In our last video we discussed using specific details to make a story convincing. But specific details are not just there to make the story a bit more believable; they’re also the primary means through which the story, and all its emotion, is conveyed. So the details in your story can’t be any old details – unless you’re Dan Brown, the king of irrelevant details. Assuming you’re not Dan Brown, how do you make sure you choose the right details?
Video transcript follows below:
In our last video we discussed how to lie and get away with it. The key point was that we will believe you, or at least suspend our disbelief, if your account is specific, accurate, and knowledgeable. So it sounds simple: we put in loads of accurate detail and thus create the effect of verisimilitude.
But it’s not quite that simple – the details in your story can’t be any old details. Well, unless you’re Dan Brown. Dan Brown is the undisputed champion of the irrelevant detail.
‘Only those with a keen eye would notice his 14-karat gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué.’
Hi, nice to meet you. Wait – is that a 14-karat gold bishop’s ring with purple amethyst, large diamonds, and hand-tooled mitre-crozier appliqué?
Or what about:
‘He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.’
I don’t know about you, but if I’m on a plane going through turbulence then I’m only concerned that there are engines. I’m not sitting there, reflecting ‘oh, aye, the old dual Pratt & Whitneys. Aye, they’re always a good match for the Falcon 2000EX.
So how do you make sure your details are relevant? Well, normally a detail is only worth including if it’s noteworthy to the viewpoint character. Some things are noteworthy to most people – if we see a glorious sunset, a desiccated cactus, or a fifty-foot waterfall, most of us would consciously register it. Similarly, most of us would consciously register a dead seagull lying in the gutter, or an archipelago of mould growing on the living room wall. But other things make no great impression on us: we don’t pay much attention to the colour of the carpet in the library, whether the teaspoon in the café has a pattern on its handle, or what type of engines are powering our airplane.
Of course, there are things that are noteworthy to one person, even if they’d be boring or unperceivable to most. Suppose Brown’s protagonist was an aeronautical engineer – then perhaps it would make sense to note what type of engines the plane had. That sort of thing probably matters to aeronautical engineers. But he’s not an aeronautical engineer. He’s a symbologist, which isn’t even a real job.
So your details should be character-appropriate. Don’t tell me your character saw a Shubunkin with nacreous scales, if what she saw was a goldfish. But if she works for the Federation of British Aquatic Societies, don’t tell me she saw a goldfish if what she saw was a Shubunkin with nacreous scales.
Occasionally, the situation may arise where your viewpoint character overlooks something that’s actually really important for the story. Suppose your character meets her friend for a cup of coffee. It would be unforgivably boring to tell us the colour of the coffee cups, or that they’re made of china, or that one has a chip on the rim. But if the story’s about somebody – a renowned symbologist, let’s say – on a quest to find the Holy Grail, and that symbologist is served a cup of water in a temple, and is too busy looking for clues to realise that the cup he’s drinking from is in fact the very cup he’s searching for, then – assuming you’re writing in the third person point of view – it would be reasonable to include a detailed description of the cup. Doing so would introduce a degree of dramatic irony, since by focusing on the cup you’d let us know that the cup’s important, something the renowned symbologist has overlooked.
And that’s how good writers use specific details. They’re not just there to make the story a bit more believable; they’re also the primary means through which the story, and all its emotion, is conveyed.
Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.
(The thumbnail for this video uses a photograph by Patrick B. It is covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/-pebe-/)