Being direct and specific when writing can make a story, or a paragraph, or a sentence. I’ve long known that, but within the space of a week I came across two very different examples – one getting it completely wrong, the other spot on, in my opinion. Again, it was one of those reminders that feels like a mini-revelation, so I’m going to share it with you.
You might not know what I’m talking about when I mention the importance of specificity. I was deliberately being vague in that introduction (LOOK AT ME, I’M BEING IRONIC), but via the power of these specific examples, you’ll know exactly what I mean (I’M A GENIUS, IT’S ALL COMING TOGETHER).
Admittedly, the following examples are so far away form each other, they’d never, ever coincidentally meet down the pub, but the purpose of this is not to draw direct comparisons between the two. Instead, think of these as two separate examples. Got it? Good.
Do you like P!nk? Does she actually spell her name like that? I can’t remember, but whatever, it’s not important (I checked, she doesn’t). The important thing is, if you do like her you might want to prepare to un-fan her in Facebook. Get Facebook up in another tab ready.
I had my iPod Touch on shuffle the other day, and what should come up but one of Pink’s songs, Family Portrait. I don’t know how it got there. I suspect it was on a compilation of some kind. Anyway, I was listening to this and thinking, “I’ve never liked this song, but it’s even worse than I remember it. A child could write this – it’s so simplistic!”
And it is, but I quickly checked myself. Simplicity in itself is no bad thing. If you can get an idea across simply, it usually means you’re doing a lot right. No, simplicity was not the problem here, so what was it? Let’s take a look at some of the lyrics, shall we?
Mamma, please stop crying
I can’t stand the sound.
Your pain is painful,
And it’s tearing me down.
I hear glasses breaking
As I sit up in my bed.
I told God you didn’t mean
Those nasty things you said.
Family Portrait, Pink
Ugh. Okay, let’s ignore the horrid “pain is painful” line (I know it’s hard, but stay focussed). This is genuinely the most specific verse I could find and it’s at the beginning of the song. Seriously, it’s all down hill from there. And specificity is the key.
Now, I don’t know if Pink had a terrible childhood, and I don’t mean to be flippant about such things. But from these lyrics, it’s hard to tell. The events she is describing boil down to vague, generic arguments. There’s nothing to convince me that this actually happened and wasn’t dreamed up by a teenage drama class.
There is an argument for keeping things generic in the hope that more people will relate to it, but here’s the thing – vagueness isn’t relatable. It’s difficult to listen to this song and think, “yes, that’s how I felt too,” because there’s nothing specific for the listener to hook on to. In the end it’s just a bunch of poorly chosen words.
Specific examples (or maybe just one, stretched over the whole song) would have made this much more real to the listener, and therefore much more emotive. There is another subject here, which I won’t go into, but is worth thinking about. When the writer gives more of themselves (i.e. dredges up specific, painful memories to share them), however difficult it is, it often ends up as more effective writing.
Not long after deleting that song from my iPod, I finally got to the end of The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. This is a Dracula story with a strong emphasis on history (that’s really the hook, and the author does a great job of bringing that to life). It’s a good book actually, if overly long in my opinion. And there’s no sparkly vampires.
Anyway, I was happily reading, thinking I knew where a particular section was going, and I was suddenly blindsided by a detail. This was not a twist, no one suddenly died, it was just a detail. I don’t want to set the scene too much for fear of spoilers, but let’s just say our hero is desperately searching for something they know they are probably not going to find, and out of sympathy, everyone around him has suggested he stop.
Okay, here we go:
In the end, I gave up not because of these reassurances but because of the forest itself, the meteoric steepness of the cliffs, the denseness of the undergrowth, which tore my jacket and trousers as I pushed through it, the terrible size and height of the trees, the silence that surrounded me whenever I stopped moving and groping and stood still for a few minutes.
The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
Here we are given, not a vague, “in the end I gave up,” or even an easily assumed, “I gave up because of the hopelessness of the situation/because I might actually find what I was looking for/I was too tired to go on”. No, it was the environment.
I want to make the point that specific does not necessarily mean surprising (although it was), so you know I’m not confusing the two. I say specific because the forest, and the character of the forest is specific to this story and what is happening to the character at the time. That sentence (and it is just one sentence amazingly. Proof that disobeying writing rules every now and again is a good thing), says something about the character and the environment that the more generic resolutions could not.
And you really feel it, don’t you, the forest closing in on him whenever he pauses, and it’s the specific details again (the denseness, the tearing, the silence) that make it.
So, to sum up…
specific details are the thing that sells reality to us as a reader/listener/audience. Often surprising and emotive, they help us to empathise or sympathise with a character, and give us a greater sense that we have experienced what they have. Something to bear in mind, and a skill to hone, to be sure.