Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why You Should Take The Time To Get Your Facts Right

My writing partner and I recently locked horns over a scene involving a character who is visited by a police detective in the aftermath of a fire-bomb attack on his house.

The dramatic function of the scene is to show the character in denial about the extent to which his own actions have provoked the attack. The scene turns when we show him rejecting the veiled advice of the detective to change his behaviour. Straightforward enough, right?


Our difference of opinion arose when we began filling in the background of the scene and the dialogue. My writing partner felt uncomfortable because neither of us knows precisely what the police protocols are for this kind of incident. How many police officers would be present? Do detectives arrive on the scene? Forensic experts? Do they seal off the road? Are reporters allowed access to the victims?

In other words, there was a lot we didn’t know.

Now we’ve already done extensive research for many other scenes in this script, so I’m absolutely not opposed to it in principle. But somehow when it came to this scene I felt it wasn’t necessary. I felt that what we did know about the scene was enough. The essence of the scene is the exchange between the two characters, and I felt we could write the scene without referring to any specific police procedures.

I have great respect for my writing partner’s eye for detail, so I deferred to his intuition. He called someone who is familiar with police procedures. We got our facts straight, and in retrospect I’m glad we did, even though it took a couple of days. Because although the essence of the scene is the same—the same emotional beats, the same references to theme, the same narrative information—it’s a better scene because we wrote it confidently, without having to avoid or hide anything.

Perhaps just as importantly, I realized that I was simply being impatient. I just wanted to get on with the writing rather than wait for more information.

Will the audience or the reader notice the difference? I think so. The difference, in the end, is in details such as passing references to police protocol, which give the scene authenticity. Also, knowing the boundaries of the detective character’s brief as a police officer made it easier to write him as a real person. Otherwise we would have ended up with a 2-D, stereotypical police detective. A clone of all the American detectives in raincoats we’ve all seen a few times too many.

So even if it takes longer, getting your facts right can make for far more convincing and confident writing. It’s worth the effort.

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