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Here's something interesting: we are not wired to think in the abstract. We think in specific images. Concepts, generics, generalizations can't engage us emotionally. If we can't visualize it, we can't feel it. For something to really penetrate, it needs to be put into context that allows us to vicariously experience it. It's the difference between talking about life on the Mississippi or seeing it through the eyes of Huck Finn.
It may sound counterintuitive, but universal theme or emotion is only accessible through a very specific story that focuses on how it specifically affects one person. For instance, when you think of love, you don't envision a concept, you envision images that for you invoke the concept of love, which is why I'm overly fond of saying the story is in the specifics. Yet writers often write in vague generalities without even knowing they're doing it.
Take a simple sentence like Jake had a hard day at work. It's a fine sentence, except we have no idea what Jake considers a hard day or what actually happened, so we have no idea what might happen as a result. For instance, he could have goofed off all day and been caught, that would sure be a bad day, or he could have worked insanely hard only to have his rival take the credit for it. That would be a bad day too. Both paint a very different picture with very different outcomes.
Be specific, use the eyes wide shut test. If you shut your eyes, can you see it? If not, then neither can the reader. With that in mind, let's look at the six places where the specific has a tendency to go missing. First, the specific reason a character does something. Remember, we don't care what a character does, per se. What we care about is why they do it, because often the reason someone does something is the opposite of what it seems like on the surface, and that of course is the interesting part.
Second, the specific thing a metaphor is meant to illuminate. Readers must know exactly what the metaphor refers to in the story itself, or else they're left with the feeling that the writer is saying something really, really, important, but we don't know what it is. Third, the specific memory an event evokes in the protagonist. Often writers will say something like it reminded her of what her mother said when her sister was born, and that gave her the strength to carry on. Without telling us what exactly her mother said, it's like saying I'm going to make a point, but I'm not going to tell you what it is, tell us.
Fourth, the specific reaction a character has to a significant event. Writers often go vague here because they assume that the reader will know exactly how the character feels, so why waste time telling us about it? The answer is because if the character doesn't react, we won't supply the emotion they are feeling. We will simply assume that they aren't feeling anything at all. Fifth, the specific possibilities that run through a character's mind as she tries to figure something out. Even if the character will end by saying, "I don't know what the answer is," hearing what she thought it might be gives us insight into who she is, how she sees the world, and often very helpful snippets of backstory. It's an opportunity you do not want to miss.
Sixth, the specific reason a character changes their mind. One of the most interesting things in a story is why someone would suddenly decide to do something they have vowed they would never ever do. We want to be privy to the raging internal debate and what it is that ultimately tips the scales. Finally, the last thing to keep in mind is that each and every specific must be relevant to the story you're telling, and that includes the one specific that writers are often encouraged to use with abandon: Sensory details.
Sensory details we're told are what bring a story to life, and that's very true. That's why it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the real goal of sensory details is to give us insight into the story itself, so we experience it emotionally. The real world is chock full of relevancies, chaos, and the delightful vagaries of life. Stories let us slip out to this surface confusion and into something just as real but deeper, which is precisely why every sensory detail you choose must in some way give us insight into that world.
After all, the reader knows what the world looks like. What they are dying for is a glimpse of your world.
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