Don’t Let Them See The Duct Tape: Part 3 of How to Create a Compelling Fictional World

What’s wrong with this picture shot on the set of the Emmy-Award winning TV series Mad Men?”  Are you wondering,  “How did Don Draper get an iPhone in 1965?”

On the Set of Mad Men from Time Magazine

On the Set of Mad Men from Time Magazine

For a second, I was startled, until I looked closely at the photo from Time Magazine.  That’s when I realized  the actors were off camera.  That explained Jon Hamm’s iPhone.  But there’s another reason why I was startled.  Part of the success of the Mad Men TV series is its meticulous attention to period details–in terms of clothing, furnishings, speech, characters’ attitudes, and historical events.  And, just as important, the details are integrated seamlessly into the narrative, so the viewer is never jolted back to the present-day.  This guideline was meticulously followed by the creators of Mad Men as well as masters of creative fiction.   In fact, it is our third key component in creating a compelling fictional world:

3.  Don’t let the reader see the duct tape.  In other words, the creative artist needs to do his/her homework and collect information about the characters, the location, period details, and historical facts.  All this happens behind the scenes.  Then, the writer weaves these carefully-chosen threads into the fictional narrative.  When writers get lazy or sloppy, they construct scenes with descriptions or dialog that reveal gaps in research or inconsistencies in character or plot, which can break the fictional spell.  They can also insert pages of ponderous historical explanation, which is equally deadly.  All of these inconsistencies or gaps or long explanations will drive the reader away.

To illustrate this point, I’ll use an example from my novel, The Incident at Montebello.  To craft scenes set in a tailor shop in Italy, I had to learn about sewing in the 1930’s.  Were the sewing machines electric or were they powered by foot pedals?  Did men’s pants have zippers or buttons?  How far below the knee were women’s hemlines?  (Answers:  sewing machines were not electric because most small villages didn’t have electricity;  pants had buttons, not zippers; and ladies’ hems fell to mid-calf for the  younger girls and to the ankle for the older women.)  Here’s another example from the TV series, Da Vinci’s Demons.  Tom Riley, who plays Leonardo, does not look like a man from the 15th Century because his style of dress, hairstyle, way of speaking, and mannerisms are very 21st Century–as you can see in the two photos below.  Yes, he is handsome, and yes, the setting is Italy–one of my favorite places in the world, but I still couldn’t watch this series.  I just couldn’t believe in the character or the situation.  Apparently, I wasn’t alone in this–judging from the poor ratings on


Leonardo Da Vinci self portrait

This laziness, haste or inattention to detail can also happen in character development.  Instead of creating complex, multi-dimensional people that “live and breathe,” inexperienced writers can rely on stereotypical characters with transparent motivations and reactions.  These “shallow Hals” are predictable, and do not grow and change as a result of their experiences.  Yes, we all know people who stubbornly cling to their “old” ways, but would you want to spend an extended amount of time with them?  I doubt it.  Great characters in fiction are fully realized–thanks to the writers who have given us glimpses into their minds and hearts.  Think of Emma Bovary or Scarlett O’Hara.  They have strengths and weaknesses, they sometimes act foolishly and impulsively, but in the course of the novel, they change.  Sometimes this change is incremental and not dramatic, but it does occur.

To help create, well-rounded, complete characters, you might want to develop a character sketch .  Here’s a link to a useful character profile tool  from The Script Lab.  I am using it now as I work on my second novel and I’m finding it very helpful.

To read more tips for creating a compelling fictional world, take a look at part 1 and part 2 in this series.

What examples do you have of books or TV series that “show the duct tape?”   Have you stopped watching or reading them because of this?


15 replies »

  1. Hi Cardinal! It’s well worth seeing…especially the early seasons. I’m a hard critic when it comes to the script…which I felt got weaker in the more recent episodes. I hope you enjoy it!


  2. I’m a bit late to this post, but glad that I didn’t miss it entirely! Another marvelous post about creating compelling characters and settings. Attention to detail and authenticity to the time period or setting is so important in keeping the reader in the world of the story.
    That said, I’ve read a few novels when the author goes overboard with the nitty-gritty details that it becomes a history lesson instead of a way to illuminate the character. 🙂 Any suggestions for writers to make sure that their story is evenly balanced between details and true character growth?


    • Hi Jackie! Thanks for your kind words. You ask a great question. My rule of thumb is to make sure that the historical detail is incorporated as deftly as possible into the narrative and it should not be more than a paragraph or so. I also may ask my sample readers or members of my novel group whether there is too much detail. I trust them to provide honest feedback. Is that what you do? Thanks again!–Patti


      • That is exactly what I was thinking. There is a fine line between a fully-realized setting and a temptation to expound from the lectern all the knowledge the writer devours in order to convincingly portray the world their fiction inhabits. I get just as distracted by a ‘factual account’ of a historical event as I do by a historical solecism.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Patti! Thank you for posting this. I’m currently writing a post-apocalyptic novel set in the future, and world building has been one of biggest challenges, particularly since the society mostly illiterate. I’ve done some research on pre-literate societies, and I was delighted to discover that Socrates was illiterate! He condemned “dead discourse,” and his three reasons for rejecting the written word has formed the backbone of my novel. It’s fascinating to consider how the past and the future are so similar.

    I’ve often thought about how my novel might impact potential readers, but I’ve never stopped to think about how the process has led me to question things I would never have thought to question.


    • Hi Kelly. Thanks so much for your thoughts and insights about research–especially Socrates–who preferred to rely on memory instead of writing things down! Fascinating. I have an idea in the back of my mind to write about research–its joys and frustrations–and resources that I’ve found so helpful. It sounds like you’d enjoy that! Thanks again for your comments–Patti

      Liked by 1 person

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