Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Details Kill

"I'll take responsibility."
How many times in a sci-fi movie or geopolitical thriller do you watch  the commander of the starship or a secret government operation, on the verge of making an incredibly bonehead move that will result in horrible death and disfigurement for millions, focus his steely gaze on the radar screen and, to the objections of his professional staff, intones in a manly voice, "I'll take responsibility."? Really, Captain Kirk? Oh, good, because the only thing I and the rest of us here on the bridge were worried about is who was going to get blamed if this one-in-a-million-chance scheme of yours goes wrong and we and the whole planet are incinerated. Oh, and wait, what do you mean you'll "take responsibility?"  You already have responsibility; you're the captain, remember?

Of course, the thing that these other nervous nellies in all these movies are not meant to know, but which we and the wiley Captain Kirk all know, is that a one-in-a-million chance in movie terms means certainty. If there's a one-in-a-million-chance it will work, you'd be a fool not to take it. And movies are just for escape, after all, especially sci-fi thrillers. How much fun would it be if the boneheaded scheme for which Captain Kirk so nobly accepted responsibility actually failed, as its astronomical improbability suggested it would, and humanity perished? Not exactly great for subsequent DVD sales.Or the whole Star Trek franchise.

But that's not my point of this post. The point is exactly about taking responsibility for the details. If you're writing a science fiction screenplay, for instance, we'll buy faster-than-light speed, time travel, floating mountains, teleportation, even shape-shifting monsters with telekinetic powers, but we won't buy lazy, sloppy writing. If your characters are military officers, don't have them salute excessively (actors do love to salute, don't they?), don't turn them into two-dimensional caricatures of closed-minded martinets, and never have them say things that they never would in real life, like, "I'll take responsibility," "I'm in command here," "I outrank you." or the worst, "I have my orders." Take responsibility for researching your subject. Those are your orders.

"Why didn't they just...?"

Case in point, since I was already alluding to the most recent Star Trek movie: There's a scene toward the climax when young cadet, James T. Kirk, assumes command of the Enterprise by citing some Star Fleet Directive Number bladdabink-dash-wangabork to relieve the acting captain, Cdr. Spock of command. This is not exactly a Caine Mutiny introspective moment about the nuances of hundreds of years of Naval legal precedent becoming relevant in matters of duress. No, it's a cheap narrative device designed to move the plot bluntly forward. Kirk just cites the obscure directive and, shazaam, Spock meekly relinquishes command to this impulsive adolescent. Well, okay, you might say, they had to get Kirk in command in time for the big fistfight on the alien ship (a requisite of all Star Trek movies; in spite of unimaginable technology, everything is resolved by a manly fistfight), and this isn't The Caine Mutiny--a movie that was acute in its attention to accurate detail, in fact. But it is the filmmakers themselves who bring up the detail of the obscure Star Fleet Directive, reminding us that here is a highly organized institution, presumably founded on centuries of prior Naval law and tradition. So that leads us to wonder why, with all of the hundred other more senior, more qualified line officers in precedence readily available for relieving an unfit commander on the Enterprise, everyone just assumes the most inexperienced but cutest midshipman (we're not even sure, because of a prior detail omission, if he's actually been commissioned yet) should be the next in line for command. But there's that fistfight on the alien ship to get to. Nobody'll notice the detail. Move on.

What this expedient move-it-along-for-the-sake-of-the-story sloppiness does is momentarily wake us up from our trance of acceptance, making us realize that we are just watching a movie and, ironically, taking some of the fun out of it. Equally ironically, even in sci-fi and  fantasy movies, you have to be attentive to details because your audience demands it.You teach them to pay attention to the new rules of the fictional world, but that means, as the creators of the world, you have to be fanatical about following the rules yourself. You start slipping on the details, you start eliciting cries of "Wait a minute, didn't they just...?" from the audience (quietly, only to their irritated dates, of course), and you've lost them.

But this fault of sloppiness extends to advertising, too.

If you're writing ads for a client, research your client's product before you start typing away marketing cliches. Know your client's customers. Imagine what it would be like to be them, reading your copy. For one thing, assume they are probably much smarter than you...or at least, smarter than you give them credit for being. They can smell sloppiness. When you yourself are reading or watching an ad about a subject you happen to know something about, you can instinctively tell when the person writing it had no clue about his subject. He'll patronize you, for instance, about how hard it is to run a small business, clearly never having had to run a small business himself. He hasn't got the details right. And your eyes glaze over. He's lost you before he's even arrived at the main selling point.

One bug ruins the whole salad

The responsibility is in sweating the details. Who cares, you might think, if a detail is off? It's the bigger message that's important. A noble sentiment, to be sure; keep your eyes on the bigger goal. But the sad fact is that if you are fast and loose with the details, you undercut the validity of the bigger message. The details are the proof. One tiny little bug in the salad ruins the whole salad.

This is why proofreading is so important. A misspelled word, a syntax error, a grammatical mistake can each become a red flag to your customer of the quality of your product, or of how well you take care of your customers. If you can't do something as basic as spell correctly, what's supposed to make them think you're going to sell them a product that won't blow up in their faces? Likewise, the wrong tone, the wrong phrase, too many buzz words, each make the whole, bigger message hollow. A sloppiness in the craft of a company's ad betrays a sloppiness in the craft of the entire company.

(I realize, of course, that having thrown a spotlight on this that you will be hawk-eyed for the slightest typo and grammatical error in this blog. But it's just a blog. I'm not trying to sell you anything. You have to go to my company's website for that. Typos aplenty there.)

It's the details that kill. It was the details of those disturbing pictures from Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq that undercut our nation's entire international credibility as a beacon for freedom and democracy, doing more harm to our country than Al Qaeda could have ever dreamed of inflicting. Of course, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, at the time, dismissively pointed out that these were just a few bad apples and didn't represent us or our fine men and women in uniform. He was right there, but it was too late; the impression had been made to the world and his glib response to the world, shrugging it off, confirmed it. They were his bad apples. He set the tone of leadership. He was the one bravely looking into the radar screen while his staff admonished him to reconsider this wild scheme of invading Iraq without a plan of occupation and said, "I'll take responsibility." But we know he didn't take responsibility, and the wild scheme didn't work (as they rarely do, by definition), and the only people who took responsibility were a few enlisted personnel in the lower decks--oh, and of course, the rest of us.

Again, the details, whether a bug in the salad or a few bad apples running a military prison or a misspelling in an ad, are the indicators of rot in the whole enterprise. They are warning lights for the credibility of the entire, bigger message. People are smarter than you think. You can't get away with dismissive phrases like, "Democracy is messy," or "A few bad apples," or "I'll take responsibility," and think nobody will notice. They'll notice.