When launching the modern classic Star Wars, filmmaker George Lucas insisted that the universe, down to its smallest detail, feel as if it was lived-in. Kiri Hart, Head of Lucasfilm Development reflected on the 1977 film: “What was so special about what George created in Star Wars was this universe that felt really authentic, and sort of lived-in, layered, and it was something you could believe in.” The vehicles broke down. The droids were dirty and covered in gunk and scratches. Even the shiny space warriors had dents in their armor and scorch marks on their helmets. In an early shot, the camera pans across a desert world and a skeleton of a gigantic snake rests on the surface of the sand. The camera moves past and no exposition is provided about the skeleton. Yet, this minor appearance reinforces that there is a real world happening beyond and around the story we are experiencing. That outside universe encourages us to accept that the story we are watching is real. People have contrasted this approach with that of most science fiction. Science fiction is often “too sci-fi.” The future, for the fact that it isn’t today, is assumed to be bright, shiny, and nearly flawless. That perfect world, while enamored of by science fiction fans, struggles to take hold in the public consciousness like Star Wars has, primarily because while both are fantastic, the clean version is just not believable. It is the tiny scratches, the dents, and scuff marks that make Star Wars seem real and as if it has a history.
Why do the small details carry such power? Francine Prose, in her chapter “Details”, reminds us: “‘We think in generalities . . . [b]ut we live in detail.” (Prose 203). Then she challenges us as writers: “If we want to write something memorable, we might want to pay attention to how and what we remember.” (Prose 206). My own marginalia on this passage has scribbled: “Details and story must be in love.” While melodramatic, the intent stands— the details must also tell the very story the story is telling; they are not there just for furnishings to populate our worlds, but to actually convey the same story they exist in. The exact right details support the weight of the story, enabling it to be believable.
Jorge Luis Borges “Borges and I” is a literary sleight-of-hand. An initial read leaves the reader with the interpretation that there is a private and a public “Borges” and that the story, short as it is, is about the conflict between the inner life and the outer life. Yet, the final line—”I cannot tell which one of us is writing this page”—is both a sticking point and the key to this story. Another reading, armed with that key, is that we have both a paper Borges, formed of ink and letters, reflecting on the writer Borges. The creator’s own creation is having an identity crisis, is wanting to reinforce to itself that it is just as real as the creator that spawned it, and it uses the mundane details of its delights as evidence: “I am fond of hour-glasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the etymology of words, the tang of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson . . .” It puts this out, one at a time, as if building a case to convince us, the reader, of its insisted truth: “Look at this. And this. And this. Do these not prove that I am real? That I have a history?” As the paper Borges, the creation, it has taken up its voice and represents all fictional creations in that very question. Great fiction, by use of its details, demands the readers decide: is this not real? For the paper Borges, that answer is always left unconcluded as its last sentence works to erase the distinction between the Borges in the pages and the Borges beyond it.
As writers, we are creating “lived-in” universes, places that real people would inhabit. It’s important to remember that “details needn’t be extreme or unusual . . . for them to enrich a story or novel.” (Prose 205). In fact, the success in details is not only in what to add, but how often to add it, and what to leave out. If “God is in the details” then, if they are poorly handled, “The Devil is in the details” as well. Carelessly-managed details, from being used too much or too visually, draw attention to themselves and overwhelm the story in which they are placed.
Octavia Butler’s expert use of detail to draw the reader in is not done in a liberal fashion, but quite the opposite. Its strength is in how sparingly but aptly used it is. On page 110 of Kindred, for paragraphs before and after the only line of detail, the focus is on the dialogue and actions of the characters. In the middle, to tell the reader that these characters that we are so absorbed with at the moment really do live in a physical and aging world, she tells us that Kevin “leaned back on the shabby purple sofa”. Before that, the characters “shrug”, move about the room, and shook their heads. After that line, Dana “shrugged” again, Kevin “stared”, and they interacted like normal people. In the middle, placed so simply to almost be imperceptible, is the shabby purple sofa. And the sofa is given its own detail in that same line: “the shabby purple sofa that had come with my apartment.” The sofa is real and it has a history. We extrapolate that to the characters: they are real and they have a history.
Prose states, “Details aren’t only the building blocks with which a story is put together, they’re also clues to something deeper, keys not merely to our subconscious but to our historical moment.” Stories formed of artfully-handled details remind us that, as all really great stories should, we, the readers, are real and we have a history.