The World's Biggest Pedant
My missus and I are currently watching a Netflix drama, Orange is the New Black, set in a women’s prison in the US.
And – it’s OK. The show has kept us entertained. We’ve stayed watching. (Still on Season 1, mind you. We’re years behind.)
At the end of the most recent episode, however, the following little drama unfolded.
A nasty prison officer (called ‘Pornstache’ in honour of his facial hair) is escorting a drug-using inmate, Tricia, through the jail. He wants her to start distributing drugs for him. She doesn’t want to do it. He applies some pressure, then leaves her alone in a small room, for no very obvious purpose.
Tricia swallows the entire packet of drugs that he’s pressed upon her and overdoses.
Pornstache, returning to the room, finds Tricia dead. Not wanting the investigation that would surely have fingered him as the source of the drugs, Pornstache makes it look as though Tricia hanged herself. In the next episode, we’re told, in a somewhat offhand way, that the prison authorities had had the body cremated quickly to avoid a bothersome investigation. And that, more or less, was the end of that story thread.
I bit my lip and said nothing, but my wife – who is not a crime author and doesn’t know her way around the bureaucracy of death – said, ‘That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Surely there’d have to be an autopsy?’
And yes, there would. In England and Wales, the jurisdiction I know best, there’s a simple rule which would require autopsy in the case of any homicide, suicide or unexplained death. In the US, the rules are complex, and vary state by state, but – duh! – you can’t just burn embarrassing corpses. Of course, you can’t.
In other words: the story was rubbish. It simply didn’t hang together.
I’m sure that the screenwriters knew this perfectly well. They had, as consultant to the series, Piper Kerman, on whose memoir the series was based. And – this was a lavishly funded Hollywood production. If they’d needed to pick up the phone to a lawyer or coroner, they could have done so with ease.
So the writers clearly just thought – “Hey, a murder plus a faked-up suicide would drive the series forward nicely. No one will know it’s all unrealistic, and if they do, they won’t care. So we’ll do it.”
But, but, but …
Look, you guys know me. Detail-oriented to a fault. (I once had to return the “World’s Biggest Pedant” Trophy, because, as I was obliged to point out, I’m the World’s Most Pedantic Pedant. I’m not, however, especially large.)
There’s no way I’d have brushed off a fake suicide as easily as these writers did.
In one way, that’s annoying, because care for the facts can be annoying. Telling your story gets harder, because you have to work your way around obstacles.
But pedantry – care for the facts – doesn’t just make your storytelling harder, it also makes it better.
Go back to the Pornstache / Tricia story. If I’d been writing that episode, I’d have had to consider a whole set of different options:
- Pornstache makes a mess of the fake murder scene and is arrested for it
- Pornstache bribes or threatens any investigating officers
- The coroner or medical examiner is drunk or incapable
- The coroner is corrupt or willing to do some illicit deal with the prison warden
- There is some family relationship between Pornstache and the coroner
- Pornstache finds a way to tamper with the evidence so as to make it look as though Tricia’s corpse has passed any toxicology tests
- Pornstache realises he is about to be charged with murder and kills himself
- Or something else. There are a million possibilities.
There’s not a right or wrong here. The point is that there are solutions for any problem. (And to be clear, we’re not necessarily talking about reality here. We’re talking about solutions within the realm of your fictional universe. Even Star Trek has rules.)
But these options are complicated, all of them. They’re not things you can dispose of in two minutes before you start off down your next storyline. And that’s true of most of these fact-induced diversions. They push you off the road you had wanted to walk down.
And yet: your story gets better.
The detail takes you into better realised scenes, characters and plots. When you think of a properly top-class drama (Breaking Bad, let’s say), you’ll notice the acute attention to detail. How is a drugs factory meant to operate? It has to be clean, right, so what kind of cleaning is involved? What kind of filters? What kind of protective gear? Those thoughts pushed the series creators into an extraordinarily well-realised depiction of a crystal meth operation. As a viewer, you felt utterly convinced by the presentation. And the result of that conviction was that you were more absorbed, more engaged, more intent.
This is true about big things – story, scenes, characters, settings – but it’s true about tiny things too. Imagine a conversation between two of your characters over coffee, and the same conversation as they are rigging up an air purification system for their meth lab. Because the second scenario is fascinating in itself, the conversation itself takes on an extra glitter. In novels, the vocabulary that detailed research gives you adds precisely that same lustre.
OK. So that’s the positive reason for caring about detail: you get a richer, more engaging book.
But it’s worth thinking about the flipside as well.
What happens if – like that scene from Orange is the Only Black – you choose not to bother with the detail? What do you lose?
In the end, you can find the answer by watching your own feelings when you read or watch a scene that just doesn’t convince. You end up feeling something like, ‘Oh, they’ve just brushed that away, haven’t they?’
You might continue to read / watch, but something lethal has happened all the same. That tight attention you once had – scrutinising dialogue and incidental detail for implications about character and story – just loosens. Why bother to scrutinise something with care when the author can just pretend the rules-of-this-world don’t exist for a spell?
So you might go on watching – we’re continuing to watch Orange – but the relationship has shifted for the worse. Truth is, the author has probably lost that deep, careful attention for ever. The story you’re telling has gone from being memorable and precious to something more like bubble-gum pop music: something you happily listen to, and forget as soon as you have.
So pay attention to detail. It is annoyingly obstructive and brilliantly rewarding. Both those things, always.
That’s it from me. If you’re a JW member and you want to see me in Dr Pedant mode, then do come to my self-editing webinar on Tuesday 6 July. There will be bears.