So I recently read Felicia Day’s new book. In it, naturally, she discusses The Guild. That’s understandable, because it’s the thing that made her into the Felicia Day we know and love. I can, and probably will, do a whole other article on that, but here I want to talk about something else I noticed that she mentioned.
First, a very brief bit of explanation for those of you who aren’t familiar with The Guild. Day, when she couldn’t get any attention as an actual actor doing the kinds of roles kids who dream of being actors want to do, took it upon herself to fix the problem. She wrote, and then produced, starred in, marketed, and basically brought into being through sheer application of will, what has now become a multi season series about online gamers (MMORPG players, like those who play WOW). The Guild was released onto web video providers (primarily YouTube), and became a viral hit. It turned Day from a background actor in commercials into an actual actor working on projects fans love. It literally made her career, and she did it on her own with just a few friends who weren’t any more powerful or influential than she was (which, is to say, they were all basically nobodies without money or connections).
Okay, so that’s the setup. Like I said, there’s a whole article, probably a series of articles, in that. But one of the many things she talked about during the formation and production of The Guild’s first season, the one that went viral, really stuck with me as something most creators need to pay attention to. They had no money, so they were scrimping and scraping just to get by. There was definitely nothing left over for things like costumes and set dressing. So Day and her key partners, but especially Day, became dumpster divers and permanent ghosts haunting Craigslist and any other place where people advertised trying to get people to come take their old crap away. She talks about how her house, which often doubled as a shooting location, became absolutely crammed with all this stuff she was hanging onto so it could go into the scenes.
That’s a serious amount of attention to detail. And if you watch The Guild, you see it.
Look at the background of the scenes, at the set dressing. How it looks lived in, how it’s different for each character. That doesn’t just happen for a project; people have to do it. In The Guild’s case, that was mostly Day, and she talks in the memoir how she spent a lot of time collecting and storing and dealing with the things that went into turning each shot into a part of someone’s life rather than a sterile shooting set.
I want to use the most obvious contrasting example possible, so just stay with me here. Porn. Yes, porn, as in XXX adult video. You know it, you’ve seen it. You know what I’m talking about. I’m not, however, talking about the adult portion; what I want you to think about is how hardly any porn sets look real and lived in. They’re often shot in hotel rooms, because porn producers and participants tend to not want to use their own houses. So they’ll get a hotel room and shoot there. And they only show up with their actor(s), the camera, and that’s basically it. Even when the producers break away from the hotel room concept, the houses or other locales tend to share the same barren and sterile, artificial, look. Because the porn producers don’t care, and they figure the audience doesn’t either. They’re betting on the audience only caring about the ‘action’, and being willing to look past the complete lack of effort that’s gone into anything else happening on the screen.
For porn, there might be an argument for that method. But for fiction, definitely not. If you look at a lot of amateur film productions, they tend to forget the set needs dressing too. Even major productions fall into this trap. Ever wonder why Stargate (the series) set so many of its episodes on a forested planet? Or occasionally, just to break it up, on some sort of plain at the edge of a forest? Because those landscape settings were readily available in and around Vancouver, where the production was based, and required effectively no money to ‘prepare’ for shooting. So episode after episode, O’Neill, Carter, Teal’c, and Jackson would troop through forests, dart amongst trees, and fight it out on carpets of leaves while being chased by the bad guys beneath the forested canopy of Canada. Stargate Atlantis followed this same general pattern as well; many episodes set out in natural locations.
Day realized details matter. I’m not going to say this is the key element that made The Guild work – again, whole other articles could be written to try and break down all the things Day did right – but it didn’t hurt its chances at all. It’s the kind of detail that, when done right, almost none of the audience is going to notice. If you call their attention to it, most of them will shrug and give you a patient stare that’s on the border between blank and bored. “Of course it looks like a house, or a bedroom, or a (whatever the scene’s background is); it’s supposed to look like that.”
That’s exactly my point. It’s supposed to look like that. But replace those backgrounds with the porn backgrounds, where no effort has gone into them at all, and abruptly a much greater portion of the audience begins noticing. Because, now that something’s wrong, they pick up on it and begin to wonder.
Also, the detail in the dialog is important as well. Day talks about how she had some meetings with producers about getting funding for the show, and they wanted to change things. They didn’t like the gamer specific lingo. They didn’t understand how those things were actually important to make it authentic and real to its audience. They wanted to make it more generic, because that would make it more ‘accessible.’ For multiple reasons, it’s probably a good thing Day had to go it alone. That the corporate money would’ve stripped the soul out of the little dialog details that give The Guild so much life is just one of them.
What does any of this have to do with writing? This is all film stuff, right Dave? Well, sort of. Writers don’t frame shots visually with a camera that takes images that are then shown to the audience, but writers do frame shots. Writers do have to dress their sets, their characters, their scenes. And it’s a common thing that trips writers up; forgetting to do this.
