Generality Is the Death of the Novel

Generality Is the Death of the NovelFiction is about specifics. In real life, you may get away with being ridiculously vague: “Gimme that thingamajig over there.” But the only reason this works is because the specifics are already staring both you and your listeners in the face. In fiction, however, you must hit the specifics and hit them hard.

Years ago, a sentence in a writing article (the author of which I’ve regrettably forgotten) popped off the page and revolutionized the way I look at fiction. What was that sentence?

“Generality Is the Death of the Novel”

You can easily write passages in which characters pick flowers, pour themselves a drink, or put on some clothes—and, in all likelihood, these general descriptions will get the job done.

But how much more evocative—how much more memorable—when you write that the characters picked dew-wet daffodils, poured a lukewarm cup of Earl Gray tea, or put on a threadbare cardigan?

Just by switching out words and adding a few tiny details, you can move from dull to dazzling.

Apply Specificity to Every Part of Your Story

This is a principle that reaches far beyond basic descriptions. When you force your characters to live in a specific city, a specific neighborhood, a specific house (even if all these places are 100% imaginary), you are refining facets of personality that would never have been visible to readers had you not taken the time to fine tune the setting.

  • Give him a specific vehicle, not just “a car.”
  • Let him have a pet with a name and a personality.

The difference between specific fiction and general fiction is the difference between stories that come to life and stories that lie dead on the page.

When Not to Be Specific

Still, it’s true you can’t be specific about everything in a novel. That much attention to detail would require an excessive word count and more patience than any reader is likely to give you. Readers aren’t going to care if the plant thrown away in the neighbor’s Dumpster is a philodendron—unless the plant is important to the story.

The amount of specificity you expend on any object depends greatly on the size of its role in the story.

That cup of lukewarm tea probably occupies no more than a passing moment with no bearing on the plot itself. As a result, it deserves no more than the five words I gave it in the earlier example. Likewise, the vehicles the main character passes on his way to work in the morning matter not at all and can exist under the general description of “cars whizzing by.”

But when the character’s world is rocked by his mother’s heart attack, sifting every detail of his trauma becomes important if you’re to help readers share the character’s experience.

In large part, fiction is an exercise in capturing details and sharing them with others. If you’re capturing only general details, you aren’t going to be able to offer anything valuable or unique. But if you focus on the specifics, you’ll be able to keep your stories from ever dying under the weight of ambiguity.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What specific details have you included in your story’s most recent scene? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great point. In a lot of manuscripts I see these close-up specifics are missing, but they make a big difference to the vividness of a novel. And they’re also hard to imagine, as our minds are usually on something else while we’re writing – what the characters did, what we’re setting up for next. Nice reminder.

  2. The right details of make a story alive. Very good article.

  3. Great post. I tend to forget readers can’t see what I see in my head. I need to focus on the details, such as what kind of glasses Samantha’s mother was wearing. 🙂

  4. @dirtywhitecandy: Life is in the details. If we’re going to represent life in fiction, we have to pay attention to the details.

    @Lynn: You’re absolutely right. The key to detailing a story is choosing the *right* details.

    @Lorna: For me, the best stories are usually those that paint the mist vivid pictures in my head. But that isn’t so much a matter of laying on the details as it is selecting one or two powerful ones.

  5. You are so right! I learned this rule a long time ago but don’t always remember to do it all the time. Thank you for the great reminder. Now to get check what kind of tea my characters are drinking!

  6. To echo Terri…now I shall go flip through medieval dresses to see what my charries are wearign

  7. @Terri: The problem with being specific about food is it always makes me hungry!

    @Galadriel: Once you start looking for the specifics, everything gets so much more interesting. Personally, I think it’s one of the most fun parts of writing.

  8. Very helpful post. Sometimes I get too wrapped up in my character’s head and I forget to share the details of what she’s seeing and experiencing as she’s thinking. Good reminder that the good stuff is in the details.

  9. That’s easy for all of us to do. It’s ironic, actually, since the key to showing what’s in the character’s head is showing how he views the world – and that comes through the details.

  10. It’s the details that make the difference. They breathe life into the story and makes it more real for the readers.

  11. Absolutely. A story without specific details is like a meal without salt.

  12. Great post, and timely! I just wrote a post about this for Tuesday on my own blog…though I don’t really have the answers I’m looking for yet. What I have a hard time with as far as description goes is *which* details to add, and which to leave. I’m better at leaving things out, writing sparsely, though I’m trying to get better at the little things (those 5 word type descriptions of tea, etc).

    How much is too much, and how much is “enough”…that’s what I constantly struggle with.

  13. That’s the question now, isn’t it? :p Ultimately, I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer. It depends so much on the story itself and the pace you’re needing to strike in any given scene. Largely, I’ve found it to be a matter of trial and error.

