Thoughts on Writing – The Little Details Count

My husband, Isaac, enjoys creating houses on the XBOX 360 Sims 3 game, and since my parents are coming up to visit, he decided to create a model of my parent’s house. He created the general layout, placed the furniture, and after fussing with the game to find the proper sized lot so he could include the backyard, he handed the controller over to me so I could add in the little details. Funny thing… I hadn’t realized how many “decorations” this game has. I added a boom box on an end table in the corner of the dining room. I added the chair that sits beside the hallway. I added a shelf-organizer-thing over where the piano should be (no piano, though), and a little phone on the table beside my grandma’s chair. Then I added a couple paintings (posters) for my room, appropriate colored walls, and a clock above the bay window… and a lot of other little things to make the Sims house look more real.

The end result was uncanny. Depending on the camera angle and the placement in the room, the model house actually looked like my parent’s house.

Those little details made it feel real.

A little detail, carefully slipped into a story, can make a world of difference.

Details enhance the world, make readers feel like they are actually there, and reveal the tone of the novel. A lot of my favorites books and movies pay careful attention to detail across various senses. The background detail in the Babylon 5 TV series, particularly whenever they went into seedy areas on the station, always captured my attention. The last time I watched Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back on a large screen TV, I was captivated by the snakes and vines in the swamps of Dagobah. Rebekkah Ford’s Beyond the Eyes series always made me feel like I was in a forest, or at a loud dance club, wherever the character happened to be.

Often, you only need a few carefully placed details to inspire a full scene in the reader’s mind.

Take a look at this paragraph from The Multiverse Chronicles draft:

Ten minutes later, the cart topped a hill and revealed a large military camp in the close distance. Trish eyed the rows upon rows of canvas tents, men marching in formation, and packs of wolves running attack drills on wooden manikins.

Of course the reader will see what is directly mentioned within the text.

But what else do they imagine? What else do they see? What do they feel? Do they feel like they’ve been traveling a ways? Do they hear the muffled din of people and wolves interacting, despite not being told how they sound?

Coupled with the rest of the story, a reader’s mind might add other details which were never explicitly mentioned, based on previous experiences with the words involved and the various connotations those words carry.

That’s why choosing to slip in a detail here and there, relevant to the action but never fully stopping the story, can offer a strong boost to your world building. Some stories will use more details than others, but you can choose when you want the reader to “stop and smell the roses” by letting the character say more about the world around them.

Take a look at this section from the intro of Magic’s Stealing:

Toranih kicked off the covers, knife in hand, and hopped out of bed. She waited, just in case the shadow returned, then walked to her dresser, picked up the crystal, and carefully raised the light again.

 

The dresser was pristine, with only an oil lamp sitting in the dustless corner. A small oak chest at the foot of her bed remained locked with steel. Heavy brocade curtains obscured the window.

 

No sign of intruders.

 

So why couldn’t she shake the feeling that someone had been watching her?

We linger on the details of the room as she surveys her surroundings, tension mounting because she thinks someone is there. But how different might it be if she paid only a little attention to these things?

Toranih kicked off the covers, knife in hand, and hopped out of bed. She waited, just in case the shadow returned, then walked to her dresser, picked up the crystal, and carefully raised the light again.

 

No sign of intruders.

 

So why couldn’t she shake the feeling that someone had been watching her?

Without the line detailing what she sees (thus “showing” that there are no intruders), we feel like she’s not really putting any effort into her search. She turns on the light, sees no one is there, thinks something’s odd, but moves along. Having extra details, as in the first example, show that she’s not just shrugging her shoulders at the notion. She really is concerned.

However, if you want to do a slow build-up, you might have a character notice something is odd but not pay much attention to why. Then, as they become more and more concerned, they notice more details, which may or may not truly be ominous.

Going back to that Sims house that Isaac created, the downside of that house was that the model wasn’t quite right. There weren’t stairs where there should be. The swings overlooked a creepy ocean instead of another house. The back room looked similar, but not the same. The windows didn’t fit memory, and he used a white bookshelf instead of a bunch of clear storage tubs in the corner for old toys.

As cool as the Sims house was, I didn’t want to look at it from certain angles too long because the house was unsettling.

You can use this mechanic in stories.

For example, a hero coming home after a long time away may find that things have subtly changed. In a horror story, a picture frame that always sits by a lamp may seem a smidgen too far back. In a desolate future, a character may look out over a ruined landscape, able to see a familiar sight here or there, while the rest is in shambles. What remains in place and what does not can affect the tone of the story. Consider the Statue of Liberty in the Planet of the Apes movie.

A little detail in the right spot can make a world of difference.

This can also be used in game creation.

While I haven’t played the game myself, MatPat’s theories on Five Nights at Freddy’s (a popular jump scare game) often references the little details that make the game creepy, such as the fan on the desk. The detail used in these games gives clues into the world’s backstory, all while adding to the nightmarish atmosphere.

When I first played Portal (a puzzle game), I was alone in my dorm room. The empty quietness of walking through the testing chambers had me super jumpy as I expected a turret to shoot me at every turn. And that game isn’t horror.

If you happen on the one detail that gets under a player’s skin, that one detail will have them on the edge of their seat.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Do you have any favorite details that you’ve read in a book or seen in a movie? 🙂

 

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8 Comments

Filed under Gaming, Writing

8 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – The Little Details Count

  1. I will add that it’s important the details be right. For example, in the climax of the first Harry Potter book there’s a living chess puzzle. Ron tells Herry to go be a bishop and Hermione to go next to him and be a castle…except the castle and bishop aren’t next to each other. Ron chooses to be a knight, he could have just told them to get on either side of him. Then this is compounded a page later when Ron sacrifices himself saying he has to take one step forward…knights don’t move one step forward. Not even close. Rowling tried to add details, but she didn’t know anything about chess apparently.

    • True. This is where research can be helpful (and that’s a blog post I intend to do eventually). Granted, some details can be fudged, depending on the story, but others not so much.

      It’s been a while since I’ve read that particular Harry Potter scene, so I can’t say anything directly about it, but my first thought was that Ron might have been saying the wrong names of the pieces. But then I imagine Hermione would have corrected him, and that still might not fix the problem with the rules of movement.

  2. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    World Building Tips from Author Stephanie Bibb 😀

  3. Ah, The Sims… I spent many a happy hour devising the most elaborate houses I could conceive. Happy days…

    • Indeed. I haven’t been nearly creative with it as Isaac, but he’s had quite a bit of fun creating houses and mansions… even the layout of an airship from one of our stories. He built it a couple floors high, then deleted the bottom floor). 🙂

      Only downside is the fire meter (XBOX 360 version) and the size of the lots.

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