How to Improve Your Story With Specificity

This week’s video offers some contrasting examples to demonstrate how to improve your story using the power of specific language.

Video Transcript:

Today, I want to ask you a question. What is the single greatest contributing factor in bringing your prose to life? Since you’ve probably already read the title to this video, you probably already know the answer is specificity (the correct pronunciation of which, by the way, I admit I owe entirely to Inception). So specificity—what exactly am I talking about, and why is it so great? What I’m talking about is simply being specific in our choice of words. Generality is the death of the novel. Generality brings nada to the table.

Consider some examples. “I took a sip of something hot.” “I got dressed up in something pretty.” “I stabbed him with something sharp.” If I’m the narrator in this story, then what are these sentences telling readers about me? All they know is I’m sipping, dressing, and stabbing—kudos on the vivid verbs—but they have no idea whether I’m sipping mulled cider, coffee, or lemon and vinegar. They can’t visualize what I’m wearing. And they have no idea what I’m defending myself with. In other words, I’ve left them blind. Instead of taking advantage of my story’s Technicolor possibilities, I’ve left it in boring black and white.

The remedy for this, of course, is to dig a little deeper and specify what your character is doing, seeing, touching, smelling, tasting. If I’m sipping a cinnamon mocha latte, dressing up in a white sundress and wedge sandals, and stabbing him—whoever him is, although he presumably deserved it—with a three-inch hat pin, now we’re talking. Now our readers have some details to grab hold of. Instead of leaving our characters floating around in a sea of nebulousness, we need to supply readers with concrete facts around which their imaginations can
build a complete, full-color, surround-sound story. If you can do that, I guarantee your prose will come bouncing into life!

Tell me your opinion: What is the last specific detail you included in you work-in-progress?

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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. For me it had a lot to do with showing the reader things about my character that would make them like her. One agent read the first three chapters and reminded me that the character seems nice, but she wanted to like her more.

    It was great to be able to go back and add some details so readers could see my character is tough, noble, and cares about others. But she’s also just a teen who struggles, loves to draw, and has secrets like all the rest of us.

    So you are correct in that we, as writers, need to go back and be more specific when we develop our story or characters.

    Great post, as usual!!

  2. What is the last specific detail you included in you work-in-progress?
    I included this sentence: “Emotions pounded Geneviève like Furies’ wings.” Not a perfect sentence yet, but the image of the Furies is appropriate to the emotions stirred by the injustice and violence she had witnessed. Our choice of words and images must be specific, as you say, and must also reflect the mood, the characters, etc. Good post.

  3. I don’t do this very well;( I know I need to get into deeper POV…is that the same thing as being specific? Just curious. I know I lack in this area…trying to improve 🙂

  4. @Ruth: Yes, this applies to far more than just simple descriptions. Lack of specificity in our approach to character is easily a deal breaker in any story.

    @Jan: Love the Furies reference! Definitely an evocative metaphor. You could plumb this sentence even further by specifying what emotions the character is feeling.

    @Lorna: Optimally, we should be specific no matter what type of POV we’re using. However, digging deep into a character’s POV and figuring out what words he would use to describe can often work wonders for not just specifying descriptions, but also bringing the character’s voice to life.

  5. “Lindsay lifted her spoon and shoveled lumpy oatmeal into her mouth.”

  6. I have to be careful with avoiding too much specificity—I could spend a paragraph on each significant outfit! But I learned the value of specificity from a critique partner. Her protagonist is a medieval herbalist, so she never rides through a field of grass—it’s always a specific grass (and, of course, historically indigenous to the region). The botanical details were so effective at putting me in the world, I started to look for ways to do the same.

    Out of curiousityy, how did you say “specificity” prior to Inception? Superfluous is the word that messed with me. Took me numerous embarrassing errors to get it right.

    “Every sentence out of his mouth was like a crisp bite from a dictionary”

  7. @Lorna: I can taste the oatmeal. Blech! 😉

    @London: I *didn’t* say it prior to Inception. Mostly, I just mumbled it several times and then gave up in despair.

  8. “He [William] slouched a bit more, hunched his dark leather cloak around his thick shoulders and hurried on through the damp fog.”

    I don’t tend to use specificity in my first drafts, because I’m just trying to lay out the story.

  9. Sometimes it’s better to just get those bare bones down. Details are easy enough to add later on.

  10. Specificity is something I went through a phase of trying to avoid when I noticed fan fiction writers tend to really over-do it. In their earnest rush to set the scene, they’d give everything a litany of details and, if possible, a proper name. Nobody was wearing a watch, or a gold watch, but a gold Rolex R20349 sports watch with silver latches and a platium face. Nobody could stir a cup of tea, they stirred a cup of mint green tea with a slice of lemon using their sterling silver spoon with the little burn mark on it.

    Not that I mean to denigrate fan fiction writers, but as it tends to be a common entry-point for us authors, it also tends to be rife with our most common mistakes. Still, going too far to the other extreme can really kill any vibrancy in a story. I recently finished The Hunger Games and noticed that for a starving girl Katniss eats a lot of specific foods, a detail that really helps build a sense of place. Naturally the foods are radically different in the Capitol than in Distric 12, so these details highlight the distance between them. Collins doesn’t go overboard (except once, on purpose, since Katniss has never seen such a plethora of food in one place) but hits enough specific details that the world is given a real sense of flavour, pun intended.

  11. Hunger Games is a good example. For a generally sparse (in a good way) book, Collins does a great job bringing the setting vividly to life.

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