How Important Are The Details?

pick, pickIn more than one article critiquing the Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details–Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

Are details like this important?

My first thought is, Come on, people, quite being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull us out of the story? Just recently I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I recently read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball know the finals are a 2-3-2 format–games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) are played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) are played at the home of the two seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly–on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in theirs by the Sorting Hat in one and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point–why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

Do editors give a pass to certain authors because they know readers will buy, read, love, and praise their books no matter what? To rectify this, should reviewers actually start pointing out inconsistencies . . . or will the point be lost because others will cry, Stop being so picky!

What do you think? Do you notice inconsistencies? Do you think those things should be pointed out in reviews?

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3 Comments

  1. The only problem I had with the series is what I would have with any portrayal that claimed accuracy, but took artistic freedom in adding things in or getting things wrong. Otherwise, if they said ‘based’ on the Bible, then I would be less distracted by the inaccuracy or the arguments. Details are important to some degree.

  2. I clearly remember the first novel I worked on as an editor, decades ago. The writer had started a character on a journey in a red car, but later in the book it became a yellow car. Even if readers don’t consciously recognise slips like this they may still be unsettled in their reading. Inconsistencies reveal the writer’s lack of a grasp on their fictional world.

    This becomes particularly true when works are translated into another medium and worked on by those who did not originate them. I find it most revealing that all the versions (radio and film) of Lord of the Rings feel that they can leave out Tom Bombadil.

  3. Not owning a TV, I haven’t seen the recent Bible miniseries. (Yes, really. I’d never get anything done if the ‘boob tube’ were readily available in my house…) I like your use of the Harry Potter series, because Rowling’s use of details is a powerful example for writers. Not because it was so stellar, but because her details trapped her later books. (IMHO) The first and early books sparkle with these vivid details, but the deeper and later into the story’s world the reader gets, the more these details weigh down the story. I like how she makes those tiny details from the first books so crucial in the later ones, but I think the cumulative volume of details drags the story by the end of each of the later volumes.

    In books, I have a hard time not commenting on inconsistent details, but I more often blame editors for not catching these than writers for sloppiness. (With the exception of Joanne Fluke. Her, I cheerfully use as a bad example when teaching about writing.) Like you, I like for the details to work together to keep me in the waking dream of believable fiction. Whether these details mesh with each other or match up with reality as I know it.

    What I have found in writing, is that I need more details in my world-building than I do on the page. If I create a universe in intricate detail, but then only use 5-10% of those details, the details work together much better for my beta readers. In some cases, readers use the details to connect the dots and dwell in the story’s universe in a shockingly realistic fashion. This can also lead to the reader discussing these details as though they actually are the story, which is both flattering and a little scary. :) But most often, I encounter writers who haven’t fleshed out these details that won’t make it on the page. Especially when they know the details won’t be on the page, these writers consider the effort a waste of creativity.

    I disagree. Strongly. If you want your story to really spark the reader, you have to invest that creativity in the parts people don’t see. Don’t just know the history of your hero’s family. Know the history of the people he admires. Know the stories they tell around campfires, know the secret handshake he once had with his best friend, know the legends of lost truth, know the geophysics of the region. CS Lewis described a work-in-progress once as an exposition on the medieval philosophical structure of the universe. His friend told him no one would read it, and he said, “Oh, that’s not the plot. It’s about a man who gets dragged off to Mars, then saves Venus, and comes back to help defeat evil on Earth.” The medieval structure is evident once you know about it (or study medieval philosophy extensively), but it’s a set of submerged details that make the story powerful and enduring. Little inconsistent details, in the end, make the story weak pop fiction.

    Let’s write giants.


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