Details, Details

So, I recently finished The Hunger Games. There was some good stuff in it, a couple of good emotional scenes early on, and the idea itself is brilliant. What’s not to like about a reality show where the contestants actually kill each other? I expect Bravo to premier a show that does exactly that sometime in the next couple of years, unless our political system here in the US beats them to it.

But I didn’t really like the book. Deep in my heart, I can never like a book, or a movie, that doesn’t get the details right. Most everyone else I know, including the writers, laughs at my complaining. “Who cares if Suzanne Collins knows nothing about archery? She’s sold ten million books!”

I know, I know. If I want to sell ten million books, I shouldn’t sweat the details so much, especially if I have a killer idea. But I do. And I always will.

Specifically, there are two scenes in the book that drove me absolutely insane. The first (I don’t remember where this happens) occurs when Katniss is described as lying down with her loaded bow close to hand. ??? A crossbow, maybe. But you can’t load a bow. The language Collins uses isn’t even right. You nock an arrow. Conceivably you could keep a nocked arrow close at hand, but I doubt doing so would be much faster than just drawing an arrow from a nearby quiver. You still have to draw back the arrow, aim, and fire.

This kind of basic mistake drives me insane. Half an hour of research would have fixed it. Then again, I’m the kind of person who can’t watch Chariots of Fire because the actors look like actors pretending to run, rather than actual runners.

There’s another scene later on when Katniss knocks aside an expertly thrown knife as it flies toward her through the air, the sort of thing that only superheroes can do, and Katniss is definitely not a super hero. It probably wouldn’t have bugged me had I not already gone ballistic about the ‘loaded’ bow, but two examples of lazy writing in the same book only drove me to greater heights of perfectionist fury.

I won’t even go into the fact that, once Katniss gets the only ranged weapon in the Games, she could have hunted everyone else down in a couple of days. (I know, I know, Katniss is probably too decent a character to do that, but the idea should at least cross her mind.)

Does this kind of sloppy writing bother anyone else out there, or is it just me?

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  1. 1. Kathryn Scannell

    You are not alone in being bothered by this sort of thing. I’ve had books that I put back on the shelf because there was something this wrong in the blurb of the book. For example, a historical set in medieval Wales where the heroines name was a female name followed by the patronymic meaning “son of” her father’s name. Or a fantasy featuring a main character who trains show jumpers, talking about working with 2000 lb. horses. (If you want a 2000 lb. horse, you’re looking at something like the Budweiser Clydesdales – show jumpers run in the 1000-1500 lb. range). That gaffe could have been cured by the simple expedient of getting a beta reader who had owned horses. And perhaps the book was better, and the error was made by some marketing person without the author’s input at all, but it still put me off the book.

    There are some types of book I’ll throw realism out the window for. Pulp, for example, has a lot of conventions that aren’t realistic, and I’ll forgive those because they’re convention for the genre. But outside that, make too many of these little factual gaffes in a book that’s supposed to be tied to this physical reality, and the rest of the book really needs to be amazing to make me overlook them.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    We all have the things that throw us out of the story — but I will quibble with this line:

    the sort of thing that only superheroes can do

    If memory serves, there’s a bit in one of the special features on the Lord of the Rings DVD where somebody comments on how they were going to have a stunt guy come in for a certain move, but Viggo Mortensen said “no, I got this” — and slapped a flying knife out of the air on the first take.

    When you figure that baseball players regularly connect with objects moving faster than a car, I don’t find it at all implausible that Katniss could knock aside a mere knife.

    Which doesn’t invalidate your larger point, of course. I roll my eyes at “archaeology” in movies (I’m not even talking about Indiana Jones), and cannot take the opening of the first X-Files movie at all seriously, because it gets Texas so very wrong. Some people manage not to care — I have a medically-trained friend who doesn’t object at all to bad medical details — but generally speaking, we all have our breaking points.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    Twice now I’ve encountered stories where people encumbered with one or more swords (one with two swords and a strung bow) somehow manage to swim to shore (or in the second case *walk under water* to the far shore) carrying their impedimenta. Seriously, people. SERIOUSLY. *Have you ever tried swimming with a sword in your hand???*

  4. 4. Keith W

    Not knowing anything of archery, I completely missed that, but yeah I can see how a detail like that would be annoying. My minor nit is I have trouble with the idea of players forming alliances within the game, there can only be one winner! What I found lacking is what happened to America to become Panam? (And what happen to the rest of the world outside?) I know this is a YA Novel series and expecting detail world building background details like that might be expecting a bit much. I’ve read the first two novels and just started the 3rd, so hopefully it might explain some of it. The other thing that struck me is the total lack of religion. I am not expecting a sermon or anything, but no reference to any religious service or ceremony, even in passing. Which I thought odd considering that how much death is involved. I didn’t expect anything religious in the Capital. In the 2nd book, Peeta describes a wedding ceremony in the Seem/District 12, which is a beautiful and simple ceremony, but its totally secular. I understand that in a YA novel you might not want to discuss religion in detail, but to eliminate it completely? That is not fiction its (bad) fantasy!

