DEATH BY DETAILS How much does the writer need to know about the story background vs. how much the reader needs to know?
A while back, I begged off my regular column because I was jammed by deadlines in federal court. In true editorial fashion, Susan [Evans, then First Draft editor] asked if I could make a column out of that. How on earth, I wondered, could I make civil discovery and disclosure deadlines in a groundwater pollution case interesting? Or the expert disclosures and settlement discussions going on at the same time in a state court case involving three electric utility companies and the state of Montana over water rights and the navigability of certain rivers at statehood in 1889?
And that brought me to a larger question: how much do you the writer need to know about the background of your story? And how much does the reader need to know?
I recently read a mystery – Higher Authority, an early entry in Stephen White’s excellent and successful series – involving a young woman’s claim of sexual harassment by an older woman she’d worked with. The lawyer filed suit within days after taking the case – without first filing a state or federal administrative claim. Outrage! Malpractice! Even a dumb lawyer – and there are plenty, despite the brains it takes to get in and out of law school and pass the bar exam – knows better! But the process takes weeks, even months. Including it would destroy a story that depended on the pressure of the lawsuit to trigger bad actors to do still more bad things.
So how much do you the writer need to know? I have no doubt White knew about the administrative claim process and simply decided to leave it out. Only trained professionals and a handful of readers would know he’d skipped a legally necessary step, and surely they would forgive him, for the sake of the plot. I did, barely a moment after creasing my forehead at the omission. After all, it’s a novel, not a civil procedure text, and readers aren’t looking to the plot for legal advice.
But knowledge can help you avoid mistakes that readers will notice – mistakes that affect the plot, or that introduce unnecessary error or confusion. A writer recently asked me about the spousal privilege, thinking she could add tension to her plot by if her protagonist married the good guy wrongly suspected of murder, preventing the protagonist from testifying against him. She didn’t realize that the privilege wouldn’t protect her character from being compelled to testify about what she saw him do, and that the law in her story state would not protect her from testifying to what he told her, because the conversations occurred before their marriage.
Another writer became concerned when a critique partner questioned her story’s setting in a small-town casino. The critter thought a casino had to be connected to an Indian tribe – a possibility that hadn’t even crossed the writer’s mind. Turns out her story state does allow non-tribal casinos – but readers might not know that, so she decided to forestall potential furrowed eyebrows by making the point in a brief dialogue exchange.
Back to those deadlines. If I were writing a story set around environmental litigation – wait, I did that. It’s in a box on a shelf in my office closet – would I spend precious pages detailing the emergency response, what state law requires, the VPH test results, test pits to delineate the scope of the dissolved-phase plume, and the hours after hours spent writing it all up for the various agencies, then more hours preparing documents to meet pressing deadlines? You know my answer, don’t you? But rather than skip over those details entirely, consider their role in your story. If your mystery centers on the environmental problems, would it benefit from weaving in a bit of the real-life complications? Is your character exhausted and seeing double after working till midnight sorting through boxes of disorganized records? That might be a good time for the villain to follow her home, when she’s least prepared mentally and physically. If you want to get her away from the office and civilization – and out of cell phone reach – consider a site visit to a remote mine or tailings pit. If you want to set up a court room confrontation, let her find a surprise in those boxes – a report that wasn’t disclosed when it should have been, a letter of complaint that predates the polluter’s first acknowledged notice, or an internal report on the dangers of the product or practice at issue. (“At issue” – lawyers say that a lot.) Use those details to complicate your story. But if the legal issue is more of a subplot than the heart of the story – as in White’s Higher Authority – you can safely leave your readers innocent of the finer points.
You don’t need to know all the details. If you do – from personal experience – you have the tough job of deciding what the reader needs to know. If you don’t, you have an equally tough job of learning just enough, and not getting lost in your own research. Talk to the experts. Run a scene by one of them. Ask a friend who knows nothing about the technical aspects to read your scene and tell you what she understood and didn’t. Sharpen your red pencil and be prepared to be ruthless with those details. Because “the curse of knowledge” can be the enemy of a good read.