First off, I just want to say thank you to everyone who has followed my blog or liked blog posts since I started blogging here a few months ago. I appreciate each one of you reading and finding my posts useful enough to come back for more.
And, with that out of the way, onto this week’s post.
The Devil’s in the Details…
We all know that details can make or break the story. A writer either knows what she’s talking about or she doesn’t–based on the details. Often we don’t even recognize that we’re judging a story by those seemingly imperceptible details.
Two recent plots I’ve encountered have brought this to mind.
One, is a book, perhaps you’ve heard of it? The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt? Yes, it’s pretty popular right now. Although I enjoyed the story well enough (it’s 700+ pages, and I finished it), there were some issues I had where circumstances in some scenes seemed a little unlikely. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the read, rather suffice it to say that I’ve since read several reviews by people who disbelieved the circumstances in the book. However, this seemed to be one of those books that you either loved or hated. Not a lot of people fell in the middle.
Two, a movie I watched with my husband last night, entitled “Olympus Has Fallen,” containing some big-name stars, including Morgan Freeman. This one was especially bad. While the thriller plot was sufficient to keep our interest through to the end, the entire premise was faulty. Does Hollywood really think that is how Americans revere their president? Or am I that out of touch with the rest of the country that I don’t revere my president (current, past, or dare-I-say future?) in such a fashion? Essentially, the entire plot of this daring rescue-the-president scheme was that North Koreans infiltrate the White House and kidnap the president. Everyone outside of the White House is absolutely driven to rescue the president–to the point where they risk everyone and everything to do so. But that’s not the real world, and in real life, one man’s life is not worth the ruin of an entire country and numberless casualties.
This leads me into the reason for this post: details. We all know that we read to escape real life. At least, we read to escape our real life. There are plenty of people who read for escape, but want that escape to be into a realistic alternate life than their own. If an author or a story offers something that you cannot believe, whether sci-fi or thriller or literary fiction, your escape is flawed and interrupted.
It’s the details that make the difference. It’s the details which transport us to that other world. There needs to be enough detail, and it needs to be believable enough detail, for the reader to suspend their disbelief and be transported into that world.
However, there are three main variations that can occur: 1) too much detail, 2) too little detail, 3) incorrect information.
1) Too Much Detail
As happened in The Goldfinch for me (and some other reviewers), this novel was bogged down in detail. In fact, while the detail was well-written and, at times, captivating, it was too often distracting from the plot itself and from the detail of the plot (as opposed to the detail of the scene). It decreased my enjoyment of the novel at times, and I wanted to skip ahead, something I rarely do, just to get past the unnecessary detail.
However, when the detail was pertinent to the plot, I enjoyed reading it and it read quickly.
2) Too Little Detail
This is a big problem that can quickly lose you your reader. If there is not enough detail, the reader has absolutely no chance of getting lost in the world the author has created (whether sci-fi or realistic). Assume that your reader hasn’t been to the places you’re describing. They need colors and shapes, buildings and trees, in order for their mind to fully embrace the world you’re presenting to them. If they don’t find these, then they cannot enjoy the novel as it is meant to enjoy.
I’m not talking character description, which can often be omitted or left purposefully scarce. No, I’m talking about setting. The five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. That is the detail that puts your reader into the scene and allows them to forget what they are living and delve into your created world.
3) Incorrect Information
Of all three issues, this the worst. This is the one that destroys the reader’s confidence in the story the most. If a detail is wrong, if facts are wrong, and the reader catches on, then you’ve all but shot yourself in the foot. This is where that movie bothered me. While the action scenes were interesting and kept my interest, “Olympus Has Fallen” was one of those movies where I made snide comments throughout simply because it was so unbelievable and far-fetched and I felt I needed to amuse myself. I only made it through the movie because of the action-driven plot and the mindless nature of the thriller. But I would never recommend this movie to anyone, nor would I rate it highly. In fact, if this were a book, I would never read another novel by that author.
Your reader has to be able to trust you as a source for this world. If your facts are wrong, then your reader will lose faith in you.
Details are important. Vital, in fact. But that doesn’t mean that you have to write only what you know. Do your research, talk to people, watch documentaries, read how-to books or non-fiction books, biographies, talk to a librarian… Few authors write only what they know. Don’t be afraid to learn and to put that learning into your novel–just don’t put it all in there, or you’ll fall into that “too much detail” category. Find the happy medium by experimenting and by sharing your drafts with a Beta reader or your editor. They’ll let you know when you go astray.