Sense is More Important Than Accuracy

Accuracy is overrated when it comes to portraying something in a way that makes sense to most people. Outside a research paper or an architectural drawing, you’re more often looking for verisimilitude. Verisimilitude captures the essence, or appearance, of a thing. Today that means distilling it down to pertinent details rather than describing every boat in the harbor and their moorings (during the frickin climax, Dickens, wth). I’ve run across the distillation principle again and again in different contexts, so I have plenty of examples:


Writing – “natural” dialogue means cutting out the fluff.


This writing advice is common because it seems like every new writer screws it up with the idea that all their character’s casual mouth dribble is worth recording in the name of “realism.” They start their character’s statements with “um”s and “ah”s and “well”s. They include every hello and goodbye, as well as tons of unimportant small talk. When you directly transcribe a conversation from real life, it’s full of boring crud you have to sift through to find the gold. Raymond Chandler is known for punchy dialogue because he got right down to what was interesting and left out all the worthless crap.

Dialogue truncated to its interesting bits is what people mean when they call it “realistic,” even though it’s technically not. That’s because our brains edit out the unimportant shit. For example, I didn’t realize how much I say, “You know…” as filler when I talk until I heard a recording of myself. If I put that many “you know”s in a novel, people would want to throw the book at me. Hell, I wanted to chuck a shoe at myself through a time tunnel to stop myself saying, “you know” so much in that interview. It was embarrassing.


World-building – don’t show all your homework.


You may have done tons of research for your story, or written reams of character backstory, but most of that doesn’t have a place in the actual narrative. It may be a lot of fun trying to figure out the mechanics of gene replication in an alien with a triple-helix (guilty), but let’s face it, at a certain point it becomes nothing more than intellectual wanking. If you’re shoving all those details in your book, congratulations, you’re now wanking in public!

Spaceship diagrams are cool, I get that. I have a whole series of anatomical drawings for my aliens that I’m still working on – for fun, and for my drawing portfolio. But those are supplementary materials. I won’t be shoving them in my novels. (I’ll shoving them in their own book someday, that you’ll have to pay separately for. Stay tuned!)


Illustration – you’re transmitting the idea of a thing, not the thing itself.


Illustrators have a bunch of tricks to fake perspective. In fact, we’re so used to foreshortening that isometric drawings, a type of drafting where the length of every line is exact, look wonky. In less technical drawing, lines are also drawn thicker for closer objects, and may even disappear for objects on the horizon. In truth, none of those lines exist at all, but you can’t draw without them (you can paint without then, but that’s another thing). Cartoonist and animators push and pull their characters like putty to give them a sense of gravity and motion. They use lines for effect. None of this is “accurate” but without it, the movements don’t look real. A caricature artist can draw a picture that looks more like the person than tracing over a photograph would achieve, through exaggerating a person’s most defining features.

I’ve recently finished a series of fantasy maps – the floor plans of my crazy wizard, mushroom tower. They’re nothing like architectural floor plans. Instead I went more for the amusement park 3D-cutaway look, because I figured that would make more sense to the people playing my mod. Even though I mostly traced 3D views from different angles, I had to make decisions about what to leave out and what to put in, along with how to connect cutaway areas so people could see how you could reach one area from another. I drew simple indicators to show what activities each room was designed for: a bed for a bedroom, a coffer for a treasury, a few trees and plants for the garden etc. Drawing every object in the room would have turned it into a jumbled mess.


3D Modeling and Environments – only the faces you see matter.


A 3D model is a shell of an object. If a whole side is never going to be seen, there’s no reason to have it at all. There’s more reason to leave it out, as each polygon is going to add to the crunch time it needs to render. If you’re making a model for a video game, you’re even more limited because everything is rendered in real time. If you make a stack of coins that will never be pulled apart by a physics engine, you don’t add the inside faces of every coin. Even if you build that stack from a single model, you delete those suckers. I’ve talked about optimizing models before.

The same goes for models that you’ll only ever see in the distance. Some game engines change out higher resolution models for lower ones as you gain distance from them, and vise versa. It prevents every model you can see on the horizon from killing your frame rate, even if you’re running it on a killer PC. Because games present an environment the player can explore, there are times when high detail is needed, and others where it’s not appropriate. In my next blog post, I’ll be talking about when details matter in games and other forms of storytelling.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

2 thoughts to “Sense is More Important Than Accuracy”

  1. Dickens was paid by the word.

    Beyond that, sometimes it pays to detail a setting very carefully – just before a major change. For effect.

    And, like, you know – if you don’t put these things IN all the time (ditto swear words), then you can use them deliberately for effect. If you use them all the time, what do you have for the times you need to make a point? Nada.

    Besides, they’re good when you need to make a character sound either with it – or slightly awkward.

    Most people are horrified if they get an actual transcript of one of their conversations. Plus it’s very hard to tell what is being said, because the critical nouns and names are left out in real conversations – everyone knows what they’re talking about – and people coming in to a conversation late may have to ask what they’re talking about. Dialogue is fun. For practice: write a full length play. Does wonders for your ability to write good dialogue.

    1. There are definitely times and places to carefully detail setting and other elements in a story. I’m pretty sure during the entire climax isn’t one of those though (like in Great Expectations). 😉 The next blog post is going to be “When Details Matter.”

      Of course anything can be used well for effect. On a tangent – I read some psychology study way back where they found people used contractions less when lying, and I thought about how I could use that to convey truth and untruth in character dialogue. So a bit of dialogue where a boy tattled on his sister might look like this:

      “I did not break the vase. Besides, Davy wasn’t even here when it happened.”

      And then I’d have someone try to ding me for inconsistent contraction use in a critique. I happen to think being that nitpicky about contractions is silly, but I do wonder if that technique conveys what I want to people who never read that study.

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