The Little Details

When you’re reading a good book, you’ll find yourself completely immersed in it.  This is especially true of Science Fiction and Fantasy, or for that matter any book where there is an alternate world of some sort.  Most of the time when a book is released through traditional publishing, there are very few things that can knock you out of the story.

If the inconsistency is central to the overall story, it can ruin the book.  The best example of this that I can come up with is from a book that I recently read.  In Divergent by Veronica Roth I was constantly troubled by the way the world was set up, from a psychological viewpoint the world was just… wrong.  The book was a very quick read, and within the world that she created was actually quite good, but I gave the book a 5/10 because the worldbuilding just didn’t make sense to me.

While the world in Divergent didn’t work for me, there are a lot of people who have read the book who haven’t studied psychology, and I’m sure they enjoyed the book far more than I did.  To be fair, it is a YA book, and I’m not too familiar with many high schools where psychology is taught at a level that would give the students enough information to find the holes in the worldbuilding that I did.

Divergent is an extreme example for me.  Most of the time authors are able to get the overall world details worked out well enough so that you’re not going to be thrown out by anything big in the story.  In many cases in SF/F this can be done by simply not explaining how the world came to be as it is and just telling the story.  Most of the time readers are just looking for a good story, and the fact that we’re reading SF/F means that we want to get away from the real world.

One of the biggest problems in SF/F is to make a fictional world seem real.  The easiest way to do this is to make sure that you’re getting the little details right.  When I reviewed The Child Thief a few weeks back I commented that a couple of the metaphors that the characters used in the book didn’t seem like something the characters would say.  When Peter said that people fell like bowling pins it just felt wrong.  Similarly, in reading Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch I’ve been really annoyed by a very small detail that is really irrelevant to the story as a whole.

When Locke and Jean are learning about sailing, they’re quickly instructed on the directions of the ship. It’s not the front it’s the bow, the rear is the stern, the right is starboard, and the left is… larboard?

Lets look at that for just a second.  Aside from the fact that it’s wrong (it should be Port), it makes no sense.  If you’re in the middle of a storm or a fight or some other emergency on a ship, how is someone halfway across the deck going to be able to make out the difference between starboard and larboard.  I hope their ship sinks, because that’s what would happen with those directions sounding so similar.  I just read a section where he describes someone going through the procedure for an emergency tracheotomy trying to save someone from choking and it was well written (I’m not a doctor, but I have seen most of the episodes of Scrubs and a lot of the episodes of M*A*S*H).  I’ve been on a boat maybe 20 times in my life, and I can notice that mistake, which is going to make every boating section in the book really annoying for me.

So to sum up my rambling for the day, to all authors and editors out there who might somehow see this, please, get the little details right.  It might not matter to to the overall story when Peter mentions bowling pins, or when Locke learns his boating directions as Starboard and Larboard, but there’s a very good chance that it will annoy your readers.

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1 Comment

  1. Catching such details is one thing critique groups can do very well. It comes with a danger, however, since you can wind up over explaining things. Overall though, it’s of value to have other readers. I imagine if someone knew three sides of the boat, they knew port, but it’s easy to space out the right word and then fail to see it when proofing your own work.


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