science fiction and fantasy writer

On Getting the Details Right and Getting the Right Details

Storytelling, as with joke telling, is all in the delivery. Getting the delivery of your story right means getting the details right. It also means getting the right details – that is, finding and using the details that your story needs, and only those details.

Getting the Details Right

Most fans of science-fiction will be familiar with the asteroid field sequence from The Empire Strikes Back – you know the one, massive rocks bouncing around all over the place like Beagle puppies on crack, odds of survival three-thousand-and-somethingty-to-one.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, as Cracked.com have pointed out, when two rocks crash together in space, there’s nothing to stop them from flying away in opposite directions, if not into infinity, then at least until they get hoovered up by the gravity of a nearby sun and plummet into flaming oblivion. Or crash into the Earth and obliterate life, but y’know. An asteroid belt as dense and chaotic as the one in TESB isn’t going to stay that dense for very long. In reality, when NASA wants to send a space probe to the outer planets, they describe the risk of colliding with an asteroid as negligible (at least provided you have a reasonable map). To give you an idea of how widely scattered the asteroids are, I recently bought an artwork that consists of twelve 500-page volumes showing a scale map of the Solar System from the Sun out to Pluto. (Watch the video here.) The asteroid belt runs over nearly 200 pages. That is, across about 180 million kilometres of floating space rocks, a space probe can basically tie the steering wheel to the gearstick and go to sleep, secure in the knowledge that its chances of hitting anything are “negligible”. That’s how far apart the asteroids are.

You can get away with this sort of error / intentional misrepresentation in movies, because there’s movement and noise and pretty shiny flashing lights to distract the audience from thinking (and to be fair to George Lucas, he knew damn well he was telling fairy tales – the man even wrote “far, far away” on the front of his movies). Readers, on the other hand, have way more time to think, and if you don’t get those kinds of factual details right – big or small – you’re way more likely to lose them.

Getting the mundane little details right is about establishing the reader’s trust – establishing your credibility as a storyteller in the reader’s mind. Once you’ve established that credibility, the reader is far more likely to follow you on your wildest flights of fancy. Show the reader that you know how to field strip and clean a Glock 17, then they’ll stay with you when your character reassembles said Glock, loads it with wooden bullets and uses it to shoot the bejeezus out of a nest of vampires. For example.

This applies to all aspects of fiction writing – world-building, action, dialogue, plot, character. Two things that a lot of writers seem to struggle with most are action and dialogue. There’s a particular wonderful, amazing, brilliant short story writer of whom I am a big fan… but who I’ve discovered is maybe not so hot on the writing physical action thing. There’s a scene in one of his stories in which the protagonist is trying to escape an assassin in an industrial building. The protagonist has taken refuge in a room with one door, which he blocks with a heavy automaton. The assassin eventually pushes the automaton aside enough to squeeze through the door, at which point the protagonist tries to “run past him” and is, of course, summarily clubbed to the ground. Hands up who, confronted by that scenario, of an assassin standing by a partly blocked door, would think that they could possibly “run past’ him?

No-one?

So – poof! – in an instant, there goes the author’s credibility in telling that particular story. Maybe I’m a demanding reader.

A workshop exercise I’ve run had participants write a blow-by-blow account of a short, 8-10 move fight scene between two unarmed, untrained opponents. Then we broke into groups of three and went outside to step through each other’s scenes. This provided the patrons at the restaurant across the courtyard from the writers centre with an entertaining dinner show of Fight Club For Gumbies. What it also uniformly showed was that what seemed to work on the page often turned out in practice to be either (a) physically impossible or (b) stupid. (I don’t exclude my own effort from either of these).

Dialogue is often even trickier. Written dialogue is not the same as natural speech, but it needs to give the impression of natural speech. Unless you’re doing it for particular effect, you tend not to write phonetically or in strong accents or dialect. Rather, you’ll indicate natural speech, including accent and dialect, through word choices, dropped words, rhythm and cadence of speech, style of expression (direct/indirect, crude/polite, aggressive/passive) and occasional prominent words of dialect. For example, a French person speaking non-fluent English will tend to use the English words that have analogues in French, rather than semantically similar English words that have Germanic origin. Read Elmore Leonard. Anything by Elmore Leonard. 80-90% of his books are dialogue, and it’s all good.

Getting the Right Details

“Character is story, story is character” – Robert McKee. Following on from this, the needs of the characters and story dictate the details you use in writing them. What details does your story need your reader to know, in order to understand the story? What details does your reader need to know about the character, in order to know the character?

If you’re describing a location, you show the reader what’s important about it to the character whose point-of-view you’re using. If the character is waiting to meet someone for a first date, they might be looking for comfortable places to sit once their date arrives, for where and how they can wait with the best pretence of nonchalance. They might notice pleasant and unpleasant sounds, how other people are using the space in ways that are pleasant or intrusive to the character’s purpose. But if you describe the same location from the perspective of a character who’s a spy on the run, hoping to elude their hunters while waiting to hand some stolen secrets to their contact, then what matters to them is going to be completely different – their focus will be on escape routes and lines of sight, and they’ll be scrutinising the other people in the space for signs of nefariousness. The way you’ll write the scenes will probably also be different. Both characters will be full of nervous energy, but the would-be-lover will be trying to relax, so your sentences might be longer and more languid to reflect that, whereas the spy will be trying to stay keyed up, so their sentences will be short and focused.

Similarly, Donald Maass says in The Fire In Fiction that you show characters through the reactions of other characters. If your character is repulsive, then you show other characters reacting with aversion; if your character is attractive, then you show other characters flirting with or ogling them. If your character is scary, you show other characters being scared of them. Here’s an example from an unpublished story of mine, in which two (hobbit-sized) fox people are camped out in the wilds, having previously killed a wolf in a fight in which the younger fox was also injured, when their campsite is discovered by a bear:

A soft sound, a clink of two hollow things bumping, made Rhy-lee’s ears twitch. She listened. When it came again she reached for her spear.

