Details Matter (The Writing Lab)

Details are a storytelling spice. If done correctly, they add to the complex flavors of your already scrumptious story. If done incorrectly, well… I’m sure we’ve all accidentally added a bit too much sea-salt to the guacamole at one time or another and can remember how that bastardized concocti–

Ah, crap! Getting a parking ticket as we speak! Be right back!

*Puts on some soothing elevator music*

Sorry, I was gone a bit longer than expected, had to hide the body of the parking enforcement officer.  That’ll teach him to ticket m–oh wait, you’re not reading this in real time, so you have no idea how long I was gone.

Disregard. Back to the spices.

the-sixth-spice

Try and focus, sheesh…

Details add a layer of authenticity to your story (and I’m all for that), but lately I’ve been seeing a lot of stories which are suffering from one of two problems where details are concerned.

1) Superfluous Information.

2) Incorrect Superfluous Information

Let’s tackle that first point.

We all have that one friend. The guy who talks about his work, hobby, sexual fetishes, etc… in excruciating details because to him those things are the bee’s sneeze (different, and way cooler, than the bee’s knees).

Of course everybody is interested in hearing about all the hijinks and foibles your Dungeons and Dragon’s Feather Mage keeps finding himself in. An why wouldn’t I want to hear about your ingrown pubic hairs? How much goat milk do you put in your morning coffee? Please, do tell. Inquiring minds need to know!

wonka

TMI (Translation: Too Much Information for those of us not born in the early 00’s) is one of those surefire ways to make me hate you, or your characters. Now, that’s not to say you should hold back on all inane specifics, but remember, just as with heroine and methamphetamines, a little goes a long way.

If you’re the type of person ladling spoonfuls of cumin into your story, I’m gonna gag and probably stop reading at some point. But hey, I may someday forget that blistering taste of minutiae and try another one of your stories. That is, unless you commit that second mistake.

2) Incorrect Superfluous Information

Sometimes, especially within the context of Science Fiction, we get a bit loosey goosey with physics and reality. Hell, that’s part of the fun. For the most part, this is okay, as long as you are observing certain rules of consistency.

You want to create a world powered by cocoa beans? Cool.

Your planet has less gravity than Earth? Neato.

The beauty of science fiction is that you can do whatever the hell you want, but you better be damned sure your cocoa bean powered economy doesn’t change halfway through the story into solar power or something equally crazy and fictitious.

So, if you set your jet setting space opera in a universe familiar to our own, you need to obey the laws of physics, or give us a really compelling reason to disregard them. Once you do that, you need to stay the course and make sure all those nitty gritty details you’re dropping on us are…actually correct.

I’m guilty of this. Sometimes I get a bit carried away and start granny tossing facts at the reader without applying enough critical thinking to what I’m actually saying. Now, majority of the time, I get away with this crime Scotch-Tape free (pretty sure that’s how the phrase goes). But, but, but…occasionally somebody’s going to catch my sloppiness and if I’m lucky, they’ll call me out in the nicest way possible (behind closed doors with a bottle of Scotch to soften the blow).

rod burgendy

Let me give you an example from a book I read a couple months back. I’m not going to call out the book or the author because I like the author and I enjoyed the book, but throughout the story there were these puzzling details that instead of adding to the overall flavor, made my face pucker as if I’d accidentally chugged a glass of milk when I’d been expecting orange juice.

The detail that really stood out was in reference to temperatures. Which you’d think would be easy to get right, but you’d be wrong.

Rule of Thumb: It’s almost always the really basic things we *all* take for granted, that we most often mess up in our stories. That exotic new chemical compound you made up? We’ll accept it no matter how zany it is. But if you mess up something basic like… declaring air is predominately oxygen, well, you’ll be lucky to escape with only a light ridiculing.

Anyways, back to temperature.

We have a space fairing fella jaunting around a derelicte spacecraft complaining about how hot the internal temperature is. Over and over we’re told that it is quite unpleasant. Absurdly so. All the while, our protag is wearing a space-suit, which given the fact that temperatures in space can fluctuate anywhere from -200 Fahrenheit in the shade to a blistering 250 Fahrenheit in direct sun, means the inside of this spacecraft must well and truly be blistering if our poor astronaut is feeling the effects.

So, I’m going along with this and simply imagining that this place is H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks hot,. Until, that is, two things occur within the span of a couple pages.

