This is a post I originally published three years (what? How has it already been three years?) ago, but that is entirely still relevant. In fact, if anything, this opinion has only been further cemented by my time as an editor. Which makes it prime material for dredging up from the archives, along with its sister post; I’ll post that one next week.
Before any of you out there freak out, this isn’t about you (and least, I hope it isn’t). This is more of a general viewpoint I’ve witnessed over the years, rather than a specific rant triggered by something I saw recently. 😉
It also happens to coincide with a cool new project by REUTS founder Ashley Ruggirello, titled A Writer’s Google Search. Be sure to go check it out! Because hopefully, after reading this, you’ll have lots of interesting, strange, and maybe even horrifying Google searches to contribute to the fun.
The Devil’s in the Details
By Kisa Whipkey
Originally Posted on 6/22/12
This is a pet peeve of mine, so get ready for a hailstorm of snide.
The devil’s in the details. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have heard this charming colloquialism. And I’m sure there’s a formal explanation of its meaning somewhere. But my interpretation is this: it’s the tiny details that will be the hardest, driving you absolutely insane in the pursuit of perfecting them all and ultimately landing you in the looney bin, where you’ll write them continuously on the pristine white walls until you run out of space.
In other words, it means RESEARCH, people!
This is important in all genres of writing, but especially in urban fantasy, whose very existence relies on believably entwining the impossible with the world we know so well. The difference between a decent fantasy story and a great fantasy story is the detail — those little things that ground it in reality. And I’m seeing more and more writers who seem to be forgetting that fact.
Personally, I spend far too much time invested in chasing down those small, intricate details. Often longer than I actually spend writing. (Okay, so maybe I also kind of use it as an excuse to procrastinate, but that’s not the point!) For example, one of my newest plot bunnies (definition blogged about here), required that I road-trip down to California just so I could pinpoint the exact number of the emergency call box featured in the story’s location. All right, all right, to be fair, I road-trip to Cali quite frequently, but this time I paid special attention to those lovely blue, creepily positioned call boxes. And before I resorted to putting another 1000 miles on my poor overused car’s odometer and sinking another $300 into the gas tank, I researched the heck out of them. Which means I can now proudly say that I know far more than I ever wanted to about how those emergency beacons of hope actually work. A fact which may or may not come in handy while writing the story and hopefully will never be needed in life.
That dedication to detail isn’t exclusive to that one plot bunny either. My main work-in-progress has had me learning more random factoids about Portland, OR than I’ve managed to collect in five years of adjacent residency. Why do I bother? Because those little details make it feel real, while so many other aspects are clearly not. Also, so natives of the locale can’t bust me for not having done my research. Because, let’s face it, readers a nit-picky bunch, and nothing makes us feel more smug and superior than being able to point out when an author got something wrong.
It’s not only to avoid the humiliation of being caught taking a few liberties on reality though. Attention to detail will elicit squeals of delight from a reader’s inner-fangirl/fanboy when they discover the exact location their favorite book took place. I’m sure anyone in Forks, WA can attest to this. They overhauled the entire town to capitalize on that tendency. So it’s just as much about providing a solid and memorable experience for your readers as it is preserving your integrity as an author.
As a reader, my suspension of disbelief can only be pushed so far. If I read a story where the lead character is so impossibly invincible that they’ve taken multiple stab wounds to the chest, been shot 42 times and are not only still alive, but kicking ass, I’m out; you’ve lost me. If you include a piece of outdated technology and use it in a way everyone who’s ever owned said device knows is physically impossible and ridiculous — sayonara! If your characters are as real as a cardboard cut-out, bring on the eye-rolls. If your female characters are the literary equivalent of a pin-up spread, don’t even bother writing the next sentence. And if your setting is so obviously a real place, but it feels like that moment in video games where you can walk through walls, fall into trees, and randomly float into space, you’re done. You need to go back to the drawing board and spend more time in the world building phase. Trust me.
That’s not to say that I’m an overly critical reader. I’m actually not. I’ll read just about anything, in any genre. I thoroughly enjoyed the Twilight Saga, devoured The Hunger Games, and read a plethora of cheesy romances. (Cue the horrified gasps from the literature community.) So you can’t say that I’m being an elitist snob. I just expect that there be an aspect of believability included. And I don’t think that’s an unusual request.
Not everything in a story has to be 100% accurate. My point is simply that you need to spend the time it takes to make it feel like a fully realized, substantiated place. The geography of your fantasy land should feel as real as the world around us, not as squishy as a mud puddle. Magic is great, but it should have rules. Just like real-life physics dictate the laws of gravity, motion, and pretty much everything, magic should have some kind of understandable parameter too. How you define those laws is entirely up to you. Just make sure they’re consistent. Got aliens? No problem, but please ensure they feel like something that could exist anatomically. And don’t even get me started on space travel. Let’s just say it should seem like a plausible thing, not a “cool-factor” moment and leave it at that.
Just to be clear, though, I’m not suggesting that you cram your story full of so much detail that it becomes an overwrought, boring soup destined to collect dust in your desk’s bottom drawer. Too many details can be equally as damaging as too few, regardless of accuracy level. I’ve read quite a few published books that bored me to the point of giving up (which rarely happens, by the way. I’m super stubborn like that). And I’ve run into others that were so realistic in describing the disgusting aspects of bodily fluids and unnecessarily vulgar situations that they were just downright crass. And while I did finish them (see statement above about being stubborn), it was done while wearing a disgusted lip-curl and loss of appetite. Violence is fine, as are vulgarity and/or profanity when the situation dictates, but when your writing starts including things for shock value only, it’s time to reassess if you need all those details.
Temperance and moderation. Those are the key words for today’s rant. There should be a balance between the plot and the details that support it and define your setting. How do you find that balance? Research. It really is as simple as that. Sprinkle just enough accurate details into your tale and you’ll keep even the pickiest of readers happy. On the believability front anyway. Stylistically, you’ll always have to deal with criticism, because, as my husband likes to say, “haters gonna hate.”