Way back when, after I had finished my first full story ever, I got one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten on the subject of writing. Most authors’ first stories are bad, and mine was. Terrible. All sorts of problems with it. I could fill a book analyzing all the errors and problems in that story I was so proud of at the time. But one of the people who read it did the usual thing that tends to happen when an acquaintance you’re friendly with gives you a bad book for commentary. They were polite, non-committal, trying not to hurt my feelings. But they did let slip this one nugget that I’ll detail now.
That story lacked attention to detail, among its myriad of issues. I had a central character that wasn’t properly developed, a host of cardboard cutouts that were basically just names and a few sentences of description, a plot with more holes than frame, and that was more or less my first grand opus. Bad. I want to be clear; it was bad. But at one point in the story, I had a squad of soldiers, and two of them were ordered to check out a dark and scary cave and report back on what they found. I had the two soldiers ease up to the cave, then they paused and both stuck their non-gunhand fists out for a quick game of rock-paper-scissors. The loser had to go first. They did this without dialog, just something they automatically did, and the loser knew to take the lead.
In fact, here’s that passage:
Both nodded sharply and moved forward with rifles at the ready as their fellows covered. Eikers held at the tunnel entrance for a moment, then held his off hand out to Wenta, clenched in a fist. She stuck hers out to his, and both shook their fists three times rapidly up and down.
“Rock, after you.” Wenta whispered to him as she bumped her closed fist over his two extended fingers.
The reader commented on how that felt like a real moment. At the time, I missed that what they were then telling me was the rest of the book didn’t feel real, but I’ve already covered that. What I want to cover now was how, by accident, I’d managed to slip some small amount of detail in that resonated. I didn’t go on about how they used their HUDs to generate random numbers, or how they had some preset system to determine who went first. They just walked up, did this little thing, and one goes first. Details. Because that’s the kind of thing readers are looking for. Details.
They don’t want exhaustive details. They don’t want their noses rubbed in the detail. They definitely don’t want the story to screech to a halt while the author proudly shows off all the research and attention to detail that went into the story. But when details are missing, when the author forgets to sprinkle real life into characters and scenes, readers notice.
They notice real quick.
Detail comes in all shapes and sorts and sizes, large and small. Broad and specific. It goes into dialog and appearance, it occupies the background of a scene setting, it sprinkles itself across the plot, it gets in the way of the ‘interesting’ writing a new author is trying to accomplish. In that first book of mine, I had focused on the framework (badly) of a plot, so hard, that I’d almost completely forgotten to breathe life into the story. Life comes from details.
It’s really hard to think of ways to explain this without examples. And I tend to prefer movie style examples, because it’s really hard to count on a majority of your audience having read a certain book you might reference, but it’s pretty common (especially if one sticks with major films) to name flicks most have seen. A good one is Ocean’s Eleven. Brad Pitt plays Rusty Ryan, who (like George Clooney’s Danny Ocean) has a basically unnamed skillset in the movie. The other nine characters are all brought in for specific reasons, for certain things they’re very good at, but Danny and Rusty are basically just the guys ‘in charge’ of the crew.
Director Soderbergh has a bit of a reputation as liking to collaborate with his actors on set. Pitt brought up a character ‘tick’ for Rusty that Soderbergh incorporated into the film. Pitt reasoned that Rusty was a con man, always on the go and busy with his latest scheme or scam or score. Rusty is a guy who doesn’t stop to smell the roses. The ‘tick’ Pitt added was that this meant Rusty rarely had time to stop and enjoy a proper meal. Rusty’s always off to the next thing, so whenever he had a brief moment while he was waiting for someone else, he’d grab a quick bite of whatever was handy. And throughout the movie, most any time Rusty’s not doing something else in the scene, he’s got food and is snacking.
If you hadn’t already noticed this, you will now that it’s been pointed out to you. Throughout the film, Rusty has a number of scenes where he waits on someone. And when Rusty’s waiting, he’s got nachos or a hot dog or something that he’s eating; something he’ll usually discard as soon as whoever he’s expecting turns up and they head off to do the next thing. Pitt ‘makes a meal’ of this too (see what I did there . . . yeah, okay, we’ll move on); fussing with napkins and worrying about whether or not he’s spilled something on his clothes, licking his fingers, and so on. It’s a small thing, but it helps tremendously in helping to build Rusty as a believable character. It gives him a little something that the audience can use to latch onto.
