Specificity: Using Detail to Bring Your Story to Life
How many times have you heard the story where Girl has problems, Boy comes to save her, and then they live happily ever after? Or what about murder in a town, Detective believes it’s Suspect A, all the clues point here, but it turns out it was B? How about I put it more simply: I bet you’ve read a story that has a character with a problem, they struggle to resolve it, but then somehow, they do resolve it enough for the story to end. (Could I be more generalistic?)
Stories are simple: You have a Character, a Place, and a Problem. And these basic plot structures of a story are recycled. Stories have been told a million (probably a bajillion) times. So why keep reading them? And why keep writing them?
Because the details change. What makes my story different from yours (and the 500 others that are similar to it) are the details. It’s what makes my story “MY story” and your story “YOUR story.”
But even if we change basic details – names, locations, some important details – it would still be pretty similar. You need your story to be different, to be true, to be YOURS. To get that to happen, we need the details.
- To make your story YOURS
- To fully understand your story
- To see your places, taste your tastes, feel your feelings, and bring your story to life
Let’s set an example story with a basic plot to understand this. Here’s the fact for our story: It’s winter, and it snowed a lot last night.
I could tell you a little bit more by adding details. I could tell you: The air was frigid and the snow piled high. This makes the scene a little bit clearer, we can start to picture it, but it’s still not enough. What makes this different? Nothing.
Here are two very different examples that show how influential small details can be:
Option 1: Lucy peeked out her bedroom window, letting her fingertips barely touch the frost glass, and smiled at her yard blanketed in fluffy white. The rhyming snow prayer and flushing the toilet three times with her pajamas inside-out and backwards had worked. It was definitely going to be a snow day.
Option 2: Kevin glared out his window as he waited for the morning’s coffee, cursing the frozen snow from ever pummeling down from the sky. He couldn’t even see his car with all that ice locked onto it – just the shape that somewhat resembled a car that resided in the place where he normally parked.
The fact of our story remains the same in both these examples – it’s still winter and it definitely snowed a lot last night. But in just two or three sentences, these stories begin to move in very different directions.
We receive a lot of information about the scene, the characters, and the plot. We can tell the difference in ages – Lucy is obviously young, school-aged, while Kevin is older, needing to go to work – so we get the first hints of character development. We’re also understanding the snow – our setting – in different ways: through our characters’ observations and interpretations about it. Lucy sees beauty when she looks out her “frosty window” and sees her yard “blanketed in fluffy white,” words that connote beauty, while Kevin “curses the frozen snow,” words that connote hatred. The place is informing our story, our characters, but making it unique through small details.
We use details to describe everything: our hair color, the texture of our sofa, the taste of our food. It’s important to focus on these because the way YOU choose to describe them, through yourself or your character’s perspective, informs the story. Skipping over them means we’re only left with the fact that it’s winter. And that’s boring.
So how do we do this?
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First, Notice EVERYTHING.
To get small details, you first must notice small details. At this point, it doesn’t matter if the detail is relevant to your story or not. What matters is that you have noticed the unnoticed, uncovered the small, hidden artifacts that make up your world and your characters, and have revealed them to the reader. This is kind of a brainstorm to make get all the possible details you can.
To see a real world example of this, read Sara Pritchard’s “Two Studies in Entropy” in her book Help Wanted: Female.
Pick an object and spend five minutes writing down all the details. Just grab something in your house – an old book, a rock, a plant, a lamp – and describe it. EVERYTHING is important. In five minutes, it is impossible to record every detail, but get as much as you can. Use senses, feelings, anything. DO NOT go into a whole story just yet! The only thing you’re doing for five minutes is documenting details. This is a free-write prompt to get your mind thinking in the concept of small details. For now, just put pen to paper and get words on the page. It’s not a final draft, it’s not even a story – the story will come later.
DO NOT MOVE ON TO THE NEXT STEP UNTIL YOU HAVE DONE THIS FIRST.
Here’s a few example objects (if you cannot find an inspiring lamp in your house at the moment):
Next, Make Your Language STRONG.
Get out the dumbbells and put on your tennis shoes – we’re going to make your writing work. You may have already done this a bit in the description you just wrote. But now we’re going to trim the fat and shape the muscles of your language to make it strong. It must prove that it deserves to be here.
You want the best description possible. The one that only YOU could write. We can do this through word choice, figurative language, and avoiding clichés.
1. Good, deliberate word choice (STRONG words).
Strong Adjectives: Let’s say we have an object that is the color red. I could call it red, to be simple, but is it actually crimson, or scarlet? If I have a small object, is it actually teeny-tiny, or microscopic?