1) The character takes off his gloves because they are…uncomfortable or something, I don’t know what his actual motivations for stripping were because all I could think was:

“What the hell? At temperatures in excess of 250 degrees that poor sap is going to sizzle! And not in the “I’m going to the discotheque to get my razzle-dazzle, sizzle-wizzle on!” <–Pretty sure this is a thing people said back in the fifties, or whenever the Disco age was.

disco

Now, not to worry for the story shed some light on this peculiar situation shortly therafter in the followng paragraphs. The problem is… the explanation given left me scratching my bald spot even harder. Why is that?

Well…

2) We’re told it is 311.5 Kelvin.

Huh? First, raise your hand if you know Kelvin conversions off the top of your head? That’s what I thought. Most people don’t, which is probably why nobody really commented on this in the reviews of said book, but I’m a stickler for weird details and this one t-boned me.

So what’s the big deal? Well, besides being an incredibly specific number on a scale most people aren’t familiar with, it’s actually not very…warm.

Well, okay, let me rephrase that: It’s not very warm if you’ve ever experienced summer in Minnesota. How warm is 311.5 Kelvin?

It’s roughly 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 37 Celsius, give or take. Sure, that’s shorts and tank top weather, but nothing you would feel through an insulated space suit.

This an incredibly small detail, right? I’m being a stickler and a bit of a dick to boot, right?

you're a dick

Can’t argue with that.

But here’s the thing, when you throw in incredibly specific details, and they don’t quite line up with our expectations of reality, well, they completely take the reader out of the story. From that point on you become a suspect storyteller. The human condition dictates that “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Nobody wants to be fooled twice, so we read everything else from that point on with an ultra-critical eye.

The inherent bummer of this scenario is that if we search hard enough in a story of fiction to find something ‘off’, we’ll almost always succeed. Case in point from the above mentioned story: the gloves magically reappear on the characters hands when they jump into an airlock.

Would I have caught that if the temperature thing hadn’t thrown me so hard? Probably not. But if I had, chances are I wouldn’t have cared. I would’ve chalked it up to the fact that I had missed a line somewhere along the way where the author said, “Billy stuffed his sweaty hands back into his gloves”, and been done with it. Instead, because my internal alarm was going off I had to thumb thru the preceding pages to verify my “magic gloves” suspicion.

Okay, okay, I get it. This all toes the line of hyper-critical, I agree. So here’s the takeaway from what was an otherwise great story, you’ve got to nail the details. Not too much, not too little, and for god’s sake, don’t throw cinnamon in there when you meant for salt.

Get down to the comments and tell me about some of your favorite missed deet’s (details as per how the cool kids say it) from popular television shows, movies, books.

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7 thoughts on “Details Matter (The Writing Lab)

  1. To solve this lengthy, amusing and pertinent discussion of detailed info, let your critique group and your beta readers tell you when you’ve wandered off the written path, Boy, mine do – and also let me know when I haven’t given them enough!

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    • Yes, yes, yes! Never underestimate the value of beta readers. Also, to the beta readers out there, don’t be gentle. Your job can be unpleasant (telling us what isn’t working), but it’s incredibly important.

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  2. That was a really entertaining read. Exposition…holding back on all the good stuff; show not tell – it can be a tricky balance. Some writers just don’t know how to pace themselves.

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  3. Great article Anthony, its so true how important consistency is when you are creating an entirely new world from scratch. Things like that bothered me so much as a reader that when I began to write I was super paranoid about it, which meant a LOT of editing and finding some great Betas. Inconsistencies will only distract the reader from your characters and the story, which in turn leaves the door open for them to get bored or irritated and not finish the book. I know personally if I read something that sets off flags I will absolutely stop reading and rifle back through the story to find out exactly it is that the author made the error on….but I’m a bit OCD that way. As authors we all understand that when you spend a certain amount of time in a story that it sometimes becomes difficult to differentiate between what has been clearly written down on the page and what information is still in your head. We all deal with it, but there’s no excuse for anything to go to the publisher that way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m right there in the OCD camp with you. My gut tells me we are not in the minority on this one, though I lack any sort of substantiating evidence beside wishful thinking.

      You make a fantastic point (and one we’d all do well to remember whilst writing our stories) about differentiating between what we’ve written, what we’ve deleted, and what we merely daydreamed about. Good beta readers and editors are absolutely critical!

      Liked by 1 person

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