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Monday, 21 May 2012

Jarring the detail

As writers we are encouraged to add detail to our description to make the scene come alive, so instead of a car we mention the car was blue, a Volkswagen Beetle, perhaps?


But what happens when the detail jars? The novel I am currently reading (and winner of the crime thriller of the year) tells us on one page that:

'When he returns he is carrying two plastic cups filled with strong coffee, mine black, his white'.

Yuck, I think. Plastic cups! Will the coffee be putrid? Then in the same scene a few pages in

'He drains the last of his mug of coffee and says…'

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Hmmm, now I'm thinking about a chunky mug. Maybe the coffee tastes better now, but what happened to the thin plastic cups?

The characters in this novel visit many coffee shops, (don't get me wrong I love my coffee shots at Costa and Starbucks) and yet they seem to be largely drinking from takeaway disposable cups, since in yet another chapter they have Styrofoam cups, suggesting that (in this age of posh coffee houses competing for custom) these characters frequent some really tacky establishments!  This kind of detail is surely important?Does it bother you?

I know I have made similar screaming howlers in my writing, breaking out into a cold sweat when discovered, the chagrin creeping across my face until I have corrected the error and moved on.

19 comments:

  1. Generally speaking, as long the detail isn't one that is blatantly wrong, I tend not to worry about them too much. :D

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  2. It depends on the context. Seriously. The coffee drinking in many shops might be pointing to some existential meaning! LOL!! Or not! LOL!! I probably mentioned this before but there are a few scenes in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo where the detailed description of something doesn't add to the plot or story. My most memorable being the description of what was technically wrong with Lisbeth's laptop. Basically she needed a new one cos the other one didn't work.

    Take care
    x

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  3. LOve the coffee observations. Speaking of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo...I noticed the characters drank a lot of coffee, so I Googled because I'm part Swedish and drink lots of coffee. And guess what? the Scandinavian countries (Sweden ranks fourth) consume more coffee than any other. And this makes me wonder, what do they have more of -- sex or coffee?

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  4. It annoys me the author was careless and moreover, so was the editor.

    When I write, I use a style sheet to keep track of little details. I don't think it would've spotted something as minor as a coffee cup but it helps with the other things authors get wrong. I recently wrote a post on how to create a style sheet. http://mariazannini.blogspot.com/2012/05/style-sheets-writers-punch-list.html

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  5. Yes, it's a small detail but those things do kind of annoy me--although I'm probably guilty of a few myself...

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  6. I can't stand when a detail jars me out of a story, so I do the same thing you do--I go over my MS carefully, making sure the details work and add to the scene.

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  7. I agree that it's annoying when the details don't mesh. That's something the editor or copyeditor should have picked up on.

    It doesn't bother me that they go to lots of coffee shops - that might have different causes or reasons... and a whole scene explaining why could have end up edited out!

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  8. Yes the coffee shop visits don't bother me, it's the fact that they seem to be 80's or 90's versions not current experiences.
    I agree, though whoever edited the MS didn't spot that one!
    Thanks Maria I will check out the style sheets as I realise I need one for mine.

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  9. I probably wouldn't notice an inconsistency like that - the important bit for me would be coffee. I'd remember that, not the vessel.

    My particular bugbear is random descriptions of characters, especially in first person. I was reading a novel where a young girl's father was arrested, she went with him to the police station, she was anxious about what was happening... and at that moment looked in the mirror to describe what she looked like!

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  10. I don't know if I'd notice this, but if I did it would definitely annoy me. These kinds of mistakes are so easy to make, but I feel like the editor and writer absolutely need to catch them before publication. Good reminder that we need to be so careful about consistency!

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  11. Well done on spotting the plastic cup, turning into a mug ... Definitely two different things!! I fee the same with errors on TV - Was in just me, or was there a big boo-boo in recent Scott & Bailey episode when the dark haired one's sister said 'take my phone' - the policewoman's one having been confiscated - and two mins later someone rang her up (I mean, how could have have known she was on her sister's mobe??)

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  12. I personally find these details annoying as I have a tendency to skip the details and move on to the action part.

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  13. Rachna I love the detail unless it's obviously unnecessary padding. Done well it really transports the reader into the story. However, I agree I also love books with action.

    Karla yes things like that in film and TV scream out at me too!

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  14. Editors are supposed to catch details like that. When the dressing table in my main character's room turned into a dresser and a writing desk appeared out of nowhere -- my editor called me out on it!

    And I was astonished to find myself making mistakes like that. I suppose it happens when revisions are made over periods of months.

    The more eyes on the details, the less likely plastic cups are to turn into mugs!

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  15. Those are the kinds of inconsistencies I'm always hoping my critique partners will catch for me. Sometimes I catch them myself, but they're easy to let slip by. Still, if a reader is noticing it after publication that's not good.

    Details matter.

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  16. I am a VERY detailed writer and make sure I am consistent in my details.

    This would DEFINITELY annoy me. How could it escape so many eyes.

    This is a best seller? Not to me... Those sentences are real snoozers.

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  17. Hi Madeleine .. that would really put me off - I hate anomalies. Really frustrating and so difficult to read - like grammatical errors, or typos .. hate them! Mind you I'd hate to write a novel .. it'd probably be full of them!!

    Cheers - put me off those sorts of coffee for ever .. !! Hilary

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  18. Sometimes I notice, sometimes not. Things that bother me are more things out of character - like an environmentalist drinking from a Styrofoam cup - more than an oops in continuity.

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  19. Sometimes I'm bothered by minor, inconsistent details. I'm editing in my head as I read.

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