  14. Too much detail doesn’t just try the reader’s patience. It can even leave them feel unmoored, even unsettled.

    A friend of mine has a habit of giving equal weight to relevant and irrelevant details, and LOTS of them. He’s still published quite a bit, but the effect of it when reading him in that mode can be truly disorienting, since you just don’t know what to focus on.

    It’s kind of like experiencing a touch of Asperger’s Syndrome, the way the person has no filters to screen out what’s important from what isn’t.

  15. The longer I write, the more convinced I become that the most important thing in fiction is balance – in everything.

  16. Great post! This sentence struck me as vitally important: “The amount of specificity we expend on any object depends greatly on the size of its role in the story.”

    I think the key is here. Knowing when to go deep and when to paint with a broad brush.

  17. Good explanation. Too much detail can easily be just as problematic as too little.

  18. What a great blog you have. I found it through Twitter. I have to follow you for great writer advice. Thanks.

  19. Great post and especially helpful considering I just began a new WIP. I’ve been really trying to focus on making every word count and using detail to heighten the impact of those words is definitely something I should pay attention to. Thanks!

  20. @June: Glad you’re finding it helpful. Thanks for stopping by!

    @Cindy: Making every word count is an art form unto itself. Having just cut about 40,000 words from one my WIPs, it’s something I’m particularly aware of right now!

  21. Excellent post and really something to think about. Particularly when you look at the number of stories that are very similar in their general tone and set up but are quite unique in the way they are written and executed. It is the details that make the book memorable and unique.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  22. I love using small specific touches to my novels and stories. One thing I don’t do, though, most always, is mention the town – I’ll talk about things in the town or surrounding it so people who live or visit there know where it is, but it’s just a “thang” with me, don’t know why but I am compelled to not say the specific town. But I do bring the town to life in other ways.

    In SG, Vk’s first car was almost another character *laugh* – old green plymouth Fury and I had fun with that.

    Something as small as a curled tip of a leaf can set an image and put the reader right there.

  23. Excellent post. I find description is the thing that probably holds my writing back the most. For the most part, I’m a bare-bones writer, which is fine at times, but I really need to take your advice and give more “real-life” details in my works. Hopefully I’ll start in my writing today!

  24. @Cassandra: Brilliant observation. Ultimately, there aren’t any new stories under the sun. We’ve told them all since the beginning of time and we’ll keep telling them. It’s the *way* in which we tell them that makes all the difference.

    @Kathryn: I can understand the reticence involving towns. The fact that we’re fictionalizing real things can often feel strange. I’ve had a few vehicles that evolved into personalities too!

  25. @Eric: Nothing wrong with bare bones. Much better that than a lot of extra fat! But a deft use of description can really elevate stories.

  26. I try and remember to move from the balcony where I have a big view of the story happening on the floor and then down to the floor itself to pick up details. I think we need to keep a balance but a not too obvious one! Thanks for a very helpful post.

  27. This is something I’m working on right now. I tend to be a little skimpy on specifics for fear that I’ll slip into “telling mode.” What I’ve finally learned is that some descriptive “telling” is needed in order to give the reader a lay of the land.

  28. @Jan: I think the trick in any art form is being so skillful that the reader has no idea that we’re consciously using any technique. It happens so naturally, it appears as if we didn’t have to work at it at all. Easier said than done, of course!

    @Sharon: When you really get down to it, *all* of writing is telling. “Showing” is really just a matter of being evocative and immediate in our telling.

  29. I’m bad at description because I hate it so much. I don’t like writing it, and I don’t like reading it when it goes on and on and on. I need to find that happy medium for my readers’ benefit.

    Thanks for the reminder/challenge!

  30. I think we often have this misconception that description is paragraphs upon paragraphs of narrative boredom. But, really, a deft use of description is sometimes only one or two words. It’s all about finding that one “telling” detail that’s going to bring the scene alive for the reader and let his imagination take over.

  31. Very Interesting!
    Thank You!

  32. You’re very welcome! Thanks for reading.

  33. Yeah! I once read a romance novel in which the hero was a business tycoon. His richness and sense of responsibility was defined in great measures. But about his business; the only detail I got was he owns a company. What company? The writer doesn’t even gave it thought. Worst of worst, there were many important scenes set in his office.
    That generality ruined quite big time in the reading experience.
    I learned the rule you just mentioned here from that novel 🙂
    When I first announced that I will be a writer. My brother gave me an advice. Which is; to be a good writer. You should know, as much as everything. Even if you don’t know practically that how in the world one stirs spoon in curry. Theoretically, you should know all the aspects related to cooking a curry. Even the history of its making. 🙂 Only then mention the cooking of curry in your novel.
    That is by far my favorite advice about writing.

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