The effect of the real–or, why characters sometimes drink a Yoo-Hoo at an inappropriate moment

A nebulous concept existed in my head, but I was having trouble expressing it. It involved detail work in writing… something about the greatest stories have elements that don’t “fit” the story, pieces that don’t seem to add any meaning but are still vital to the overall effect.

I’d been thinking about it for a while, when behold: I stumble across the idea in print, phrased much more eloquently than I’d been able to do. I was reading “Paragons” (ed. Robin Wilson), in which 12 sf/f writers present one of their stories and then talk about the elements of fiction. The following comes from Kim Stanley Robinson’s wonderful essay about his story “Glacier”:

At its minimal value, setting contributes to what Roland Barthes called “the effect of the real.” Barthes was referring to those parts of a story that do not advance the plot, deepen characters, or serve any symbolic purpose; these details seem almost to be gratuitous inclusions, deserving to be trimmed; but their usefulness then comes from that very quality, the implication being that “because the story really happened this way, these facts have to be included.”

If a story’s setting goes below that minimum value, is missing or very sketchy, then the story exists in a kind of no-place, or at best on a ticky-tacky stage set, as in daytime soap operas or cheap sci-fi movies; and a part of the reading mind is muttering, Well, this didn’t really happen, that’s why it’s all so fake-looking; and the clever plot and snappy dialogue go to waste.

Wow. Suddenly I have a term for the concept.

Details are what make a story feel real. For example, I’m sitting here at my computer. If it were a story scene, the outline might say, “Vylar writes a blog post.” It would be relevant to talk about the clicking noise of my keyboard as I type, or the fact that I’m using WordPress. A writer who was told to “use more details” might focus on ones like those.

Or I could tell you that I’m listening to Queen right now, and that my earrings jingle every time I turn my head, and I have a cup of peppermint tea brewing next to me. Or that my hair is still wet from showering, or that I have a pair of hand-knitted shark mittens on my desk.

None of those have anything to do with posting (aside from the fact that this post is about details). They aren’t “telling details” about me as a character. They might reflect my character to some degree, but they don’t give deep insight. In fact, they’re sort of random. But what they do is offer a sense of the real. Those are things happening to me, even if they don’t directly relate to the “action”: writing a post.

It’s what gives a story that elusive quality of feeling real. Like it happened just that way–not carefully plotted, but a little messy. Just like real life. People are contradictory messes of conflicting opinions and feelings. We don’t always match up in a neat and tidy way. Without the effect of the real, characters become stereotypes and settings remain flat. They feel like fiction, not truth. Minor details can bring a story to life.
Put another way, even the most hard-boiled detective has his favorite Chinese restaurant.

2 thoughts on “The effect of the real–or, why characters sometimes drink a Yoo-Hoo at an inappropriate moment

  1. The best, though, is when the details do more than one thing. Give an effect of the real, plus an insight into the character *and* echo an important theme. OR give a clue to the mystery, suggest a history for the future society, and segue from one scene to the next. Or whatever.

    That’s really hard though. I’m reading all these picture books and I’m seeing details that can only be there to delight the author or illustrator – you don’t notice them until you read the same book three times a day for a few weeks, so they can’t affect sales or publishing prospects. But they definitely make those books stand out over time.

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  2. My point is that sometimes details _don’t_ directly give insight into a character or echo an important theme… but they’re still relevant because they are part of reality.

    The details you’re describing are a hallmark of good writing. I agree–they make a story strong.

    What I’m defending are the details which seem to be unimportant, and doing nothing for the story. I’m saying that such details can have a place and a purpose.

    Beginning writers are encouraged to cut irrelevant details in their stories. That’s good advice. But it leads to a problem I’ve noticed in many intermediate-level stories–worlds where every piece fits together neatly, or characters who lack internal diversity.

    So I’m saying there _is_ a place for those details, when used well. It’s okay to have a detail that doesn’t fit the theme or character, but just _is_. Because it makes the story real.

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