Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Example (Being specific rather than vague), part of Writing: The Craft of Story.
You'd surprised how easy it is for a writer to think they're being specific, when in fact they're firmly stuck in the general realm. For instance... (male speaker: Max walked slowly across the carefully manicured lawn thinking about that day so long ago when everything changed. Did everyone else who'd come here today to honor the dead remember the same kind of horror he did? Or was their loss somehow simpler? Somehow easier to live with? He didn't know.
He stopped, looking across the expanse of graves until he was jolted from his reverie by a little boy who ran up and saluted him. Rather than return the salute, Max turned and walked away, certain the kid got the message.) Having read this passage, two things are abundantly clear. One, the writer is trying to communicate something he believes is very important. Two, we have no idea what it is. What went wrong? The writer couldn't tell the difference between the story he was seeing in his head and the one he had actually written on the page.
He knew exactly what each generality really referred to. For instance, he knew what had changed on that day so very long ago. He knew what Max is remembering with horror. He knew what losses Max is referring to. He knew why Max didn't return that boy's salute, and he knew what message Max was certain the kid got. Trouble is, he knows all these things so well that he didn't realize they are not on the page. Here's the story he thought he'd written...
(male speaker: Max walked slowly across the carefully manicured lawn thinking about that day so long ago when everything was lost. Ten men had been in his squad, each as young and scared as he was, but only he'd survived the blast. He blinked and saw it for the thousandth time-- Billy falling through the sky; Al vaporized in an instant; Joe, slipping beneath the waves. Did everyone who came out on the Veteran's Day to honor their dead remember them with the same kind of horror he did? Or was their loss somehow simpler, easier to live with because they hadn't been there at the end? It had to be, or they'd look as haunted as he felt.
He stopped, staring across the expanse of graves until he was jolted from his reverie by an eager little boy who ran up and saluted him. The kid was staring at Max's medals, grinning. Max smiled ruefully, shaking his head, "There's no glory in it, son," he said, "and little good, either." He turned and walked away without saluting, hoping that maybe one day that kid would cast a vote that kept the country out of war altogether.) This time the story is on the page where we can experience firsthand what Max is feeling.
Of course, you can't go too far with specifics, especially sensory details, adding too many or adding the wrong ones at the wrong time. The thing to remember is that since specifics are where your stories live and breathes, every specific must pertain to the story. It not only has to tell us something we don't know, but something we need to know right now. Speaking of which, let's go to the next movie, where I'll give you a checklist to help you root out all those generalities lurking in your story and translate them into specifics.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots