The Devil’s in the details, as the saying goes. I was recently contemplating the new saw that cell phones remove, like, 90% of plot devices from modern stories because so many plots, especially in horror/sci-fi stories, depend on characters being out of communication with the rest of humanity – not to mention that Internet connectivity on the move would make researching things on the fly frickin’ simple. Now, I don’t actually believe that cell phones and other new communication/information technology makes plotting difficult – there’s this thing called creativity, you see – but it’s an interesting game to play, taking any old movie that depends on isolation, miscommunication, or lack of information, drop a smart phone into it, and see how minutes you get into the plot before the movie just ends peacefully.
What it really got me thinking about, though, was the Dangers of Specificity when you’re writing. This is true for all writing, but especially true for SF/F writing, because when you’re writing about demons or zombies or aliens or time travel devices, you strive for complete realism and verisimilitude in the details of your story to ground the fantastic in the real. If your protagonist is fleeing demonic hordes, having them run into a Burger King for shelter instead of some fake, made-up fast food chain will instantly make the scene a little easier to accept by your readers. Of course, the details in the actual writing – what the place smells like, what kind of customers are there at 11PM, the music being played, the attitude of the workers behind the counter – will have a much larger impact. But pop-culture references and up-to-date cultural details will help, and they’re often a shorthand.
The problem with up-to-date references, of course, is that they age badly.
Ignoring pop-culture, which I’ve discussed before, let’s consider the simple fact that while details are your friend, they often turn evil and bite you in the writing ass. Consider the image I’ve got here: Gordon Gecko from 1987’s Wall Street. Not only did that movie star a pre-Cocaine bloat Charlie Sheen, it also apparently starred the World’s Largest Cell Phone. That’s a great detail: At the time, it conveyed to the audience Gecko’s wealth and power with a nifty detail, because in 1987 not everyone had a cell phone. They were icons of, well, wealth and power.
Today, of course, the universe has been cruel to Oliver Stone and Gecko’s huge, bulky cell phone is so amusing to us it’s actually a sight gag in the trailer for Wall Street 2: Wall Streeter. No, really, check it (about 27 seconds in). That’s how details kill you. Burger King might be the perfect detail today, but what about 20 years from now? Stanley Kubrick thought TWA was going to last for centuries. The more specific you are, the more danger your story is in.
On the other hand, I’ve read stories and novels from 100 years ago that still work just fine because they lack that sort of specificity. You can read a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and despite the fact that it was published in 1922 or so, it reads just fine, because his details are elastic. There are automobiles, telephones, airplanes – but no specific models or types. Yes, it’s still a bit dated, but as a whole it will work just fine. Or take a current story like Avatar: Not the greatest story ever told by a long shot, and way, wayyyy over overrated, but one thing it has going for it is a complete lack of specificity. Not within its own universe, which is realized with a great amount of detail, but concerning the world from which the story springs – namely a future-earth. We get absolutely nothing about things at home from this movie. No corporate shout-outs, no technological/cultural changes. Nothing. It’s a blank slate and thus the story lives entirely, purely within the alien landscape constructed for it, and as a result as long as we’re not sending Space Marines to fight corporate wars against blue-skinned natives on foreign planets, the movie will remain firmly science-fictional. The lack of grounding details works well for it. There’s no big TWA logo anywhere to distract future audiences from the story.
Well, the world is dumping what appears to be six hundred feet of snow on my house right now, so I have to wrap this up and go outside to move tons of crystallized water from my sidewalk. Wish me luck. The longer I live in the northeast USA the more certain I am that my demise will come after drinking four Hot Toddies and then shoveling snow for an hour.