Details, Details

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by Harry Kraus

Let’s talk about the “fictional dream.” What makes people willing to suspend belief and enter into a make-believe world?

How is this done successfully?

I’ve been contemplating this recently as I’ve been reading the young adult novels beginning with Divergent. Veronica Roth creates a world very different from our own, one which requires the reader to accept a society and societal structure very different from the norm. But many, many readers have loved this series.

Let’s think about reader bias. When a person picks up a novel, they understand, this isn’t real. But they want to enter into the fictional world without being bothered by nagging thoughts: This couldn’t happen. Oh, yeah, right!

Some things help the writer overcome the reader bias: One of the most important tools in our box is the appropriate use of detail. Details, even when made up, help the reader accept the jump into the pool of believability where they can swim for long periods before coming back to dry land.

Think about a novel like Jurassic Park. (I think Donald Maass uses this example in his teaching.) Do readers really believe that dinosaurs could live again in the modern age? Preposterous, right? So why did readers (and a whole lot of them!) delightfully ride along? At least a partial answer was Crichton’s use of details. He details how amphibious DNA was spliced into the dinosaur DNA to fill in the gaps in the genetic code. At one point, he even gives the exact molecular weight of a protein being used in the research. It is his use of details that help us slip seamlessly and undisturbed into the fictional dream.

I used similar details in my novel, Lip Reading. It tells the story of a pharmaceutical researcher developing an artificial blood product. Far reached? Maybe, but the use of carefully planted details about hemoglobin structure and current microsphere research help the reader make the jump and stay in the story.

Another way to help readers believe the fictional story is to sprinkle in a little reality, maybe a reference to a real person (political or Hollywood star) or a real event. It lends credence to the story. Dan Walsh did this in his recent novel, What Follows After, when he used the Cuban missile crisis as a backdrop. He actually used law enforcement’s preoccupation with security around the crisis to complicate his plot (too many officers were focused on the missile crisis and not the missing boy at the center of Dan’s novel).

I enjoy doing this and routinely sprinkle the names of real streets, locations, restaurants, and hospitals in my novels. Occasionally, I’ll get a reader letter from one of the towns I’ve written about and I know this provides a special bond to the novel for them.

Readers want to exit the real world and imagine. Let’s help them by the appropriate (not overload-boring) use of detail and real-world references.

Harry KrausHarry Kraus is a board-certified general surgeon and the best-selling author of 19 books. His latest novel, Lip Reading, was released last month by David C. Cook.

Comments 0

  1. Great post, Harry, and very true. I think you’re right, sometimes it’s those details that hook us into believing “this could happen” more than the big plot points we tend to focus on.

    The Jurassic Park story was a perfect illustration. It worked for Crichton and Spielberg for 3 movies. I even read where college students interested in paleontology soared in the years those movies were so popular.

    Dan Walsh

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