Strong Nouns: Let’s describe a 12-year-old girl. Her older sister might call her, “my dorky tweeny-bop kid sister,” but her mom might say she’s “my beautiful child who’s quickly growing into a young woman.” Should we describe her as just a “girl,” or a sister, daughter, friend, nerd, soccer-player, dog-lover, insomniac?
Strong Verbs: Did he “go” over the fence, or did he leap, climb, flop over? Did she go down the street, or did she skip, gallop, meander?
I think you get my point.
But WARNING: Do not use all of these at once. There’s a time and a place for simplicity in your writing. This is definitely one of them. Using a lot of these at once is like shooting a bazooka when you haven’t yet learned how to hold a gun (as one of my professors used to say). Avoid the bazooka. Using our workout metaphor from before, this is the equivalent of becoming a body builder. We’re not body-building here, we’re just toning up. Find the perfect word, and leave it at that. Do not overdo it.
To see a real world example of this, read Karen Russel’s “Girls Raised by Wolves.”
2. Figurative language – similes and metaphors
We’re going back to elementary school for a second. Both similes and metaphors compare something to something else. A simile compares using “like” or “as.” A metaphor does not. A simile is “The cat looks like a pillow,” and its metaphorical equivalent would be “The cat is a pillow.”
These are used to compare the object in question to something completely different in a way that informs it and allows your reader to understand exactly what you’re talking about.
In the examples from before: That red is the color of a cherry tomato still on the vine. In addition to providing more detail, we’re also able to know more about the character, the relationship between them and others, and the setting where they exist. This character knows something about growing cherry tomatoes, or at least have some experience of witnessing this color to know exactly what this shade of red looks like. A character that would describe something red as the color of a red solo cup might have completely different life experiences.
How does your character perceive the details in their world?
3. Avoiding Clichés
In the same fold as using figurative language, you want to make sure you avoid clichés. We’ve all heard and seen things “as big as an elephant” or “as small as an ant.” We’ve heard “he ran at the speed of light” too many times to know we can’t use it in our writing. They’re good if you’re establishing a common ground with your reader, but they’re not unique and they’re not going to hook the reader. You have to make your figurative language unique to you.
To make sure you’re avoiding these, try brainstorming all the possible clichés you can. Write out every single expectation of something you can think of. Once you’re done, don’t use any of it.
To see a real world example of this, read Christopher Bakken’s food/memoir blend, Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table.
Revisit your description of your object, and infuse that description with the techniques to strengthen your writing: strong word choice, figurative language, and avoiding clichés.
Then, Find the Relevance to the Character in the Moment.
Description works in two ways – One, it has to be aesthetically pleasing, meaning it’s pretty and sounds nice. Everything we just did proves this. Two, it has to be relevant and create meaning. Once we have lots of description and we know it’s very, very strong, we need to make sure it applies to the main character in the present moment, allowing them to find meaning overall.
You could write a beautiful description of your couch. You could write five pages describing your couch. But if your couch means nothing for your character or your story, then you’ve wasted the reader’s time.
One of my favorite writers, George Saunders, spoke about this exactly during a talk he gave in Pittsburgh a few years ago. In a basic scene, involving two characters sitting on a couch, he needed the plot to progress based on a conversation they were having. But instead of focusing on body language, facial expressions, tone of voices, etc. he ended up with a big paragraph talking about this plaid, green couch, that was somewhat fluffy, but also stiff. It was great description, but it wasn’t adding to the story. He had to cut his description until the couch wasn’t even mentioned anymore, because it honestly didn’t even matter where they were sitting. What mattered was that they were seated, and that was enough.
On the other hand, sometimes even very insignificant details can have huge meaning and weight for the characters. It depends on who’s observing them, and what it means for their life in their world.
For a real world example, see Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (when Paul observes Connie rubbing lotion on her hands for pages and pages and pages).
Consider the emotions of your characters in this particular scene to find the details with meaning. People might view things and perceive things different depending on their mood – remember the snow story from before? The same facts occurred to both characters, but they interpreted it, and therefore described it, differently because of their emotions and the meaning it had for them.
Go back to your object description, now fully written and beefed up, and find the meaningful details for your character in this scene (I’m sure there’s some in there!). What kind of character owns this thing? Why do they own it? Why are they describing it like this? What’s going on in their life right now that’s causing them to describe it in this way? Why are they looking at it right now in the first place? This object must earn its place in your character’s life, and your story. Why does it deserve to be here?