The Devil's In The Details II–Keep Research from Taking Over
All right, we’ll do Research Part Duh, um Deux. Last time we talked about how research can take a book to the next level and I also vented about my personal bugaboos when it comes to guns. But here’s the thing, our target audience is likely to have bugaboos as well.
If we write military books, we want military people to like them. But, if we fail to research even basic stuff, we can turn them off. Same with thrillers, historical and even SCI-FI, etc.
Part of the reason for Star Trek’s success was that Roddenberry refused for ST technology to be made up willy-nilly. All technology and “science” had to be based around and grounded in some salient scientific theory….so you can thank Star Trek for automatic doors, cell phones, iPads, and science is still working on hot green women. Apparently there are only so many writers engineers can marry.
KIDDING! …I love you, Shawn. No I am not painting myself green…again.
But this is why my last post was called The DEVIL is in the Details. It’s a devil for sure. We want to have enough good detail that we don’t look like whackadoodles who just threw something together, but at the same time? People are there for a STORY, not Wikipedia.
As an example, I recently watched the Jack Reacher movie. Fun time. Now, there is NO WAY Reacher could have done some things (like the car chase scenes *rolls eyes*), BUT there were details that showed me Lee Child DID do his homework (preserving night-vision and I won’t spoil it). With a nice balance of great detail that was correct I could forgive and enjoy events that were highly improbable and simply enjoy the story for the brain candy it was.
So, some things to remember…
If We Wanted Reality We’d Watch the News
People DO look to fiction for escape. Our characters aren’t human, but need to be humanized. They do all the glorious things we’d do if we didn’t have laundry, a broken lawnmower and a day job, but we still need to be able to relate. Feel free to make your charters larger than life. THAT is what stories are for. Research just adds elements that can ground the reader and act as a counterpoint to all the surreality of the fiction.
Fiction Based on Reality Can Be Stronger
If we look to some of the greats, we see they based their “worlds” on reality. Tess Gerritson does this beautifully in her thrillers. If we look to some of the legends like Michael Crichton, we see WHY those stories had appeal. Dinosaurs remade from DNA captured by a primordial mosquito trapped in amber? Sentient nanites? Time travel through parallel multiverses? All ludicrous….yet plausible.
We don’t need to always be accurate, but we can be plausible.
Detail Relates to Voice
Readers all have different preferences, which is great because writers all have different styles. Some readers (me) LOVE details. It’s one of the reasons I was a huge fan of Crichton and still love Dean Koontz. I adore detail expertly blended into the prose. Other readers? They hate it. They love bare bones and don’t care that they can read an entire book and never really know what the protagonist looks like. That gives me a twitch.
But this is why I hammer this point, “The world rewards finishers, not perfection.” We can finish a book, we cannot, however, make it perfect. Go to even the mega-authors and we will see one-star reviews. We can’t please everyone. Some people love quippy dialogue, others will hate it. Some love details, others want us to move forward or slow down or turn right.
Readers can be like driving with my mother in the back seat.
Some readers want blissfully unrealistic mind-candy. Others want complete plausibility. We see this in movies. My brother loooves uber-realistic gritty movies and doesn’t mind if everyone DIES at the end. These movies my brother adores make me want to drink heavily.
Everyone has different tastes, so what flavor are you offering?
Reality is Boring
Remember, people read for an escape. The characters and story are why they’re there. If they wanted pure facts, they could go read the FBI website or The NY Times. Thus, when I encourage research, it isn’t to bog your story down with being “real,” rather it’s so you can add elements that heighten “reality.”
If your character is in a prolonged gun battle, have him bring extra magazines or resort to taking weapons off bad guys. He can still be all Jason Statham, but just this tiny element of not having a “magic gun with limitless bullets” can help satisfy the picky reader.
One of my favorite examples is from the movie Safe House. Antagonist fires a gun next to rookie protagonist’s head to make a point. Protagonist then bleeds from the ear (likely a ruptured eardrum) and his hearing is severely impaired the next couple of scenes. But, he quickly recovers (which is very unlikely in reality), but it was a great detail that helped ground us, yet allowed all that followed which was highly “unrealistic” to feel more plausible. It’s an illusion, but an artfully crafted one (in my POV).
Remember Belief is ALREADY Suspended
I have to remind myself of this CONSTANTLY. Resist the urge to explain. The second a reader picks up any book, reality is already suspended. All we have to do is to maintain the illusion. Facts, research, details, can enhance the illusion or shatter it. We don’t have to explain String Theory to use wormholes or give the precise instructions of how one actually makes a bomb (in fact the latter might be quite irresponsible). But a handful of the right information does help.
One of my favorite movies is The Avengers. Talk about the opposite of reality. But we accept The Hulk was created via an accident with gamma radiation, that Thor is a being from another part of a multiverse, that Captain America is the product of genetic tinkering and that Iron Man is the future of robotic technology. This is the “reality-unreality” part that allows us to watch NYC be leveled and not think about when FEMA will arrive.
Thus, when we choose to use any detail or research, make sure it enhances the story. You really don’t have to explain everything. We accept vampires, parallel universes and Warp 10. Just roll with it and know that details add magic when used “properly.” And I type “properly” because again, detail is often related to voice.
Yet, I will say, as someone who’s edited countless works (over the course of 14 years) and who also happens to be a factophile (yes, I just made that up), that world-building, detail, description can be DIVAS. Details have to be managed, told they are pretty and maybe even be given flowers once in a while because they LOVE to upstage the story and characters.
Our job is to manage them and help them do their job, not stage a story coup.
What are your thoughts? Do you love a lot of intricate detail? Hate it? Do you love reading books where you learn about something completely new? Do you have any tricks, suggestions, tactics or observations about how to keep details balanced? What are your preferences?
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Winner will be announced on the next blog.
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