It’s all in the details.

I have a half-arsed theory that one thing that makes stories work, be they in book form or movies or teevee shows, is in the little details they include. It’s not the “details” as in the various plot points and making sure they work, or things like avoiding anachronisms.

(Say, you know what anachronism always bothers me when I see it? People in movies or teevee shows drinking Coke from glass bottles. You can still get glass bottles today, so it’s easy, right? You just buy those and film away. Problem is, those are 8oz bottles. Back in the day, Coke bottles were 16oz. Those tiny bottles always stick out like a sore thumb to me.)

But anyway, I was thinking a bit about Superman (1978), after watching it a while back, and there’s this tiny little thing that happens in one scene. So tiny you wouldn’t even notice it, but I think it’s just terrific, because it really does add a tiny bit of realism to the film’s world.

It’s the start of the film’s third act. Lex Luthor has reprogrammed the two missiles, and he’s about to use his ultra-sonic broadcaster to speak directly to Superman. Clark Kent arrives in the Daily Planet newsroom, as his fellow reporters are clustering around a teevee set to watch the nuclear missile test. Clark comes over, asks what’s going on, someone tells him, and then tells him that Perry White wants to see him. Then the guy says, “You’re blocking the set, Clark,” and Clark says, “Oh, sorry,” ducks his head, and walks to Perry White’s office.

But before he gets there, he turns back to the reporter he’d just been talking to and says, “Hey, how’s Judy?” The guy says “Fine”, and Clark says “Great!” or “Good!” or something like that.

The whole interaction lasts all of five seconds, but that last bit — “Hey, how’s Judy?” — is the kind of perfect detail that makes this film’s world seem that much more real. Clark isn’t just hanging out at the newspaper for something to do when he’s not fighting crime and working for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. It’s his job, these are his coworkers. Clark Kent knows this guy’s wife’s name and asks about her. That’s great.

I think what I’m getting at here is that even the most spectacular fantasy worlds are, at some point, mundane. There are people in every single fantasy world who are just going to jobs and asking how the kids are and the like. When writing such details into worlds, you don’t have to draw attention to them or underline them or make them stand out. And you certainly don’t need tons of them, just a few, here and there. But they work wonders when you realize they’re there. It’s like the two stormtroopers in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, chatting about stormtrooper stuff while Obi Wan Kenobi turns off the tractor beam. It’s the acknowledgment in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring that a party the size of Bilbo Baggins’s birthday party is going to involve a lot of dirty dishes.

What examples of such little details — the mundane little bits of the fictional worlds — do you recall from favorite books or tales in other media?

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3 Responses to It’s all in the details.

  1. jason says:

    That thing from Superman is a good catch… I confess I've never noticed it. I tend to see set details in the background more than notice dialog-based things, I'm afraid.

    First thing that comes to my mind is in The Abyss… during one of the early scenes before all hell breaks loose, somebody is walking around outside the underwater oil rig in a diving suit. They pass a viewport that has one of those Garfield the Cat toys with the suction-cup feet — you know, the car ornaments that were all the rage in the late 80s/early 90s — stuck to the inside.

    Oh, and in Alien, there are a couple of those "drinking bird" toys in the ward room.

    Even in the future, people like their silly little mascots…

  2. Lynn says:

    Back in my day coke came in 10 once glass bottles and (believe it or not) 6 1/2 ounce glass bottles.

  3. Dave Pogorzala says:

    First, I get 16oz Coke bottles at Wegmans in 24-pack cases in the Mexican aisle (with sugar! i.e. "Mexican Coke"). And I don't know how prevalent it is in WNY, but in the DC area you can get a Mexican Coke with your meal at most taco places, and even a handful of other restaurants too.

    Second, I've always liked the descriptions of people's likes and dislikes in the beginning of Amelie. Knowing that her father dislikes when someone uses the urinal next to him, but enjoys cleaning out his toolbox and reorganizing it, adds to the understanding and enjoyment later on.

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