters can’t swim across the sea, just below the surface, while breathing through straws??

    Seriously, I’d also suggest watching some nature shows or documentaries about ocean life, diving, submersibles, etc. It isn’t the same as being there, but you’ll have some visuals like the play of light through water, how animals move and what habitats are under the sea, how things float or don’t float, and how objects can be damaged by prolonged submersion. And of course, no documentary worth its salt will be without at least one harrowing tale of a near-disaster.

    This is all story fodder. If you play up the genuine dangers of the undersea environment, I’d think you don’t really even need a sea monster.

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    • I’m sure you can have a character do that with the right explanation. Magic or superhuman abilities or lots of rest stops. Might work on the Dead Sea with all the floating.

      There are plenty of underwater videos on YouTube.

      Liked by 1 person

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