Being a Better Writer: Working in Important Little Details

Right, so a quick one today. I’m actually typing this out at 1 AM. Why? Well, because remember a few weeks back when I had a dentist appointment that shoved Being a Better Writer back a few days? Well, I’ve got another one in ten hours (shudder). Which, given my enjoyment of dentists … You saw the “shudder”  back there, didn’t you?

For the record, my dentist is a great guy with his bedside manner and the like. Crud, he even called me later in the evening of my last appointment to check how I was feeling. So that’s great. I just don’t like people messing with my teeth. Ever.

Anyway, that’s why I’m writing up a short, quick BaBW post right now, since I know I’m not going to be in the best of feelings later (my poor jaw). Better to get it over and done with rather than letting it be delayed.

In the meantime, if this post is too basic for you, or too short, consider upgrading to reading a copy of Colony! It’ll keep you occupied for action-packed hours on end! Makes a good gift, too!

Plug done, onto today’s topic: the important little details.

This one requires a bit of context, I think. See, earlier this week I was reading another book (part of my latest library binge) when I came across a rather jarring scene that jolted me right out of the action.

There was an action scene, you see, and the two heroes were doing battle with a bunch of magic-using assailants. They were winning too—though the attackers had accomplished their goal, which had actually been quite unconnected to the protagonist’s quest, they weren’t exactly prepared to face the foes they’d come up against. So, like any smart opponent, they retreated. Not singing one-liners either. In a bit of harsher realism, it was just “Get out of here!” in the face of being cut down.

Being magical, they summoned a portal to retreat through. Good, smart tactic that. Instant evac.

Here’s where the problem arose. These magic users were clearly one of the book’s antagonist groups, and so the author was working to fill the readers in on details about them. Unfortunately, this is where the problem occurred. Here I had read an entire chapter from the point of view of the protagonists—nothing wrong there. But then, as these magical assailants began their retreat, summoning a white void of energy that they were jumping into one by one …the author realized that they wanted to impart one more bit of information about these foes—where their home base was located.

Unfortunately, the protagonists were in no position to know this information. So, what happened?

The author jumped perspectives. For a single paragraph, moving out of third-person limited and suddenly becoming third-person omniscient, peering into the minds of the magic users as they piled back through their portal and into the safety of their forest fortress or whatever.

As soon as that little detail had been said, the paragraph was over, and the story went right back to the perspective of the protagonists again. Third-person limited.

Saying this little segue was jarring makes it sound milder than it really was. It was outright strange. Bearing in mind that there are stories out there that head-hop perspectives like this all the time … but the problem here was that this wasn’t one of them.

So what happened? Well, honestly, my best guess is that this was the casualty of a rushed edit: The author realized that this crucial detail establishing this faction hadn’t been properly addressed yet in the story, and that it would be a vital detail later. So this detail needed to be worked in somewhere, and this was the best location they found that worked first.

Maybe. I don’t know for certain. Like I said, it’s only a theory. Either way, the attempt, while successfully conveyed what the author wished, pulled my out of the book. The “flow” that had been established thus far was broken in order to draw attention to a detail, and then resumed again, and it was about as obvious as a character in film breaking the fourth wall to address the viewer.

Which in turn made me think about the issue over the course of the day, then leading to this post. The cause of the issue was simple: The author needed to convey an important detail. The problem, however, was that they did so poorly (and perhaps forgot to address it in the first place, leading to a hasty edit that felt out of place with the rest of the work).

So, what does this mean for you? Well, clearly we don’t want to pull our reader out of our work. We want things to flow as smoothly as possible. But sometimes that can get tricky. Depending on the kind of plot we’re putting together, we may have a lot of little details to both keep track of and dole out at the proper place. Details that, if forgotten or shoved into the wrong place, can have the same effect as the segment I read earlier this week.

So, there are two things you need to consider then. First is making sure that these details crop up in the proper place within the story. Second is that said details are presented smoothly within the context of the scene.

For example, say that we have a side character in a modern setting who will save the protagonist from a locked door about halfway through the book. However, we don’t want this detail to come out of nowhere; and it would if we simply waited until the needed moment to say ‘Hey, check what this character can do.”

So, we have a detail that needs to be addressed in a proper location—a foreshadowing of some kind. But at the same time, we can’t just go sticking into a chapter picked at random, as we want it to fit with the flow of things.

So we find a scene with that character in it already. Maybe it’s a random conversation. Maybe it’s a moment where they’re doing something. Whatever. We find a moment where we can work in the detail that, by the way, this character can pick locks.

Again, we don’t want to just drop a line into the middle of something (not unless it makes sense). We want to find a smooth way to work in our details. Perhaps the character is fidgeting in one scene, and so rather than have them playing with their phone, we give them a lock to practice on, sort of as a nervous, habitual tick.

I mean, it really could be anything that works withing the context of the story. Point is, it needs to fit in the context of the scene as well.

Of course, this is all much easier if you’re not doing it after the fact. Ideally, you’ll dole out details as your story moves along, slotting them into locations that present themselves as the story progresses.

Of course, to do this, there’s a catch: You have to know what these details are in advance. And that means planning. Plus forethought.

Think forward, in other words. Consider your big moments in the story, the skills, talents, and information that are going to be needed in order to make them work. Having a showdown 3/4 of the way through atop a decrepit building that serves as the antagonist’s hideout? Is there anything special or unique about it that your reader should know beforehand? Is it information that the characters would know, and if not, can you hint at it in a way that they don’t pick up so the reader can guess what’s coming?

This last one is tricky. After all, if your protagonists don’t know about something, how are you supposed to draw the reader’s attention to it, especially if you’re writing a story that needs to have the details brought up?

Actually, it’s not as hard as it seems. If you’re fluid with your protagonists, you can always consider writing segments from other character’s PoVs. Plenty of books divide their chapters up into different segments make use of this to even give small, one-off moments where otherwise unimportant characters will parcel out a perspective or bit of information that the reader could use. But even in a dedicated story where you’re sticking primarily to a small set of characters, you can take advantage of chapter breaks (or even larger segments) to deliver smaller bits from other characters. For instance, Ender’s Game starts each chapter with a transcript excerpt of a conversation that, over the course of the story, gives out important details. Colony has several “interlude” chapters that offer a shift in perspective between the larger parts of the book, offering views and details that would otherwise be lost to the reader (and are lost to the protagonists). As long as you follow the “pattern” you’ve already established with what’s come earlier in your book, you can present important details any number of ways.

Now, this might seem a bit simplistic … but at the same time, books and stories jar their readers (or worse, fail completely) all the time because they either fail to present a detail early enough or shove it in at the last moment. Important details don’t just deserve consideration because they’re vital to the story, they also deserve consideration because of where and how they’re presented. Which means that as we write and edit out stories, we need to be thinking ahead, noting what’s to come and following the threads back to the now so that we can be sure we drop our details in the right place and that they’re in tune with the flow of the story.

So, as you sit down to prepare your story (or start writing it if you’re the spur-of-the-moment type), think ahead to where you want to go. Pick your way backwards, and ask yourself what important details you need to place in the readers way. What’s the most vital info, in other words, that the reader needs to be aware of?

Once you have those threads (hopefully well in advance), keep them in mind as you move forward. Look for openings. Slip the details smoothly into place so that they fit in with everything else.

And then? You’ll have a detail that, hopefully, your reader will breeze by along with everything else—noting it, but not being distracted by it.

So, pay attention to the vital, important details your readers need to know. Work your story backwards, if possible, figuring them out in advance. Then, weave them into the story as you move forward.

Good luck, now get writing.

Me? I’ve got a dental appointment to get to.


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