An early dream world we witness in the movie Inception flops because its architect failed to get the carpet right; when the dreamer is pushed to the floor, his cheek touches the carpet and his attention is then locked on the difference between it and the real flooring of the real room. And if you know the movie, you know what happens to that architect. Dream worlds succeed or fail in Inception based on their details, which must be plentiful and perfect—and the same guidelines apply to your story.
The Importance of Nuts and Bolts
Ever listened to the song “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash? He sings from the perspective of someone working on the GM assembly line who wants his own long black Cadillac and decides to get it “one piece at a time” by stealing the parts—carrying the small ones out in his lunchbox—over several years. What happens is pretty funny: he winds up with a ’57, ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61, etc., etc., model that his wife is reluctant to ride in and the whole town laughs at . . . but, hey, he does technically have a Cadillac.
Here’s the thing about that song, as well as some of his others (“A Boy Named Sue” is another good example): if you’ve never heard it before, you’re going to stop whatever else you’re doing and sit there and listen until the end. Because you gotta know. Where is he going with this? What is this bizarre little story building to? Will he get caught by GM, or the police? What monstrosity or gem will culminate from these purloined pieces of car?
When a storyteller sets out a series of enchanting details for you, you get hooked. In classic country music, Johnny Cash is king, but in literature, the skill abounds; you would be hard-pressed to name an author who achieved literary renown but had not mastered detail. F. Scott Fitzgerald had his character outfits, written lists, rosters of partiers, etc. Through detail, Ralph Ellison could make you feel you were the one frightened for your life but determined as you fought. Zora Neale Hurston recreated Florida on the page in a way no tourist guide could ever hope to. Robert Penn Warren knew how to make you feel politics so thoroughly that after reading him, you’d feel the need to shower. Iris Murdoch could build a character through detailed descriptions of his preferences regarding lunch and home décor.
A story that lacks detail is dry; a story rich with detail is hard to put down—even when it gets other things wrong, when it’s not as well outlined/organized as it could be, when it has pacing problems, when it fails to ultimately answer all the questions it posed. And this is the same for any book. It may seem that in some types of novels—philosophical novels-of-ideas, for instance—detail matters less, but The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand wouldn’t have had the same impact without the details related to architecture and art, and Albert Camus hardly could have created a convincing plague in Oran without his vivid depiction of deceased rats and coughing fits.
Building the Dream World
In order to capitalize on and then satisfy readers’ need to know, you must create a story brimming with not just detail but the right kind of detail—precise, relevant, consistent detail. This, as so many other elements of successful writing, harkens back to planning. If you jump into writing before you’ve done your due diligence in accumulating detail, you will make costly mistakes, the sort that necessitate later taking a seam ripper to a mostly completed story—not just substituting a few inaccurate details for correct ones.
Building a compelling suite of detail starts with reflecting on your characters, their primary settings, and the interactions of these elements. Sounds simple enough—and in many ways, it is—but the importance of your intimately knowing the interaction of these core elements, and then conducting research as needed, is hard to overstate.
Chances are that if you have a reasonably well-developed idea for a story, you also have a sense of both character and setting. While this can seem like enough to get started, I’d like to give a simple example of why it isn’t: the legal drinking age in Ethiopia is eighteen. Who cares, right?
Unless you’re writing a story set in Ethiopia about, say, a precocious medical student on a good-will volunteer trip who passes up a night of drinking with her (older) fellow volunteers because she is not of age. If she was actually of age, that would bring about a host of other details to pursue: Would she then engage or was the age thing just an excuse? What would happen if she were at the bar that night instead of sitting at home studying? If she’s such a by-the-book sort of person that she wouldn’t try to sneak a few drinks if she were underage, then how does she feel about the drinking age being lower than she had expected? Does it make her question a sensible authority she has previously ascribed to governing bodies? Does it make her feel that this place is lax in its moral standards—or freeing? Etc., etc.
Every detail has the potential to open onto hundreds more details. In light of that, getting one detail wrong can automatically mean getting major chunks of the ensuing story wrong as well. And while it may be easy to see how that applies when you’re writing about a real place, it’s equally important when you’re inventing a universe, a world, or just a city from your imagination. When details in fictional universes are inconsistent or otherwise don’t make sense, it can cause the reader to “wake up from” your story—the same effect caused by inaccurate detail in a story with a realistic setting.
An experienced book editor can help you ensure that the details of your story are abundant, pertinent, precise, accurate, and consistent enough to build such a perfect dream world that your readers won’t want to wake up from it. Contact me via the web form on this website or at email@example.com to discuss your story and its editing needs.
Image attribution: By Mathieu Marquer from Paris, FRANCE (Pont de Bir-Hakeim, Paris) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons