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The Importance of Specific Details

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.


Every character who appears in your story must been seen.
Where did I read this? It was a quote by a famous writer, I believe.  This writer expressed the importance of the
reader being able to visualize even the most fleeting character. If they are
going to make an appearance in your story, then you must make them specific.
The reader must be able to see the postman that drops off the mail, the man
selling hot dogs on the side of the road, the bank teller. We must insert a
remarkable, specific detail– not much, just a morsel– that allows the reader to
imagine the character.

I was struggling with this yesterday. No, I was forgetting this. It was a rough writing
day and so I called my mother to vent. I blabbed on– I can’t do it, I’m a terrible writer, I can’t bring these characters
to life.
And my mother—my mother!—said this to me: “Well, this might help you. I was just
reading this book and I really didn’t know how the character even looked and
then suddenly another character made an observation. She said: ‘My, your eyes, they are so colorless, so
cold.’ And I saw her!” Whatever, mom,
I snapped. We hung up and I pouted more and then slowly I realized what a great
tidbit my mother had just offered me. I understood in that moment that it doesn’t
take much. We sometimes over do it, make things more complicated than they are.
But many times it only takes a small detail, a specific detail, a quick
observation to bring a character to life. I called my mother back and
apologized for my horrible mood, my curt correspondence. My mother continued on
about this character, “Those black curls and colorless eyes, the other character
said. God, once she said it I just couldn’t get her out of my head.” Yes. I
could see the character, too, and I hadn’t even read the book. Thanks, Mom!

One of my favorite writers, Abigail Thomas says this about
specific details:

“Use
specific details. Back when I was a literary agent I received a proposal from a
woman names Virginia Dabney who wanted to write about her mother’s farm, where
she had grown up. In her proposal, she wrote about the birds singing outside
the window, and some other things I can’t remember. Nothing caught my attention
until she talked about the cold winters and the unheated house, and how, to
keep her children warm, her mother put newspapers between the sheets and
blankets for insulation. Now that was interesting. I wrote her back saying I didn’t
want to hear anything about the beauty of bird song, but please tell me more
about those newspapers.

A year
later I received a manuscript called Once There Was a Farm: A Country Childhood
Remembered, which was bought and published by Random House.

Details.
Specifics. Eliminate all abstract nouns.”

Abigail
Thomas, Thinking about Memoir


pic: majorlycool

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4 Responses to The Importance of Specific Details

  1. Kate says:

    Katie– too funny. Great minds. :)

  2. Katie says:

    Ha! I was just going to say the same thing: Being universal is being specific.
    Katie

  3. Kate says:

    Yes, my prof said the same thing: being universal IS being specific. We relate and connect with actual people, characters who are specific, the ones you could pick out of a crowd. When it’s too general it’s much more difficult to hit that emotional nerve and get readers to connect.

  4. Kristan says:

    I remember one of my writing profs explaining that we all want our stories to resonate with a broad audience, so many young writers will try to keep their writing broad/generalized. But that’s precisely the wrong thing to do. The more specific details are what bring a story and its characters to life, what give readers something to hold on to (or perhaps to reject) — and THAT is what builds the connection.

    So yeah. Right on!

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