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Kathryn – You’re right, there are books where we don’t care about the gaffes. The pulps, comics, superhero stuff, the sort of thing that doesn’t ask you to take it quite so seriously. I didn’t get that feeling from The Hunger Games.

    Marie – I’m not sure that a little over 25% (the major league batting average) counts as regularly, and they’ve been training for their entire lives to be the absolute best. Nor does a movie set stunt compare in any way to a real world fight, at least in my opinion. But you’re also right. That alone probably wouldn’t have bothered me. Though it’s a lot easier to just duck.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Alma – Ah, water. Always a tricky medium for the lazy writer. My favorite is a scene where the heroine swims upstream against what is described as a 5 mph current. About as fast as olympic swimmers.

    Keith W. I didn’t have a problem with the alliances, though I would imagine the Katniss procedure of running off immediately would be the more successful strategy. And one which would have been regularly taught by those Districts that train their volunteers. I didn’t mind the lack of explanation about how America became Panem, either. Explaining it would require another trilogy.

  7. 7. Laura

    Ok, this is probably going to get me tarred and feathered in this crowd, but seriously it’s fantasy and YA. It’s escapism, not history or any other type of lesson.

    I read a book or go to a movie for fun, not to learn. That what school and documentaries are for.

    I love the fantasy and the science fiction genre and my husband is a computer programmer and a some what techno geek. So finding improbable scenes drives him nuts. However I hate it when he points it out to me.

    Now it is to a point, there are some movies I won’t even take him to and there are books I won’t even recommend for him to read.

    Note this isn’t a compromise, it’s just saves our marriage.

  8. 8. cathy

    I don’t often get *really* bent out of shape about things like that (unless it’s really obvious) but I do have a book where two characters are discussing their love of sci fi shows and how geeky they are and one guy asks the other, “so who is your favorite Doctor Who?” It was like a giant record screech in my head. I hated it so much that when I reread it I skip that page. And it’s always the first thing I think of when I think of that book.

    It seems like a small thing, but it left a big impression on me. :)

  9. 9. Mary

    The real problem is that you are (we hope) vastly outnumbered by your readers, whose knowledge therefore has a depth and breadth no writer can match.

    (Though I did manage to make a costumer happy recently. I was talking about a steampunk heroine who wears artistic clothing, and her reaction was — ah, a legitimate reason not to wear a corset.)

  10. 10. Genevieve Williams

    That bugged me, too, mostly because I DO archery and the errors there really did jump out at me. (Though, may I say, you don’t fire a bow, either–that language was also used in the book, and it’s wrong. You fire a gun. You shoot a bow, or loose an arrow.)

    I enjoyed the book anyway for other reasons, but in a world that has the SCA and bowhunters in it, this really isn’t a hard detail to get right.

    You CAN knock a thrown knife out of the air, but you’ve got to be pretty fast. Katniss is a good enough shot to take a bird on the wing so I had no trouble believing this.

  11. 11. S.C. Butler

    Laura – It may be fanatsy, but it’s still written in English, and the language should be correct. And a bow and arrow still need to act like a bow and arrow, otherwise you have to call them something else.

    Cathy – The last thing that author probably wanted was for you to remember their book as the one with the Dr. Who scene.

    Mary – True. But not in this case, I’d say. If you know you know nothing about a topic, you need to do a little research. And, based on the way Collins writes about archery, she had to know that she didn’t know what she was talking about.

    Genevieve – Two against one – I stand corrected on the knife warding. And I’d forgotten about the whole firing thing.

  12. 12. Faith Hunter

    Delurking. My greatest concern is what our copy editors are doing–or not, and what effect the Internet has on fact-checking. I have been in this business an awfully long time, and fact-checking used to be part of a CE’s job. Or maybe I simply had top-of-the-line CEs. Or, maybe the Internet has ruined fact checking for us all.

    What if her CE did look it up? A 3 second search for, “How to load a bow and arrow?” gave me lots of sites and videos with just that terminology. Now, perhaps if I had actually listened/watched the videos the proper terminology might have become correct, but would a CE have done so?

