Tuesday, September 2, 2008


by Annette Lyon

Once again I'm inspired for my post by A Conversation on the Writing Life by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg.

This time the topic could be called, “show, don’t tell,” but to me (and especially the early writer me), “specificity” describes it so much better.

I can’t remember how many times I’d get the comment that I was telling instead of showing, and I’d want to scream, “I thought I was showing!”

Showing has several elements, but specificity is one of my favorites. The gist is to take a general noun (such as a car) and tell us more. Make us see it.

Is it a VW Bug? Is it a little red Toyota truck with rusted wheel wells? Is it a sleek, black Jaguar? A yellow Jeep with fuzzy, pink dice hanging from the mirror?

The more specific you are, the more clearly readers will see the “movie” in your head—and be drawn into your imaginary world.

If I say I walked into a yard with beautiful, fragrant flowers, you might have a certain image in mind. But it’s probably pretty vague, and the picture in your head is going to be very different than the one in mine.

What if instead I say that I walked under a arch of pink climbing roses and then past a hedge of violet-colored lilacs, and that a vase along the winding gravel path was full of yellow irises?

Ah, now we’re picturing the same thing. And it’s a lot more specific and memorable than plain old “flowers.”

So the girl in your book isn’t just a girl. She’s a six-year-old red-head with pigtails and a smattering of freckles across her cheeks—and a black eye.

The man isn’t tall—he has to duck to get through the doorway.

The woman isn’t tired—instead, her eyes open and close heavily, her gait is slow and measured, and she rubs her eyes with her fingertips.

Granted, you can take specificity too far. You don’t want to describe each and every passing character and landscape in total detail, resulting in what’s often called, “purple prose.” (You know, the kind of thing where a sunset lasts two pages and you’re ready to scream at the author to get on with it already!)

But in general, writers tend to err on the side of being too vague.

Think about J. K. Rowling’s first description of Snape’s classroom. Yes, we know it’s a dungeon, so it’s obviously dim and dank. She doesn’t go on much about that. Instead she drops in a creepy detail about jars on the shelves that hold floating dead things. She doesn’t need to include much more than that. We get the picture, and we want out of the classroom as much as Harry does.

Take a piece of your work and circle every noun and every adjective. Look them one at a time. Is there a way to make them more specific? Can you focus your mental “movie” a bit more and give the reader something that’ll convey your world to them more clearly?

In general, two or three details when introducing a new major character or location are plenty, provided you’ve picked good, solid ones that can represent the rest of the person or place.

Now I’ll head to my kitchen, where I’ll open a dark alder wood cupboard for a glass, and then I’ll take out the Winder Farms chocolate milk from the stainless-steel fridge. Mmm. Good.

(Can you see it?)


Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

I'm at a specific (ha) place in my writing where I need this advice hugely. Thanks Annette!

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

I really liked this! I will go over my book and see if there are details waiting to be improved!