Writing Specific Details

A student once told me he hadn’t written down much of his novel. “I’ve got it all up here,” he said, pointing to his head. Trouble brews when what you write down and how you imagine your story don’t mesh.

Writing Tip for Today: How can you better ensure that your readers experience what you imagine?

What, How and Why

If only you understand the what, how and why of your story plot, your readers will be stuck in the dark. Let’s say you write a scene where your character gets scared and runs away. Readers need to know some important details. Answer the what (action), the how (in what way) and most importantly, the why (motivation) with specific words that help readers imagine the scene and understand the goal, the stakes and the character’s motives.

Your choice of words influences not only how the reader imagines the scene. Word choice also dictates reader interest. What stops a reader? Many times, the culprit is generality. If we write that our character is angry, readers are left deciding on a whole range of possibilities. If we write that the character sees an old building and runs into it, we must imagine a whole list of building types.

Replace these generalities with specific words that better match your vision of the scene. Instead of pasting on labels such as anger, try using some inner dialogue that expresses exactly how angry and what the anger is directed at. In third person point of view, inner thoughts don’t need to be italicized unless the character is “talking to herself” in her mind.

Adverbs and Adjectives

Another place we can improve the reader experience is in the modifiers we choose. I often preach, “Adverbs are not our friends.” These “ly” words are often used to be specific. Yet strong verbs and particular nouns have much more punch. Switch the red car (modifier is red) to a specific noun (a ’67 Corvette) with a more precise modifier (fire engine red). This gives readers an instant image.

The more we can give readers that instant image, the less they have to slow or stop reading to decide how to imagine that detail. The one place where precision doesn’t help is in describing sizes or directions. Writing that a boulder is nine feet four inches long forces readers to stop and picture an exact length. Saying that the boulder was as big as a Volkswagen Beetle gives that same approximate size instantly.

Writing with vague words concerning size or degree can also put off readers. “He was very tall” tells us next to nothing. Very and tall are such general descriptors that readers have to decide what they mean. If you write, “His chin could rest on the top of her head,” we can picture height more precisely.

In scene writing, stay out of the vague swamp.

Be Your Reader

As the writer, you know all the details of your story. Everything your character does makes sense because you know what the character wants, the stakes and how she’ll go about it. Your reader doesn’t know any of these things at first. Be careful about withholding details—if your readers can’t figure out where, when and why they’re in a scene, you may lose them.

A good way to test your scene for reader comprehension is to set it aside for days or a week. Take it out and read it aloud, as if you were a reader. What details are missing to keep interest high? You can “roll” the movie of your story in your mind to better write out crucial details. Compare your “movie” with what you just read aloud.

A word about pace. When we write to include details, we can end up with far more words. The pace of your scene needs to keep your readers interested, so choose details carefully. I tend to overwrite and then self-edit later to keep the best of the descriptions. This is one way to write specific details and still keep readers reading. Remember, your mental movie is only as good as the level of understanding your readers can maintain when they read your story.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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