George Clooney himself is a pretty good example of this same thing. Clooney has more or less made a career (also, because he’s extremely handsome in that way that makes women want to be with him while guys want to be him, etc…) of a certain set of ‘tics’. Clooney’s very good at reactions, where he’ll roll his head, or stop and start sentences, or smile slightly while thinking of a response. His characters basically all do ‘the Clooney’ thing. I don’t say this as a criticism; it works. It might be Clooney being Clooney, but audiences love it and don’t mind. And it helps add a little bit of something that the audience can latch onto as they invest in Clooney’s characters.
As a new author, this sort of detail is hard to not just remember, but to get right. Leaving your story barren and devoid of detail is bad; but it also leads into one of the common errors new authors commit. Over explanation, excessive detail, is just as bad. General bad examples are, oddly enough, easier to think of than general good ones.
Genre authors working in SF/F tend to set their stories in a completely or mostly fictional world. That is, a world that’s not like the world outside your actual door. So it’ll be in a galaxy far, far away; or in a land a long time ago, that sort of thing. And a lot of new writers will have spent a lot of time working out things about their world. So the bad example here is that you often see a new writer info-dumping all over the reader about the Land of I-Made-It-Up-For-This-Story, the Order-of-Bad-Ass-Warriors, and the Legend-of-the-Rumor-Guardians, and so on. Especially in the beginning, which is the worst possible place; that’s where you’ve got preciously little time to get and keep your reader interested. That’s not the time to diverge into over explanation. You’ll get twenty pages into the story and still not have met any characters or had any actual scenes; it’s all explanation.
It also manifests as a bad example in description. So the scene won’t be on a “windswept plain with a cold wind that drove right through his cloak, making him shiver despite the warm wool” and that’s it as the dialog or action starts. Instead, the reader will be given paragraphs about how the horizon, the dirt, the trees, the leaves, the shadows, and so on. And it’ll go on and on. By the time we get to the character, some of us have already given up and moved on to the next book. And the characters aren’t spared either. It won’t be “a tall man wrapped in a cloak, unremarkable except for an ugly scar climbing up his cheek past the edge of his scarf” who’s waiting for whatever. No, we’ll get several paragraphs, often several pages, talking to us about how tall he is, the exact cut and color of his clothes, how his sword was given to him by his father, how his eyes match the gray skies, and on and on and on.
Detail is important. It’s one of the keys of good writing. But detail has to come up along the way. And further, it has to spark interest and imagination, not answer every possible question before the reader has the chance to do it themselves. If you spend pages describing the photograph you’ve built of each of your characters, you’ve not only lost a lot of your audience to boredom, you’ve also robbed them of the chance to supply their own answers to these mysteries.
For characters, most should just have a few key details. The ones that matter. Something that makes the character distinctive against the rest of the cast. So ordinary things like eye or hair color would rarely count, unless it’s an unusual color. That leads into a Mary Sue discussion, but let’s ignore that for the moment. If you’ve got a ‘normal’ cast and one character is sporting bright purple hair, that’s probably a detail worth mentioning. It would stand out. The easy advice here is to pick one, maybe two, very occasionally three, but rarely more, things about a character that are unique and those should be established. Sprinkle, not overload. Dab in, not splash around.
Settings, organizations, objects, they work the same way. When done badly, this kind of thing can lead into the Planet of Hats trope, but nothing says you have to go to that extreme level. You’re detailing, not broadly stereotyping. I think one good way to try and quickly describe it would be that you’re offering the reader a stepping stone, a place where they stand while they think about it and make their own decisions.
Because you want to still be leaving enough for your audience to fill in themselves. When they do that as they read, they’re investing. They’re staying interested. And whatever you could’ve described out in exacting language probably won’t measure up to what they themselves fill in. And even if it does, it wouldn’t for the next reader. Or the next. Or the next after that one either. Everyone’s different. A quick example of this is Peter F Hamilton’s character, The Cat. This character is a criminal, and ‘everyone knows what she did’. What she did was so horrific and criminal that she was locked away for a thousand years, and the deed was the sort of thing that no one doesn’t know about. But Hamilton never says what it is, wisely. Because what he needed, wanted, was everyone to go “wow, she’s nefarious”; more specifics wouldn’t’ve helped. Each reader imagines something else that The Cat did. Whatever Hamilton could’ve come up with, no matter how genocidal or terroristic or awful, wouldn’t measure up. He left it to the reader to imagine, and that’s the point.
Felicia Day is a smart and talented woman. Her memoir, written in the first person, has her mentally and emotionally struggling with the usual questions of worth and “is it good enough” and “am I making a mistake”, but none of that changes what she’s accomplished. The Guild, and now Geek and Sundry, and whatever comes next; she carved a spot in the Entertainment industry for herself. A Hollywood indie. She couldn’t get cast when she was a nobody; there was always a reason why she wasn’t right, why she was wrong for the role. But after she put herself on the map, she gets steady and regular work. She’s a fixture on the fan circuit.
Any creator can put themselves on the map. It just depends on the details.