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Friday, February 8, 2019

Little Details

This little guy deserves some recognition.
It's all too easy to get swept up with all the Big Things that we forget to appreciate the LittleThings™.

It's understandable that given all the complexities and wild absurdities of life, we'd be too hyper-focused to notice anything. It's for this very reason that companies are trying harder than ever to grab peoples' attentions. It's why people like Jake Paul do stupid shit for publicity and half the content on the Internet looks like this:

It's why tasteless, empty channels like WatchMojo thrive in an increasingly vapid environment.

It's why we want instant, gratifying results from everything we touch, expecting nothing less than instant information when we touch our device or an immediate reply when we text someone. (Don't mind me, I'm just filler text to prevent hanging words.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm not here to give a lecture on the dangers of technology or the deplorable youth of today or anything like that. I don't want to ruin all the things you love. I'm not Adam Conover.

While being an enormous fan of tech myself, even I can acknowledge that we've been coddled to the point where we expect instant stimuli from everything we do, even if that stimuli is as shallow as a puddle.

We'd rather get briefly excited by a gimmicky thumbnail, knowing that we'll be disappointed, than risk going out of our way to find meaningful content.

And one thing that this affects is the minute, scrupulous detail that can instantly enhance any core experience.

And companies don't seem to realize this. They're so focused on delivering a "streamlined" (which is code for basic and uninspired) experience that gives a short, temporary high that they fail to realize that, like the products and services they're peddling, their profits and positive feedback will only be brief and short-lived.

Think about it. Think of a movie or song that was the Internet rave for a hot minute then instantly became obsolete and irrelevant. Odds are you can think of many examples.

Yet, recent history has shown again and again that customers and consumers actually prefer deeper and more well-developed pieces than instant gratification. Because in our increasingly vapid environment, meaningful content has become scarce, and we're starving for quality.

Short lived culture trends are to orgasms what detailed works are to long-term relationships.

Despite the cultural leaning to these quick bursts of excitement, society responds much more to works that have extensive attention to detail.

For example, Avatar took a whopping 10 years to make and displayed a staggering level of quality and attention to detail, making it one of the only movies in history to make billions of dollars, followed closely only by movies like Titanic and Gone With the Wind, and more recently, Infinity War. Compare that to movies like San Andreas, which was popular for like, a week, and then faded into obscurity. And while San Andreas was good just for entertainment value (i.e., just watching buildings collapse), it offered no deeper story or meaningful characters, so while everyone loved it for a minute, it will never be considered a classic or one of the greats.

The thing is that a movie doesn't even have to be objectively excellent to become a classic. For example, The Princess Bride hardly makes sense, the characters are cheesy and the plot is all over the place, and let's not forget the occasionally horrible acting and effects. Yet this movie became an instant classic anyway despite these faults.

Is the movie objectively great? Not at all.

Will I ruthlessly attack anyone who says they don't like it? Of course I will. The movie is simply too lovable to care about objective quality. They injected just enough clever lines, well-choreographed scenes, and subliminal jokes to become a quintessential part of cinema. Half the time you don't know whether it's a movie that's so bad it seems like a spoof, or a spoof so good at subtlety that all the humor flies over your head.

Yet, when projects do inject a remarkable amount of detail, they usually become fan favorites.

For example, GTA V is a game that came out way back in 2013, and is still one of the most played and most talked about games in the community. Why? Lots of reasons, like the gameplay style and great story-telling, but mostly because the game is so massive and so packed with detail that it's actually mind-blowing.

Take a game like World of Warcraft, which has a ridiculously large map that's over 320 square kilometers, for example. The map is absolutely massive, and players who have spent years in the game have yet to visit every location, but the game is dying.

No, it's not dead- you'll still find millions of people in WoW, but nowhere near the amount of gamers who play GTA V. Because while the WoW map is impressively expansive, it's pretty empty. Don't get me wrong, I'm not attacking the game. I think that WoW is an excellent game considering it came out way back in 2004, but if we're being completely honest, most of the game is empty. It's just pushing buttons while your character attacks a poorly-scripted AI in a cartoony world with very little detail.

This isn't Blizzard's fault of course, in fact the game was leagues ahead of most other 2004 games. It just doesn't come close the amount of detail that went into GTA V.

Compare these two in-game screenshots.

Don't crucify me yet. This is not a graphics war. I'm not a bumbling fool who will tell you that GTA V is better than WoW because it has better graphics. I'm only saying that GTA V has a better world. It's possible for a game with poor graphics to display attention to detail with other areas of the game, like the story-telling or characterizations.

And of course, the exact inverse is equally possible- there are plenty of games that have good graphics but are unimpressive because of how little variety there is in the environments. No, GTA V isn't just more impressive to explore because the graphics are better, it's because of the incredible attention to detail. Every little crack and crevice in the game- every rusted pipe, every broken window, every little nook and cranny, was meticulously hand-crafted from scratch. Look at the screenshot above for example. Someone had to sit there for hours and hours on end creating every little pixel of that pothole. And they had to do that with every other texture in the game. 

I know I may sound like it, but I'm no fanboy. In fact I've never really played GTA V. I don't own the game and I've only played it a few times at some friend's house for like, 20 minutes. I only know that the game has incredible detail.

