From The Writers’ Tool Box: How Important Are Details?

Do the details in fiction matter? Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility.
on Jul 6, 2020 · 5 comments

Are details important?

In more than one article critiquing the 2013 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.

My first thought was, Come on, people, quit being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull readers (or viewers) out of the story? Some time ago 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 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 would know that at that time the NBA finals were a 2-3-2 format—games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) were to be played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) were 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 is allotted when a technical foul is called but in the book two were allowed). Still another one occurred with the weather (in Southern California a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And yet one more on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines, for the length of the trip. 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, portraits that talk, 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 houses by the Sorting Hat in one book 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.

Originally posted at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. I totally agree. A wrong detail can really throw me while I’m reading…

  2. Autumn Grayson says:

    Details do matter. Once a reader spots a flaw in a book, it can be hard to unsee. And details can enhance a story so greatly. If they’re woven into the very fabric of the prose(without bogging it down) then it could even make readers fascinated by a scene they would have normally deemed boring or insignificant. A lot of the details I use have to do with the chars’ thoughts, feelings, reactions and plans, though. Along with some world building and sort of scientific stuff, so I don’t usually have to worry about things like baseball so much.

    That said, just about every book is going to miss some details, and now and then those details can be very glaring, especially depending on what readers we ask. Sometimes readers and authors can worry too much about whether the book gets a detail wrong, instead of enjoying what is otherwise a decent story.

  3. John D. Martin says:

    The worst example I’ve seen of this was in Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games. The hair color and even name of Mrs. Ryan changed back and forth over several pages. Details matter.

  4. I will say, I thought the warrior angels were pretty awesome. We’re so used to angels being portrayed as these floating beings that don’t interact.
    But, yes it can really pull you out of a story when the details are wrong.

What do you think?