I could write an expansive list of things that distinguish an average writer from a great writer, but that would hardly be revelatory. Countless others have taken a shot at such things in the past. Instead, I’ll be looking at a few key elements individually over the next few weeks, sharing my opinions as a reader and an author.
One of the top two elements I look for in a narrative – and this goes for film, television and books – is something that ought to be common sense and sadly is not: getting the details right. From the mundane to the more complex, I look for accuracy, and as someone well-versed in many areas, I will notice problems and take you less seriously if you haven’t taken the time to get it right.
Example: CSI. I love the show to a degree, but also hate it. I took Introductory Forensics in university. I know that the show is sped up, details evidence that cannot be found in the way they’ve described, and manages to nail the evidence a little too easily and too accurately. I notice this on any procedural show. One of the reasons I enjoy Bones so much is that there is a level of detail and care given to the forensic work that demonstrates the research behind each episode. Do they get things wrong? Absolutely: a character’s brain tumour was incorrectly named. Overall, they do get a lot right.
Example: Glee. I stopped watching the show in season two, although I kept up with the plot loosely via friends who are still fans. Why did I stop? The misrepresentation (and demeaning portrayal) of Bipolar Disorder. It pained me that a show that began by getting the little details right (Emma’s Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) would slack off and blatantly confuse Bipolar Disorder with a Hollywood version of Schizophrenia. Given the increasing rate of diagnosis in teens, it was hurtful and shameful. It was bad research.
Writing, like an art form, requires an innate talent to elevate the work from good to great. But good writing is also enjoyable, and it can be cultivated through skill development. Conversely, all the talent in the world at creating great characters is wasted if you can’t bother to get the details right. Flaws will jar readers from the narrative and bring them back into the “real world” – the complete opposite of what a book or film should do. With so much information readily available via Google and the library, there’s truly no excuse.
Do the research. Get the details right. Take the time. It pays off.
One great resource? The Livejournal community Little Details. If your endless searches aren’t working out, you can post in the community and have people in the know help you out.