Details Drive it Home

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I have gushed ad nauseam about the unprecedented genius of the best Spider-Man movie, Into the Spider-verse. But since it just arrived on Netflix (necessitating a rewatch, of course), I thought I’d point out one of the many (so many) things that the Spider-verse team did well: Details.

Minor spoilers below.

Early in my current project, A Legion of Gods, I was all about the details. It’s a car novel, set in a pseudo-medieval world, so I spent days geeking out over how medievalesque engineers might develop ceramic brake pads or chemical headlights. These details ended up in big buckets, plopped down in the middle of the story for the reader to work through when they were supposed to be there for the characters.

My editor wisely identified these buckets, half-emptied each of them (so long, medieval exhaust pipe bending machines), and told me to spread the rest out across actual plot points so readers could stay invested.

Throughout that process, I’ve sorted them into two main categories of details, which I’ll call passive and active, because… I… can’t think of better terms. Anyway, I found both in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse.

Passive Details

The purpose of passive details is to make a setting more immersive, believable, or interesting. Among many other details in Spider-verse, I found a red BMW.

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See it here next to the yellow cab. Miles and his dad are cruising under the El bridge. In the next shot, from inside the car, we see it again.

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Okay, the cab in shot 2 is facing the other way, but it’s the same red BMW 3 Series, getting ready to make a right turn in front of Visions Academy. Now check out shot 3, when Miles and his dad in the police car are in front of the school.

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Red BMW again. Now, this is a tiny thing. I’m a huge gearhead, and I look for cool cars in every movie, but I didn’t even notice this thing until my fourth viewing. This is an animated movie, so there’s no practical need to insert that little detail. But it’s there, and it communicates to me that the creators put significant time and effort into the project.

That’s what we really want from passive details. They hide, but when we see them, we experience a certain confidence in the writer. We can trust them to have written a story we can lose ourselves in. I think this is what I was really going for with my encyclopedia of dark age automobilia, but my problem was that I didn’t hide it.

Many fantasy and hard science fiction writers struggle struggle to find the balance with passive details. Offer too few and the world becomes flat and featureless. Offer too many and they can hamper the pacing or even confuse the audience, at least in written form. This Spider-Man clip is easy, because it’s a visual medium. In prose, they must come through more subtly. How would this look on the page?

Miles sighed as Visions Academy loomed into view. He felt so out of place there. After crossing this last street of freedom, he’d waste a whole week at the preppy, uptight school. A red BMW marked their passage as their own car slowed in front of the doors. The BMW pulled out behind them, following them to the door, but driving past.

Wait…why is the BMW following them? Are they in danger? These thoughts might go through the reader’s mind if I went into too much detail about the car. And if the BMW never reappeared after this mention, readers might feel like they’ve wasted their time. If I really wanted to point out the BMW at all, I’d have to describe other cars as well, or at least other details about the scene so it wouldn’t seem like I was singling out the BMW.

Active Details

Like passive details, active details need to sneak around, but they offer significance to the plot, rather than the setting. Passive details are fun to find, but active details are satisfying to find. Spider-Verse has the perfect example.

In an early scene, Miles has just gotten his powers, so he’s trying them out. He stands on the edge of a tall building, determined to jump to the next like his hero, Spider-Man.

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Anthemic music swells into his moment, and then, hilariously, it cuts, and we see him running back down the stairs, reconsidering, and switching to a shorter tower. Aaaand he still falls off that one.

Later, near the climax of the movie, Miles is coming into his own as the new Spider-Man and makes a mad midnight dash across New York. We see the following as a part of a fun, frenetic sequence of superpowered parkour.

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Did you catch it? “Trust Us Bank.” It’s the same building he was afraid to leap to before. Sure, he starts from a little lower, but he’s gained more control over his powers and he’s matured emotionally, so now when he makes the jump, there’s no hesitation, and he lands it just fine.

In fact, there are several shots in this sequence that mirror the earlier failure to launch sequence. He flips around a flag pole that he once bounced off of. His former “AAAAAAH!” of terror (visually spelled out on screen because you can do that with a cartoon comic book movie), is now a triumphant “WOOOOO!”

Again, I didn’t notice this until my fourth viewing. It’s hidden among the greater cadence of the scene.

It’s important to note that active details don’t advance the plot. If they did, they would be actual plot elements, like the origami unicorn in the director’s cut of Blade Runner. Mystery stories thrive on these little elemental details, and I have a major one in A Legion of Gods (no spoilers, though).

That’s not what’s going on here in Spider-verse. If you took out this whole sequence, or any of its identifying visual details, the plot of the movie would still make sense. You’d still be cheering for Miles Morales. But these details further accentuate Miles’ character development. They make the meal a little more flavorful, and they’re extremely satisfying for the audience to find.

Accent your stories with details, active and passive, and in the right volume, and your audience will keep coming back.

What are some of your favorite details in Spider-verse and other stories? Nerd out in the comments and brag about things you noticed.

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