Everybody Knows Something You Don’t

The other day at the blood bank, I got into an interesting conversation.  A woman in the canteen was reading a thriller that did not thrill her: it moved too slowly.  “He keeps throwing in details about guns and airplanes, and I suppose that’s fine for the people who like guns and airplanes.  But I’m on page 116 and I’m still waiting for something to happen.”  I mentioned that for some readers those details are exactly what they’re looking for.  “I’m not,” she said firmly.

Then, the very next day, as if the universe were pointing to something, I came across a blog post by Elizabeth Bear about audience expertise and how it can play hob with narrative flow.  Made me wonder if my friend in the canteen would have been more interested if the thriller’s details had been something she knew about.

Everybody knows something about something.  And there’s nothing as gratifying as that little buzz you get when you get the in joke–when you’re one of three people watching the movie who get the tossed-off reference*.  But having an expert in the audience is a double-edged sword.  You love it when they get the joke as much as they do, but when the experts start poking holes in your story because “it wouldn’t happen like that” it can make you a little crazy.

My older daughter was part of her school’s mock trial team: she spent four years learning about trial procedure during mock trial competitions and practice, and she’s a pain in the butt watching any movie that has a courtroom scene in it.  “No way the judge would let him say that!” she mutters.  “Why doesn’t opposing council object!” or “For God’s sake, he’s not allowed to go on that way, it’s not like it’s closing or something.”  After a while it’s a buzzkill.  The storyteller, and story consumer in me, just wants to watch the story unfold.

Sometimes getting it right enough to please the experts means slowing down the action in a way that is unacceptable.  I’m finishing up work on a short story in which someone is playing Guitar Hero.  Since we are an X-Box-less household, I got in touch with the Beau-in-Law (my daughter’s sweetie) and asked him what the preliminary screens are before the game will let you, like, play a song.  Turns out there’s a bone-crunching number of them, logos and little videos to play while the game is loading, and screens where you choose which pop idiom to play in, and the screen where you choose the song you want to play.  Do I want to drag my reader through all that, just for verisimilitude?  I do not.

But somewhere, somewhen, a reader is going to throw down the magazine or anthology in which this story appears, muttering “but that’s wrong!”

So what do you do?  You try to get as much as possible right.  Writers tend to collect “experts”–people who know stuff about stuff and can be called on to vet courtroom procedure or fencing terminology or surgical instruments–whatever the topic is. If you don’t have an expert on call (and really, you can cold call a University physics department and someone will call you back with information on quantum theory until Hell won’t have it again–people love to talk about what they know), hit the library and do some research.  And then distill the information down to a nice, neat 15% of its original volume, and spread sparingly across your narrative, so that the other readers, the readers who don’t have special knowledge, don’t get bogged down in detail.

I have this theory: if you get enough of the details right to convince the expert that you should have done better, you’re probably doing okay.

* I, and the two drama/English geeks with whom I went to see Shakespeare in Love were the only ones in a crowded NYC theatre who howled with laughter when the ghoulish, bloody-minded teenage boy was revealed to be John Webster–who went on to write ghoulish, bloody-minded tragedies.  The people around us thought we were insane.


Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone WarPoint of HonourPetty Treason, and a double-handful of short stories which are available on her bookshelf.  She has just finished The Salernitan Women, set in medieval Italy, and is now working on the new Sarah Tolerance novel, The Sleeping Partner.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Everybody Knows Something You Don’t — 10 Comments

  1. As you pointed out, so many writers are currently discussing this – of course the essays you and Steven Harper Piziks wrote here are a case in point. I was wondering if you had seen this excellent (for the entertainment value) reader rant about a writer getting ballet wrong.

    I think what differentiates this rant and Elizabeth Bear’s take is that in one case parts of the complaint are central to the plot of the book and in Bear’s examples of police procedures it is not central to the plot.

  2. Yup. Centrality is key. When a linchpin is bent (to torture a metaphor) the whole thing is going to fall apart. If I wrote an SF story in which the sun revolved around the Earth, anyone over the age of six (and not involved in some sort of religious organization that adopts that as a Holy Tenet) is going to be stopped dead.

  3. They say that your research should be like an iceberg — 90 percent of it cannot be seen.

    Also, the genre matters. In thrillers and mystery, your gun neep had better be accurate. But do the readers care, about what kind of long gun Mr. McGregor is carrying when he threatens Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail? The sun in fact does orbit the earth for large chunks of THE SILMARILLION — that was the big fix ‘when the seas became bent’. Nobody cared except Tolkien himself, and he died before he could rewrite.

  4. Genre matters, and what you’re writing about matters. You can’t account for every expert in the audience (going to the movies with My Husband Mr. Ears can be heaven or hell, depending on how good the Foley work and the mix are). But (as with that link Estara gave us above) you do need to get the basics right. NB: I am not a dancer, nor do I play one on TV, but I knew every single point that the writer in question got wrong. If I can call her out…

  5. One reason why writing changes the way you read, forever, is the knowledge you pick up in research.

    Though other things affect it. One sister of mine can’t watch Pirates of the Carribbean. She regularly wears corsets for period dancing, and can’t stand the scenes where Elizabeth gets her corset and faints.

    Once I was having supper at my parents, and my father and sisters and I were picking apart of a novel, with varying objections. Like, they never worried about running out of ammo. Or women in pre-modern society thinking that blue jeans are wonderful and not shockingly immodest. Or the way religious tolerance and democracy were merely presented to an absolutist society with religious persecution and everyone loved, loved, loved them.

  6. Heh. Mary, I can’t stand those Pirates corset scenes either. I’ve worn a lot of corsets for a lot of costumes. A properly built corset is a blessing – it supports your back, which is important if you’re dragging around, say, a thirty pound velvet train.

  7. Sometimes, it’s probably just best to avoid books, films, etc… about something you know a lot about, because the errors will probably drive you insane.

    For example, while everybody else in the world seems to love the film Titanic, my Dad and I can’t watch it except as a comedy, because we both know too much about ships and shipbuilding to know how utterly inaccurate the film is in many parts. And since the ship is pretty central to the film, taking it away ruins everything. Ditto for The Poseidon Adventure, better than Titanic, if only because it doesn’t take itself quite so seriously, but still pretty silly.

    I’ve also realized that I tend to notice fairly unimportant factual errors more, when the story doesn’t engage me as a whole. For example, I recently watched a highly acclaimed crime drama and was very underwhelmed, particularly by the cliched resolution. So by the end of the film, I was screaming at the screen because of a misplaced ferris wheel in the background that did not exist in the location pictured when the film was supposedly set. It was a completely insignificant error, a ferris wheel where there shouldn’t have been one, and I wouldn’t even have noticed the error if it hadn’t come up in the course of some research shortly before. And if the film had been as good as advertised, I wouldn’t have cared, I would just have shrugged off the misplaced ferris wheel. But since the film was lacking, I was looking for fault and found the ferris wheel.

  8. Now there’s a true thing. If I am sufficiently entertained, I’ll often overlook all manner of things (like, say, the fact that the Ghostbusters car turns a corner in uptown NYC and is suddenly, magically, downtown) because I’m having a good time. Good will will carry you over a lot of things. But once you’ve lost the good will…

  9. “…distill the information down to a nice, neat 15% of its original volume” I had to distill a lot more than that, to get around 1% for my last novel. But, hay, it’s a YA S-F novel. The scientist in me cringes… but my editor was happy.

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