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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.

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Comments (24)
    • And yet, Harry…

      In the name of pedantry, we must address the elephant in the room: the counterexample.

      There are those times where doing one's research, using correct language to describe the elements of our fictional world, serve only to confuse the audience. This, most obviously, in cases where fallacy has become part of the cultural lexicon.

      As example, I offer you the BOLO or APW.

      The what? You may know it better as the APB. A term which may have been subsumed into actual policing, but only because of its ubiquitous use in media.

      Refer to a BOLO by its proper name, and you will trip your reader up… which, of course, one really ought not to do.

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      • Yep. In the UK, we used to talk about SOCOs - Scene of Crime Officers. That changed to CSIs, in line with American practice, so for a book or two UK crime writers used to throw in sentences like - "The place was swarming with CSIs - or SOCOs as has had always called them." You need to look after your reader, as well as the facts!

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      • I’ve never watched breaking bad or orange is the new black but I would have been annoyed at the absence of a post mortem and coroner’s inquest in a suicide. I lost faith in a book I read once because a teenage rape victim was given emergency contraception and sent on her way by a doctor. Of course if the doctor had actually done a safeguarding referral and got police and social services involved then the story wouldn’t have gone in the direction the author wanted but it was just wrong. She would have been better avoiding the doctor altogether and worrying about the possibility of pregnancy rather than putting in an unrealistic conversation. 

        We can all suspend our disbelief for the purposes of a story but only when it seems authentic to the world we have created. James Bond does some pretty ridiculous things but we let him get away with it because he is James Bond. (Amusingly when watching one of the mission impossible films my kids let the hero get away with scaling a cliff in a suit and smart shoes not because he was Ethan Hawk but because he was Tom Cruise😂). If outrageous things are going to happen then people need to expect them in the context of the story. If they are parachuted into a world which has been trying to be true to life up to that point then that is where you lose the reader I think.

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        • That loss of faith in a book is no fun. There’s a writer of historical fiction, some of whose books I’ve enjoyed. But one of them opens with a new century’s eve party, and is followed a few months later by the death of Queen Victoria (in 1901). That jangled so much I had to research it. I gather than some people did/do claim that new centuries should be marked at the end of 1900/2000 etc. But I could find no indication that this actually happened in Victorian Britain. Although I’d be delighted to discover that I am wrong about this, opening a novel with something with the potential to jar so badly seems wrong- whether factually correct or not.

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          • But Catherine, why would you assume that the modern psychosis of oneupmanship in all things – and the extension that demands the ringing in a new century/millennium a whole year before the last one has completed, on the basis of laziness induced by decade-ies terminology – would have been prevelant a century ago, before the onset of ubiquitous, instant media? (If anything, I wonder whether it would have been considered a big enough deal to be worth of a party.) In those days, cooler heads would have won out. Print media, under the guidance of editors who cared about facts more than hyped instant feedback (due to the lack of the latter), would have presented the facts of the matter.

            Specifically, that the new century is at the end of the xx00 year.

            For starters, the calendar system we use has no years 0. It counts down 3-2-1 BCE, then switches to 1-2-3 CE. The first century needs a full count of 100 years, so from 1CE to 100CE. Consequently, the 20th got all the way to 2000, inclusive.

            The laziness aspect probably comes from the way people refer to age; someone "being in their 20s." This is because they say their age is 20 once they have completed their 20th year of life (during the first year, before they are 1, age is counted in days, weeks, then months). When mapped onto the grouping of decades – like the 20s – based on the second most significant digit in the year, cognitive laziness triggers a need to apply the same approach to centuries and millennia despite the logical error.

            Perhaps the best approach in a case like this, other than avoidance, is to have the accuracy challenged within the presented events, thereby establishing what is correct and what is (modern) cultural laziness.

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            • You’ve lost me somewhere there Rick! While I in no way whatsoever want to get into a debate about when such things “should” be marked, as I have every confidence in your ability to tie any argument into knots and be correct at the end of it all, I think the point remains that the most recent century change was certainly celebrated at the end of 1999/ beginning of 2000. Therefore to come across something in a novel very obviously different does jar the reader, at least one who knows when Queen Victoria died. So either, as you suggest, you have to justify this somewhere in the text and preferably before your reader puts down the book to research this puzzle, or at the very least in the historical end-notes. Or you change your story ever so slightly to avoid such a jolt in the first few pages. Admittedly my research into this didn’t get me very far, but I didn’t come across any evidence that the author was factually, if not fictionally, correct. There was some suggestion that in America there was more of a consensus that 1900/1901 was the right time to celebrate, but nothing to say that this occurred in Britain. So I reluctantly concluded this might have been a mistake on the author’s part.

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            • Two episodes into Lupin—a French series on Netflix based on Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar—love the details in this production!

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              • Yes. Second series out now. The first was a quiet delight. Cozy crime for 21st century.

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                • The devil is in the detail, so they say. We were hooked on Breaking Bad and felt quite flat when we reached the last season - what do we watch next? Now the book I'm writing, or trying to write, has a character who is a drug dealer, in fact, he supplies drugs, he isn't the main character, but he has a significant part in the storyline. I don't much about this particular topic that I'm trying to write about, so I'm wondering how to go about doing my research on this issue. Does anyone know any drug dealers who can help?

                   

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                  • We were hooked on Breaking Bad and felt quite flat when we reached the last season - what do we watch next?

                    Well, the obvious answer is 'Better Call Saul'!

                    That should keep you going for a while. It's possibly (whisper it softly) even better than Breaking Bad!

                    And there's also 'El Camino'.

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                    • Yep found them too, now watching The Fall.

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