A massive silhouette rose up above the edge of the cleft. Rhy-lee froze. Bear.

A gust of wind brought its scent down to them, a pungent aroma of maleness and carnivore. Yfan-wyn gasped, only now noticing the arrival. Rhy-lee put her hand on his forearm to hold him still.

The bear stepped into the light. Rhy-lee’s gaze travelled up from his black claws, hanging over the edge of the cleft, each one as long as her hand. The bear’s limbs and torso were covered in a pelt of yellow-white fur that her spear and arrows would probably not even penetrate. He wore an apron made of the long bones of old prey and vanquished enemies, bound together with leather thong and decorated with feathers, claws and teeth. A girdle of wolf scalps bound the apron at his waist. He leaned on an iron-headed spear that Rhy-lee and Yfan-wyn would have struggled to even lift between them. Black eyes peered down at them from a startlingly narrow head.

Slowly, Rhy-lee stood. She picked up the spitted rabbits, and held one up to the bear. She forced herself to meet his gaze. “Please, won’t you share our meal?”

Blood pounded in her ears. She waited for the bear’s response. Then, he made a rumble, deep in his throat – an approving sound, Rhy-lee thought – and stepped carefully down into the cleft. Just as carefully, he lowered himself to his haunches. The rattle of his bone apron put Rhy-lee’s hackles up. Their little fire looked tiny between his enormous feet, a spark. This close, he seemed to block out the stars.

He reached out and took the rabbit, so delicately that Rhy-lee barely felt the brush of fingers large enough to crush her head. “Thank you,” he said. The deep growl of his voice put her in mind of waterfalls in the canyons of the highlands.

Rhy-lee resumed her seat. She offered the remaining rabbit to Yfan-wyn. He didn’t move. The whites were visible around his eyes, his fur standing up all over. She took the rabbit off the spit and snapped its spine, then lifted Yfan-wyn’s hand and closed his fingers around the hind portion. He blinked and looked down in surprise.

The bear observed in silence. His rabbit dangled, untouched, from his finger and thumb, his acceptance of their hospitality not yet consummated. It was a morsel for him, barely a mouthful.

“You are far from home, little foxes,” he said.

“Yes,” said Rhy-lee.

“You have wandering hearts, as I have heard your people say. I have seen others such as you, over the years.” He lifted his chin to scratch his throat, seeming to be musing more to himself than them. “It is a curious affliction for a people who thrive when closed behind walls of stone.”

Thoughts of her mother boiled up. Rhy-lee wondered if this bear had ever met her. Might he have killed her, if he had? The bear noticed Rhy-lee’s reaction. She said, “My mother came this way, when I was a child.”

“And you seek her, still.”

Rhy-lee shook her head at that, but inside, she could not be certain that it wasn’t true.

“I found your wolf,” said the bear. “That was well done. A mad wolf is a threat to young bears, who are wont to stray.”

Rhy-lee inclined her head, but kept her eyes on him. The bear’s smell was overpowering. He examined his rabbit, but still did not eat.

“You have killed wolves before, I see,” he said.

“Wolves killed my husband,” she replied.

“Ah.” He regarded her a moment, then added, “Yet you did not take the tail from this one.”

Rhy-lee said, “This was necessity. A mercy, even.”

“Rather than passion,” the bear said. He tipped his head to one side and his top lip curled up, a quizzical smile. His teeth were thicker than her fingers, and as long. “Mercy for wolves?” He harrumphed, then chuckled. As he dipped his head, Rhy-lee saw the scars that crisscrossed his muzzle and brow.

Everything you need to know about this bear, and the nature of bears in this anthropomorphised world, is in the details that the point-of-view character notices about him, in the bear’s dialogue and in how the two foxes react to him. And it’s virtually all this scene is about.

When you’re writing physical action, it’s relatively rare that the best thing for the story is a blow-by-blow account of what’s happening. Maybe, for example, if you’re writing an explicit sex scene because it shows something important about the characters, or if your story is erotica and explicit hot sex is the purpose of the story. Or if blow-by-blow violence exposes the nature of a character, or provides catharsis at the climax of the story when the villain gets their comeuppance – read “A Dry, Quiet War” by Tony Daniel for an example of that.

Different types of action might demand different kinds of description. In a sex scene, the character is likely to have crystal clear awareness of every little touch and movement. In an equally explicit battle scene, on the other hand, a good description is likely to be far more chaotic – a mishmash of blurred motion and arbitrary, freeze-frame details. In both cases, the details chosen and the way they’re presented should reflect how the character is experiencing the situation – it’s all in the delivery.

But generally speaking, blow-by-blow action stops the story dead in its tracks. That can be okay in a movie, which has spectacle to keep its audience entertained. Thus, Jackie Chan and Jet Li can strut their stuff on screen, and their movies can be reduced to very loosely strung together plots that serve only to briefly bridge the gap between the elaborate set-pieces – much like the ‘stories’ of porn movies. In a written story, you don’t have that spectacle to keep the reader engaged. In the movie Fight Club, you’re shown lots of gritty, bloody violence. In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel on the other hand, you get a powerful impression of lots of gritty, bloody violence, but there’s not one fully described fight in the entire book. What’s important to show – and what Palahniuk is a master at delivering – is the impact of the violence on the characters – how it shapes and changes them through the story – and how it progresses the plot and drives the story along.

So, get your details right, and you’ll earn your reader’s trust. That’s the easy part. The trickier part – and ultimately more important – is to choose which details your story and characters need you to tell.

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