In Fiction Writing The Devil Is In The Detail

plot of a story

Fiction writing only works when the plot of a story makes perfect sense to a reader.

“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. E. M. Forster

It’s an old quote, but I was reminded of it when I wrote my last book. I was in the process of finalizing the manuscript. I thought it was very close to being ready to publish.

The events in a short story are easy to track. But the plot of a story in a long manuscript is a sequence of many events. These can be a complex mixture of so many threads.

The plot of a story can go wrong

Writing and publishing a book is not a simple process. But I thought I had done everything right.

I got my beta readers to go to work, and they sent me their feedback. My editor did a full edit, so my manuscript was getting very close to being ready.

Over a couple of weeks, I strained my old eyes to complete the final proofreads.

I was looking for those small annoying faults, like misplaced commas, errant formatting, typos, and silly repetition.

Due to the excellent work during the editing stage, there were not a lot of faults. I was delighted that the end of the process was close.

Until that is, a glaring series of plot errors hit me in the face about halfway through what I thought was going to be my last read.

It was the kind of problem that you usually discover and fix after your first draft in creative writing.

 

What was the plot problem?

plot problems

My problems were related to a sequence of simple events in the story.

In chapter twelve, one of the main characters was in a situation of being thirsty and cursing that he didn’t have any beer in the refrigerator.

However, I suddenly remembered that earlier on in the story, there was a mention of beer.

I searched and found the passage in an earlier chapter.

In that chapter, my character drinks a beer, then a second – from two six-packs a friend gave him.

So there was plenty of beer left in the refrigerator.

Another search for a mention of beer found a paragraph in a much later chapter, where he takes the remaining beer from his refrigerator.

The problem here is that I wrote these three passages months apart, and my series of plot points were all wrong.

The cans of beer were such a minor detail and entirely irrelevant to the basic plot structure.

So it was easy to read through the error without noticing the problem with the order or series of events.

Beer might not seem like an essential element in my story structure.

But, for a reader, this type of mistake with minor plot elements can be very annoying.

 

The plot of a story is about minor details

plot details

I recall in almost all of my previous books; I found similar sequence or character errors.

One was that a character’s eye color changed. Another was a child’s age being far too old for the age of the parent.

During the final stages of writing the manuscript, I had to change all the dates and ages because I had the climax of the story set six years too early.

It’s a task for all fiction writers. You have to make sure that your plot is the sequence of events in a logical order.

I have read some books, in the last few years in particular, that have had small plot problems similar to those I have mentioned.

It is an annoyance that distracts from the enjoyment of the story.

There is plenty of advice around for authors about checking grammar, spelling, and typos when preparing a manuscript for publishing.

But perhaps it’s worth adding one more critical item to review.

You have to be sure that your story, and all of the minor details it contains, make perfect and logical sense.

Then your plot will make for excellent story writing.

 

Summary

Writing and publishing fiction is not easy.

When you start writing a story, you need to plan and outline all the elements such as world-building, rising action, falling action, and a denouement.

You need to select your point of view and then use all the literary devices you know how to use.

Your grammar might be perfect, and your range of vocabulary exemplary.

But it’s the little things that can make all the difference in fiction writing.

In Harry Potter, platform 9 3/4 seems like such a minor detail. In fact, it is only mentioned once or twice. But it is an essential element in creating the story.

Chekhov’s gun is another excellent example of detail.

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Anton Chekhov

Small details count, and the devil is always in the detail.

Make sure you check every small element in your story before you publish it.

Your readers will thank you for all your effort.

Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent teaching English and writing, as well as testing and taming new technology.

5 thoughts on “In Fiction Writing The Devil Is In The Detail

  • August 9, 2019 at 12:30 am
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    In Lord of the Flies, Piggy was short sighted. His glasses would have been no use for starting fires (bi-concave, diverging light). Everyone else was able to overlook this…!

    Reply
  • January 1, 2018 at 11:20 pm
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    I once set aside a book by a popular women’s fiction author because of a timeline mistake. I read the two conflicting passages several times trying to make sense of it before realizing it just didn’t work. Either the dad lived with them or he didn’t. If I caught it, why didn’t her editor?
    Stuff happens, even to bestsellers.

    Reply
  • July 18, 2017 at 1:10 am
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    Mistakes happen. I read a book recently where Roman legions were marching along the Rhine where clearly the writer meant the Rhone. Or there was The Remains Of The Day, where he watches the sun set over the sea from Weymouth pier, which you can’t do because Weymouth seafront faces east. These niggling errors creep into even the best books.

    Reply
  • March 31, 2016 at 4:39 am
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    Excellent post. I will read it again and again.
    “Be absolutely sure that the story, and all of the minor details it contains, make perfect and logical sense.”

    Reply
  • March 28, 2016 at 6:15 am
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    This post is why I rarely write scenes and chapters out of sequence or without reading exactly where I’ve left off. There are always mistakes if I don’t write linear, some of them major. But unless some type of major event that suspends writing I still have to read the manuscript when writing from the beginning or from wherever has ended. Other authors claim they write out of sequence constantly and I used to as well until I was published by a publisher. I needed to crank out three books in succession and needed to know everything from every character’s motives to their related action timelines in each book. I know this sounds snarky but that’s how I came to writing seriously.

    Reply

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