Monday, December 10, 2012



Or: Pictures, or it didn't happen.

The comments: "This is totally generic." Or "This is boring." Or "I need more worldbuilding." 
What the comments mean: The story lacks (specific and unique) details.

Think of it this way: Pictures, or it didn't happen. Where's the proof?

In writing, you don't have the luxury of sharing a screenshot or instagram. The details you add to your descriptions supply that proof. When done well, you can prove your story happened

For example, when someone asks you, "Where were you last night?" 

How do you evade it? Easiest response would be vagueness. "I was out." Does this lead to the Questioner believing you, or not believing you?

More often, the vague response leads to: "Out where? With whom? Doing what?" The Questioner doesn't believe you and is asking for more proof. 

If you supply details as proof, the conversation might look like:
"Where were you last night?"
"I went to dinner with some work friends. We tried that new crepe place downtown. You know, the one on Castro Street. Across the street from the pet store with the giant gourami up front. It was so crowded though, we had to wait like, half an hour for a table."
"Oh yeah. I know that place."

Details gave the explanation truth (perhaps not the truth), just as they can in your writing. But! The details must be specific and unique. It was a crepe place, not a random restaurant. On Castro Street, not some random location. 

Paying attention to specificity and uniqueness in your WIP will help you:
1. Make your characters memorable.
2. Build a solid pocket universe.
3. Avoid clichés like the plague.
4. Make your story stand out.

Details convince a reader to believe you. Don't be evasive, coy, or vague. That leads to distrust. 

Now, if you're sure you're using enough descriptions, perhaps you're describing the wrong things. 

Describe through your characters. Treat it like one of those body-switching or suddenly-teen movie moments, and your protagonist is trying to convince the reader that s/he is who s/he claims to be: the hero, the saint, the World's Greatest Lover, the unstoppable evil. How? By describing things only s/he would know or notice. That's how s/he'll establish his truth, and that's how you'll establish yours.

Let's put our serious pants on and deconstruct an example from a limited 3rd POV with Wood Priestess Anna as our Protagonist:

When his name was called1 Shi came forward, tossing his curly ebony locks2, and bowed. He was tall3 and handsome4, with a gleaming sword5 at his side.6

1. This can be shown better.
2. Kill me now; "tossing his ebony locks?" First of all, who is he tossing these locks to? Secondly, purple prose cliché! Thirdly, whenever you're tempted to use "locks" to describe hair, understand why. Because it's been done so often that color + "locks" seems like the accepted way to describe hair – ebony locks, gold locks, scarlet locks. Do you want to be like everyone else, or do you want to stand out? (Second answer is correct.) 

3. As tall as what? This reveals almost nothing about the character being described or the POV character. What does tall mean in the story's pocket universe?

4. Same goes for handsome. Whose judgment is this? The POV character's? The writer's? Is this something you want the reader to feel about the character being described? Then give that character details that have meaning to the POV or main character

5. Gleaming? That's it? That's all I get about the sword?!

6. Overall, this is adequate for introducing someone who'll probably die soon.

Let's chisel him out of the crowd and breathe some life into him:

     The clarion bellowed the next person's name. "Shi Bautista!"
     Shi strutted forward1 then bent at the waist in what barely qualified as a bow. He was taller than the other Genians by at least a head, though shorter than any man, even most women, in the abbey hall2. With a wry grin and his sharp chin tilted up, he scornfully surveyed the room3. The sword at his side, secured to a low-slung belt by faded, knotted ribbons, slept in an ink-stained scabbard of cracked leather4.
     Anna leaned forward, body still and taught as a drawn bowstring5. Their eyes met and a strange tingle warmed her chest.

1. Specific and unique: Shi doesn't just "come forward." He struts.

2. When describing something that can be measured (ie. tall, wide) compare it to something relevant to the POV character.  Again, specific and unique. I have no f*cking idea how tall a Genian is but apparently, my POV character does. 

3. Have you ever been to a party where you didn't know anyone, and the hostess takes you around the room introducing you to people? Who did you remember? What specific and unique details made indelible impressions in your memory? Crooked nose, overplucked brows, lopsided grin, sadly sparse soul patch? Find those qualities in your characters and those details will separate your Super Spesh character from every other sidekick, Love Interest, and antagonist. 

4. Specific and unique. What does the state of his sword and scabbard reveal about him? Who uses ribbons to tie on a sword, for f*ck's sake? Why are there ink stains on his scabbard? And why is the leather cracked? Anna notices these details – which implies they're significant. The more details you add, the more important something seems. So for the love of all that's holy, don't spend too many details describing "the crowd" or "the room" or "the forest" or "the stranger" unless you intend to use them in a significant manner. 

5. And here's more "proof" that Anna thinks this is a significant moment. Character reactions (action or thought) will reveal what they think, and figuring this out is better than being told. Which is more satisfying: hearing your friend say "That librarian is so hot." Or watching your friend fidget, stammer, stumble, turn red, turn pale, or run away whenever the hot librarian is in sight and figuring it out for yourself? 

In your WIP: Replace the generic with specific and unique details. Caveat! Too many details can slow your pace. Beta readers would be helpful in pointing out where you need more/better details, and where to choose pace in favor of it. 

Happy writing,

Coming up: 
Brian Mumphrey
Flat vs. Round Characters
Robert Bevan
Dialogue Tags


  1. avoid cliches like the plague...hehehe...

  2. i'm so glad you keep including those caveats.