What’s the difference between a book that draws you in and keeps you interested beyond the last page and one that you enjoyed but forgot as soon as you closed it? It’s all about the details. Those little things that no-one notices, but make all the difference between getting lost in the pages and not. It’s the details that make the world of a novel real in the minds of the reader.
In science fiction and fantasy, most of the time we’re dealing with a world that you can’t visit in real life. Oh sure, Harry Potter took place in England, and there are tours that will lead you to all the real world locations J.K. Rowling mentions. It’s amazing to see King’s Cross station, but platform 9¾ just isn’t there. You know right where it should be, you even know the trick to getting in, if you can just get the timing right. I wonder how many people have rushed the barrier only to find that it stubbornly remains just as the always has. That’s the power of detail.
J.K. Rowling set her fantasy in a world very similar to our own, and was able to borrow many of the details of number 4 Privet Drive from real addresses around the country. So while Little Whinging is not an actual suburb of Surrey, it has all the details that make it real for the story. What really makes the world of Harry Potter, what draws us in and has us watching for the owls carrying our Hogwarts acceptance letters, are the descriptions of Hogwarts itself. My favorite is the description of the ear muffs for the Mandrake lesson in Herbology.
All throughout the books, Rowling makes the wizarding world take shape in the details. How the characters react to them gives them verisimilitude. Those characters who have lived with magic all their lives just take things like Owl Post for granted, while those who’ve been shielded are able to gawk at all the new shiny things along with the readers. She provides a great example of how to get the background right.
In any story that’s not set in the modern real world as it is must do this. If you want Fairies in Manhattan, you’ve got to pay attention to the details. How did they get there? When? Why don’t most people notice? What do they do in Manhattan? What is ordinary life like for them? Just as if you are writing a full fledged fantasy you’ll need to show the details of everyday life. Where and how do they cook? How big are their houses? Indoor plumbing? Same with science fiction. You have to play with the details of how your advances in science change life. What is ordinary? Is cloning a possibility to replace lost limbs? Have we overcome our obsession with weight or figured out how to get everyone to fall into a standard range? Does your spaceship have artificial gravity?
Taking this one step further, we can write our societies anyway we choose. We can eliminate poverty, or racism, just by making the details right. In a society without racism, characters wouldn’t comment directly on the race of each other. They might have a reaction to dark skin the way that current society people react to dark hair (I just love a guy with dark hair). Gender equality is also a possibility, if you think about the details. When the woman CEO walks into the room there’d be no comments about how great it is, or awful, just the same respect shown for a man in that position. Characters might comment on how gorgeous that guy is as easily as they would about a gal.
In a conversation with another writer, we were wondering how to get readers over the hurdle of “maleness vs femaleness” that is rampant in our culture. It’s a tough one. Our readers are familiar with this culture, and while they often talk about wanting to get away to somewhere else, they are rather tied to our cultural expectations. Breaking those expectations is a trick. We batted around ideas and finally realized that everything we were talking about was background. Details in the background that make the world three dimensional are the same ones that will allow your character the freedom to walk away from the troubles of our modern world.