The Devil’s in the Details
Have you ever been watching a great movie, then notice a little detail that’s completely wrong? I do it all the time. Call it a blessing or a curse, but my brain picks out those little inconsistencies. I’m not sure why. I’m not even actively trying to do it. The more glaring the mistake, the more I fixate on it and it kinda ruins the rest of the movie for me. That’s the trick, isn’t it. Once your suspension of disbelief is gone, it’s damned hard to get back. Maybe impossible. At least, that’s the way it works for me. Maybe I’m just an oddball. Okay, I am, but that’s beside the point.
I liken the creation of a story to the building of a house. Sure, there are big pieces that make up the major structure, but no building, no matter how well built, can survive without a strong foundation. To me, that’s exactly what those little details are. The foundation that you build your suspension of disbelief on for the rest of the story. If you get those little details wrong, your foundation is cracked and that can lead to problems with the entire structure. Once those little cracks have happened, it drastically alters my impression of the rest of the story. I’m not sure why, but it does.
Now this might come as something simple. Say, for example, they use the word “clip” instead of “magazine” when dealing with firearms. This might seem insignificant to some people, but to those of us who have spent a great deal of time with weapons, it’s a glaring error. This one little error might not bother some people, but it does me. For one, it completely invalidates any other usage of weaponry because it tells me whoever wrote this doesn’t know what they’re talking about. From there, it just snowballs. I might be pedantic, but this is something I can’t ignore. It shatters the illusion. Now, I question the writer’s knowledge of any subject. See what I mean. The Devil really is in the details.
I know, some of you are saying, “but the writer is just telling a story. Why can’t you just ignore that and enjoy it?” Well, for one thing, I can tell you that I’ve been called out in my own writing when I missed a detail. I hate when I do that because I want to tell an immersive story that the readers feel drawn into. If I messed up the details, the story is now tainted for some people. I failed them. My entire job as a writer is to tell a story that the reader enjoys. That’s why I work my butt off to get the details right.
The truth is some things just can’t be Googled. Sure, you can pull up a map of downtown Timbuktu, but you can’t tell me what the marketplace smells like. You can get an image of the Taj Mahal, but how do the stones feel beneath your feet? Real world experience is the key to painting the most vivid of images in your stories. I know you can’t go everywhere and see everything. Hell, who can? I wish I had the time and money to travel to all the places I would love to write about. However, you can do the next best thing. Yeah, you guessed it, you can ask someone who has done those things.
If you need an expert’s opinion, then go ask an expert. Don’t just make up the details or take a guess. Believe me, Google can be wrong. I know, you’re shocked and appalled, right? Don’t be afraid to ask. Most people will be happy to help you. If they don’t want to help, then ask someone else. It’s called research and it’s a necessary part of writing. As a writer, you owe it to your readers to know your subject matter, and that means getting the details right. Especially the little ones. They can make a much bigger difference than you think.
You don’t have to have a PhD in obscure subjects to write effectively. There is a wealth of information at your fingertips. Yes, the internet can answer a lot of questions. Knowledge is just the beginning, though. Don’t forget the details. You can search for the methods of baking sourdough bread, but it can’t tell you how it smells when it’s baking. It can’t describe the flavor of a warm piece of fresh bread with melting butter on it. That’s something you just must experience for yourself.
When I was a kid, my mother used to make fresh bread all the time. I can remember smelling it from the driveway when I’d get off the school bus. The smell permeated the entire house. I’d get a piece of that fresh bread, still warm from the oven, and cover it with real butter and drizzle honey on it. That was forty-five years ago, but I can still smell it when I close my eyes. I can taste the honey and butter blending with the warmth of the fresh bread. The slight crunch to the upper crust. That’s something you’ll never forget.
That’s a tangible memory that I can describe because it happened to me. You can still describe things that you’ve never experiences, and describe them effectively, by doing a little research. If you have a character in your story that’s a master chef, then maybe you might want to brush up on some culinary terms and techniques. It’s tough to describe a character making a souffle when you can barely make ramen noodles without burning them unless you do your research. Talk to a chef or professional cook. Get the terminology correct. You might not be able to cook like a master chef afterwards, but you might walk away with a greater appreciation of what it takes to be one.
Research shouldn’t feel like a punishment. I know writers who feel that way and it just makes me shake my head. When you do your research, you learn new things. You gain new experiences, and you develop new skills. After all, not all research can be done by reading. Go out into the world and see some of these things for yourself. It not only broadens your own horizons, it’s also a boon to your writing.
If you’re a writer, then everything you do, see or experience is research. Smell those flowers, taste that dish, try that beverage. You might hate it, or you might love it, but either way, you’ll have a vivid description to share with your readers. If you see yourself as a writer, then you can never really turn it off. I know I can’t. I’m either writing or thinking about what’s around me and how it can be used in a story. Places I visit could be a new setting. Food that I try could be described in a scene. People that I meet are a study in character behavior. You can base your own characters on the actions of people around you. It not only helps you to understand basic human behavior, but it also helps you develop living, breathing characters for your stories. After all, if you want people to feel invested in the characters, they must feel like real people. Otherwise, they’re just words on paper.
Every detail in your writing is important, from the tiniest to the largest. Take the time to get the details right. Don’t just toss it in and hope no one notices. You can describe at great length the things that you’ve done. For all the rest, there are experts all around us. Make a new friend on Facebook and ask them questions. Go to a bakery and ask how they make fresh bread. Talk to an auto mechanic and ask how they change a starter on a 1992 Honda Civic. Whatever details you need, ask someone who knows. Trust me, when you just take a guess and toss the dice, the readers will notice.
If you pay attention, you’ll see what I’m talking about. When you see something out of place, it just stands out. That’s exactly what readers see when they find a detail that isn’t right. Building the foundation of your writing on a solid basis of research is the way to create an immersive story that you readers will love. Suspension of disbelief is the key to a successful story. It’s those little details that help to create that. When the little details fall apart, the foundation crumbles and the suspension falls. That’s when your story crashes and you’ve lost your reader. Maybe they’ll give you another shot in the next book or maybe they won’t. You might have lost them completely.
Do your research, develop those characters, build a solid story on the correct details. Learn something new and embrace that constant observation. They are key to being a great storyteller. Every great writer is a reader, too. Studying the style of other writers is a great way to keep your own improving and evolving. Study your craft and learn the little things. After all, the Devil’s in the details.
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