    Hence my concerns.

  13. 13. Peter Last

    I haven’t read The Hunger Games mainly because I cannot stand the writing style, though I have read many books with things like you mentioned in them, and it drives me insane. On the other hand, I imagine that my books have similar mistakes in them that drive other people crazy. What goes around, comes around, I suppose.

  14. 14. S.C. Butler

    Faith – And a lot of those videos talk about shooting your arrow, too! English is so mutable. But you still can’t keep a loaded bow at your side while you sleep – it won’t work.

    Peter – Yes, but you can check your books to try and keep them from having mistakes like that. It doesn’t have to come around.

  15. 15. Mac

    Copyediting and fact-checking are two different jobs, unless you’re paying hella lot extra.

  16. 16. Scott Seldon

    I’ve often noticed that the more you know on a subject the more sensitive you are to it in a book or film. For the masses, this just isn’t an issue. I really think it is the writer’s job to get this things write, not an editor. But most stories are escapist and we really shouldn’t be getting bent out of shape about it. We should note it as an example of what not to do. I like to mention Jerry Bruckheimer every time something like this comes up because every film of his I’ve seen has some bit of stupidity in it that could have been avoided by five minutes of fact checking.

    Personally, I have no intention of ever reading Hunger Games or its sequels. I will watch the movie when my wife gets it through Netflix, but I’ll probably surf or blog or social network while it’s on. I have too many other things that I really want to read or watch.

  17. 17. Kelsey J.

    It really depends on what it is, and how the author presents it. If a character is an expert on something and the author knows squat about it, it bugs me. But Katniss never had “proper” archery training, so she might not know what the right terms for things.

    I don’t get bent out of shape when something isn’t really obviously stupid, but I like when an author knows their stuff. Makes it more credible.

    And I agree with Faith- it should be SOMEONE’s job to notice things like that.

  18. 18. S.C. Butler

    Mac – In theory, it’s your publisher who’s paying, not you. Though I guess in this brave new publishing world we’re currently living in self-pubbing means you hire someone to do it yourself.

    Kelsey – I’m no expert in archery, but it strikes me that keeping a ‘loaded’ bow by your side while you sleep or rest is self-evidently impossible, whether you’ve had archery training or not.

    Scott – I think that even escapist stories need to have a kernel of verisimilitude. If anything can happen, where’s the tension?

  19. 19. Sam Graham

    Clearly not self-evidently enough. ;)

    Loaded bow and firing it, glad I’ve never read or wanted to read the books, it’d drive me insane.

    I get irate enough already about (ab)use of bows in TV and films, don’t need the added blood pressure by reading the books. :)

    Verisimilitude is important, a book requires the suspension of disbelief, if you throw in stuff that departs from my understanding of how the world works, you damn well need to at least hint at an explanation of why that departure exists, otherwise my involvement in the story goes way down.

    Why? Because lazy writing like that warns me that they’re quite happy to invent the rules on the fly to suit whatever scene they want to tell rather than operate within the constraints of those rules and surprise me.

    “What are the rules/what is the situation that the hero needs to be in to win?” is inherently a lot less interesting a question and answer than “What does the hero need to do, given these rules/situation, in order to win?”

    Overtly bending reality without prior set-up or explanation makes it obvious that the author is doing the former, rather than giving the illusion that they’re doing the later.

  20. 20. Elizabeth Moon

    There’s no reason to give up on research because it’s a book for YA or younger. Quite the reverse. Whatever you think of the tone of much older books for young people, many of them did get the details right, because the writer was writing about what she/he knew. These books gave kids interesting and accurate information about sailing, horses, dog rearing and training, hunting and fishing, camping, etc.

    The loaded bow got to me, too, since I’ve used both crossbows and ordinary bows. Slapping a knife aside is a different proposition in a movie (where the knife isn’t likely to be sharp) and in a real-life fight (where it is–it can be done, but you risk a lot more, even if you’re successful.)

    There’s nothing wrong with “shooting” an arrow (the term was used that way centuries ago) but “firing” is definitely wrong.

  21. 21. S.C. Butler

    Sam – I could not have said it better myself (and I have tried). Suspension of disbelief should be earned.

    Elizabeth – I actually just rewatched the Aragorn scene in TFOR that Marie described, and it could not have been set up more easily for the actor. The knife was thrown to his side, so he could swing at it like he was swinging at a baseball. Of course, in a real fight you’d ignore a missed throw like that, but whacking it is so much cooler! (Especially to a 14 year old.)

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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