And I firmly believe that Rockstar's dedicated design team and craftsmanship is the driving factor in why this game was so popular and has retained so much longevity. They did what most other games don't do- they payed attention to the little things.

And the thing is, that there are more little things than big things. Hell, all the little things combined make up much more than the big ones. For example, Bethesda games- before the disgrace that was Fallout 76, that is- have always had horrible bugs and glitches that no other game could get away with. This is a BigThing™, but the community didn't care, because the side quests and easter eggs were so good that we could overlook something big like their ancient, needs-to-be-replaced-ASAP game engine as long as they retained their standard for craftsmanship with the plot and characters. Skyrim is incredibly buggy and unoptimized, yet it's one of the most cherished games of all time. We cared more about the overall attention to detail in their games than the graphics, or even the gameplay itself (looking at you Fallout 3 and New Vegas).

But this isn't always the case. Sometimes movies, books, and video games will do an outstanding job and display impressive craftsmanship, but will never take off. But this isn't the result of poor effort or a lack of artistic talent; if anything this is a symptom of bad or non-existent marketing, or studios that are too small and inexperienced to get the connections they need to get their product out there. This applies to books too, as there are sure to be millions of wonderful and incredible books out there that we will never discover because they never made their way into Barnes and Noble or had a movie adaption.

This is why strategic marketing and clever sales tactics are important, but that's not what this is about.

So how does one go about craftsmanship in this way? How can someone create a rich story with a world that is as convincing as it is detailed?

I think the answer might be more simple than you think.

Start from the ground up.

I'm going to compare writing to painting for a moment here.

If you've followed me thus far, you're probably familiar with my fondness for Bob Ross.

One thing Bob Ross teaches is his unique technique, which is popular now but at the time was not.

Rather than paint everything he wanted to in order- i.e., painting a tree, then a rock, then some grass, etc., he did everything in layers. He did the furthest shadows and background colors for the entire painting, then moved up a layer and did some more colors and shapes on top of the background, then added a foreground, and next thing you knew those seemingly random colors and blurs became a beautiful painting before you could say "How?" It's like watching a magic trick. One second it's just some random color blobs, and the next it's an incredible painting of Mount Everest.

Stories work the same way.

Rather than trying to write the entire story, characters and dialogue all at once, just start with the bare basics. The first draft should almost read like a screenplay.

Draft one:

John entered the room. He sat down and asked Sally how she was doing.

Next, focus on one specific area, like verbiage.

Draft two:

John strolled in and slumped into the chair next to Sally, asking her about her project.

Next, you can add more specifics to the conversation.

"Hello again!" John exclaimed as he strolled in and slumped down in the chair next to Sally. "How's your Digital Design project going? Did Mr. Phillips give you that extra day you asked for?"

Maybe with the next draft you can add specifics to the environment or character / action descriptions.

Draft three: The red door slammed against the wall as John strolled in, exclaiming "Hello again!" as he slumped into the chair next to Sally. "How's your Digital Design project going?" he asked as he took a sip from her coffee, holding eye contact. "Did Mr. Phillips give you that extra day you asked for?"

I know this is a gross over-simplification of the process, but I hope my point is clear.

Rather than trying to make everything perfect the first time around, just start with one or two important areas of focus, and with each draft add a new layer of narrative or detail, so that the story and writing style grows organically and each element gets the love and care it deserves.

The truth is that if you try to do everything at once- writing every aspect of the story chronologically from beginning-to-end, some areas will be woefully overlooked. Maybe some parts of the story will have great dialogue but poor world-building, while other scenes might have great descriptions but poor dialogue. If you tackle each aspect one at a time, and dedicate each draft to improving that one element, then each aspect of the story will get an extensive amount of care and you can do them all right the first time.

Yes, doing multiple layered drafts may seem too time-consuming for a writer on a schedule, but it should save you time in the long run. Each draft will become cleaner and more professional, and you won't have to waste countless hours trying to clean up the mess that you made in previous versions of the story. Each version will automatically be better because you already ensured that all the dialogue was good in the first draft, that all the world building was good in the second, that all the little actions and head nods were good in the third, and so on and so forth.

Sadly, I didn't discover this writing technique until a few months ago when I started watching Bob Ross and it finally clicked.

This means that my first draft is way messier than it had to be, because had I started with the bare basics and worked my way up from there, I wouldn't have to clean up this monstrous mess I've created. I'm on the second draft now and there's a massive amount of re-writing that has to be done. Rather than simply adding to and expanding on what I've already written, I find that I both have to add to some things, rewrite some things entirely, and completely delete or otherwise remove others. It's a bit of a disaster, but I think the core story is good enough to work with.

While most painters only paint one layer, they're agonizing over making that one layer perfect, while they could easily do multiple layers and make the process instantly easier and more effective.

Writing is the same way.

This is what your writing should look like. A lemon.
Don't agonize over every detail on the first draft (because you will inevitably fail anyway), just start with the surface of your story and gradually work your way up from there. As each draft improves you'll also have more room for creativity in how you want to go about writing certain aspects of your story, as each element will be focused on individually and nothing will be put on the back burner. And trust me when I tell you that your story will better for it.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

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