Saturday 21 April 2012

Specifics Make Stories Real

In order for the reader to see your make believe world as clearly as you see it, you need to be specific.

This does not mean long descriptions or emphasising the way characters react to their environment. It means when you make a claim (it was an amazing library) or assign an emotion (she loved him), you have to back it up (what was so amazing about the library? What did she love about him?).

This is quite difficult, especially if you’re trying to avoid the clichés most commonly used. 

Most aspiring writers just don’t bother. People will know what you mean by ‘beautiful’ or ‘welcoming’ and anyway it isn’t all that important to the overall story, so why waste time trying to come up with just the right detail? 

Or why not just add a bunch of details that give the general idea?

When a writer makes a generic statement or expects you to take their word for it, the thing it immediately screams is: “I couldn’t think of anything good!” 

Whether that is true or not is beside the point. That’s the impression it gives.

Most of the time the writer isn’t even aware they’re doing it. They mention the MC didn’t like being stuck in the classroom doing geography with Mrs Bentley—what’s so hard to understand about that? But that isn’t the question you need to ask. The question is, why do you think the reader cares? Just because you have expressed some opinion through a character, why should the reader pay any attention. ?

It is a strange thing, but in order to appeal to as universal an audience as possible, you need to highlight the most specific and unusual details in your story. This is why inexperienced writers are recommended to ‘write what you know’. You are far more likely to be aware of those personal, unique moments with regard to your subject if you have some experience of it in real life. It’s not that you can’t use your imagination, it’s that if you haven’t developed the skills and techniques required to convey that information to the reader nobody will believe you, whether you’re describing a train pulling into a station, or a space cruiser flying through an asteroid belt.

When you are able to crystallise your point with a specific detail or example, not only does it convince those people who have some knowledge of the subject that you know what you’re talking about, it also convinces people who have no prior knowledge that you know what you’re talking about.

Being specific lends your voice authority.

This has nothing to do with show versus tell, or about accuracy or realism. How well you describe something, how vivid and easy to see it is won’t make it any more interesting. The specificity is down to you choosing the thing that will make a connection with the reader. Because it cuts straight to the truth.

This is my favourite tree. That doesn’t mean anything

If I describe the tree very accurately using beautiful language, it will still be a boring depiction of a tree. Everyone already knows what a tree looks like and nobody cares about my arboreal preferences.

If the reason I’m focused on the tree is because of how me and my brother used to play in that tree, and today is his funeral, then my favourite tree becomes about a specific thing. And in doing so it becomes true for everyone.
If you found this post useful, and you've got nothing better to do, why not give it a retweet? Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Make a connection - check!

Gail said...

Very good point. I have always heard write what you know. Now I know why. When I write what I know, it's smoother and more readable.

I was reading a book today that mentioned they singed a chicken in preparation for plucking. It ruined the story for me for pages. I have plucked and singed chickens...the plucking comes first.

Fairview said...

Nice. The examples really illustrate your point. Thank you.

Cynthia said...

I really like your point about highlighting unusual details to prevent a description from being too predictable. At the same time, I think sprinkling a few common details, but doing this sparingly, might also help the reader visualize the object/person because these details might make them feel connected to something familiar.

mooderino said...

@alex-yes, connect through sharing specifics, not generalities.

@Gail-there is actually a technique where you give what seems like the wrong information, and then point out that it's wrong through another character. It makes the reader identify strongly with the person who provides the correction.

@Fairview-you're welcome.

@Cynthia-certainly, there's a whole school of thought (minimalism) where small details build up a strong picture full of subtext, but it's very easy to do a bad job of it.

Sara Hill said...

"This is my favorite tree" in what college freshman compositions are rife with. You've conveyed what's wrong with this very well. Thanks.

AuthorAlden said...

Nice post, great advice! This is one of those areas that can be tough to nail down for a new writer, often leaning too far in either direction--too vague or too bogged down with details. That sweet spot in the middle is the place to aim for.

J.W. Alden

Ghadeer said...

Useful advice. I'm guilty of not being very specific in my writing!

Julie Daines said...

Surprisingly, it usually only takes a short sentence or two to make that connection or add that one needed bit of specific detail to bring the scene to life.

Great advice, thanks!

mooderino said...

@sara-don't tell the freshmen, you know how sensitive they can be.

@JW-I think there's wiggle room for voice in that sweet spot. But you need your own idea of how to express yourself first, you can't just wing it on the day.

@jnana-it's hard to do, which is why people tend to avoid it, and also why they shouldn't.

@Julie-yes, it's more about the idea than it is the words.

Rosalind Adam said...

This is one of those 'less is more' situations and remembering to show not tell too.
A to Z of Nostalgia

mooderino said...

@Rosalind-it is, but it's still possible to show and be concise and still fail to engage the reader. Showing cliche's and making pithy but predictable observations is of no help. Equally, you can 'tell' something interesting and capture the reader's attention. It isn't about the tool, it's about the skill of the craftsman.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post. I agree that specifics make stories real.

Precy Larkins said...

Excellent post! I wholly agree with this.

mooderino said...

@Rachna-now we just need to convince everyone else.


martine said...

That was really thoughtful and helpful.
thanks for sharing

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