Reading · Writing

Details: Does Story Really Trump All?

So I’m writing this novel that is set in my home state of Minnesota and the story begins in early April. A couple of weeks ago, I’m looking at how I’m describing the weather and I’m looking outside my window and thinking, what? In my novel, the snow is gone, the temperatures are cool, but warming, and there is indication that tulips might be blooming soon. I’m walking through my neighborhood and I’m still wearing gloves and an ear band because it has barely crossed 32F and while the snow is gone from my sidewalk, there is still all kinds of it on everyone’s yard.

And then, on April 18, this happens:

Who created this state, anyway?
Who created this state, anyway?

I grew up here and though I lived away from Minnesota for seven years after I got married, I moved back and have lived here again for 13 years. And yet, I don’t seem to have any idea what Minnesota weather is like. (Seriously – how is it that I can remember my sister’s junior high school choir songs, but I cannot remember what the weather was like in April last year?) This is the kind of detail that can unhinge a reader like me. If I’m reading a novel that’s set in Minnesota and the author has the adult characters walking around outside in anything less than three layers of heavy clothing in the middle of January, I’m gonna think the author is a fraud – so much so that I might begin questioning everything else in the book or let other details irritate me that would normally mean nothing.

So when I read an article reminding me that this weather really is abnormal and that the total snow we’ve gotten so far this month exceeds the total amount of snow we’ve gotten in the past 10 Aprils, I feel better.

However, it brings up the question, how much can an author mess up before it discredits the story for the reader? For me, and for many other readers I know (and don’t know), story can often trump almost everything else. For some, it also makes a difference what kinds of details get messed up. As an educator, I am especially sensitive to school and teaching situations, so when an author gets stuff really wrong, it takes me out of the story, which is exactly what an author doesn’t want to happen.

Let me take you through a hierarchy of examples:

In If I Stay, by Gayle Forman, I remember thinking it was highly unusual for a sixth grade class (that was not identified as gifted or advanced or whatever) to be reading To Kill a Mockingbird. As an English teacher, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it taught before 8th grade. Guess what? I don’t care. I noticed it, but since these kinds of off-details didn’t keep showing up, it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the story. Something like this is definitely an extremely minor detail of no real import.

More on the cusp was Katherine Hannigan’s novel, True…(sort of). In this middle grade novel there is a character who is suffering from abuse. When I reviewed this novel I wrote this:

What disturbs me is that Ferris Boyd is introduced to her classmates (before she arrives) as one who is not to be touched and doesn’t talk. As soon as I read those lines I knew immediately that she was being abused. Kids reading this wouldn’t – and that is okay, but it disturbs me to portray a teacher, administrator, and counselor as three trained professionals who would not see this red flag immediately. The story won me overall for the portrayal of the characters, but I had a difficult time glossing over that aspect.

In Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, there is a scene where the high school cheerleading coach is having sex with an army recruiter in the middle of the teacher’s lounge in the middle of the school day (plus, they didn’t even bother to lock the door). This scene was so egregious that had the book been trying to pull off a more realistic plot, I wouldn’t have been able to keep reading.

Though not a novel, I have a final example where something crossed the line for me. Some years ago, while Parenthood was in its second or third season, I decided to give it a try. One of the storylines had a single mother dating one of her adolescent daughter’s teachers (the daughter didn’t know this, of course). I was so irritated with this scenario that I never watched the show again. Does this situation happen in real life? I suppose, but considering the number of schools and states I had taught in at that point and never having run into that, it felt like lazy and offensive writing. I cannot even imagine pursuing any kind of relationship with a current student’s parent.

Some of you are now thinking, “whatever, it’s just a show/book” because for you, that situation doesn’t hit your occupational or knowledge base funny bone.

Imagine you are a scientist. How many science fiction novels out there make you crazy for how off the mark the “facts” are? I am married to a scientist, which was enough for me to know that he could never read The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker because some of her foundational facts about the effects of the Earth slowing in its rotation are inaccurate. Don’t get me wrong, my husband enjoys science fiction and can get past a lot of stuff – because story wins out – but in this book, the effects are part of the plot, so implausibility – or perhaps just plain carelessness – would stop him in his tracks. (Check out the comments of NPR’s review of this novel – it is an interesting mix of those who can handle it and those who can’t.)

Imagine you are an archery enthusiast. You are then S.C. Butler who pulls his hair out regarding the archery language Collins uses in The Hunger Games.

Perhaps you are a medical professional. A law enforcement professional. A custodian. A telemarketer. A salesclerk at Target. And then these authors get it all wrong.

Or maybe they just get some of it wrong. It comes down to what is realistic and what is authentic. Is it realistic that a teacher would date his current student’s parent? Maybe, but it the broader context it felt inauthentic. Is it realistic for a cheerleading coach to have sex in the teacher’s lounge for all to see? Not at all. However, within that plotline it was actually authentic.

Story trumps all – for most people, but that means details must remain authentic, even if not always completely accurate.

Come on back next week as I ruminate more on this topic (with help from others) and how to approach this as writers.

When have you been pulled out of a story due to details or a scenario feeling wrong or inauthentic? When (or how often) has this inauthenticity (or just plain inaccuracy) caused you to stop reading?


Seems pretty obvious to me that “Another Brick in the Wall” fits with this post, right?

10 thoughts on “Details: Does Story Really Trump All?

  1. As a physics teacher, I come under attack sometimes for liking “Armageddon” You know, the awesome movie where you can walk around on an asteroid? I have a lot of colleagues who love to talk about the crazy physics in movies like that, but, for me, sometimes the story *does* trump all. I’m just a sucker for heroes and humor, I guess. (“Scariest environment imaginable, that’s all you had to say, scariest environment imaginable.”)


    1. Because absolutely we’d call on deep sea drillers/miners – or whoever they are – to save the Earth from a meteor. That movie is a classic, “suspend all belief of reality” story – and I can do that in some cases, too.


  2. I think of this in reverse. The story does trump all BUT the details are what can make a good book GREAT. When an author does her or his research and nails it, and particularly if it is something in your field or a story about something you yourself are experiencing, that can push the book over the top to true excellence.


    1. An excellent, optimistic response! I don’t know if I necessarily notice that – in fact, I feel like I shouldn’t notice it in that smart details are an organic part of the story. I guess when I get into a story that digs deep into a topic, I do appreciate when it all seems accurate. I probably feel this “nails it” attitude more when I think a character’s emotional reactions or behaviors resonates well.


  3. I’m going to think on this a while and try to see if I can remember a case where the details alone were what turned me off from a novel. A lot of times I’m turning to fiction to get lost in something outside of myself, so I’ll overlook quite a bit for a story that grabs me. Actually, let me revise that, I’ll overlook quite a bit for characters that grab me. In my case, I think character, not story, trumps all.


    1. Characterization is definitely an important aspect for me, too… but even in that, I need that character’s behavior to work, to fit in with what the story dictates.

      Have you ever read Little Bee? I feel like that could be a good test for you on both character and details.


      1. I did read Little Bee, and you’re right that it was a good test. I found the story lacking, and I found one of the narrators supremely irritating; however, I loved the character of Bee. I still remember her and so, if someone asks, I recommend reading the book. But you’ve given me something to consider- should a character’s behavior depend on what the story dictates, or should the behavior of an envisioned character dictate a story?


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