The Specifics of Being Specific (or the details of details)

by Beth Miles

Say you’re a preschool teacher. You want to entertain four-year-olds with a story about a farm animal. Neal the chicken (close enough, anyway)You whip out some construction paper and crayons and draw a chicken. He’s a plain chicken, but you really persevere and draw a barn, a tractor, a scarecrow, and a cow, all to keep the kiddos entertained. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve drawn the generic black spots on the cow, three of the kids have run off to the block section and started using the blocks as guns. Five others are in the art center pretending the crayons are french fries and/or cigars. The rest are under the table, hiding from a dragon, which may or may not be you.

What did you do wrong?

You gave them the wrong details. The unimaginative ones.

Now, you’re back for another lesson. They watch as you draw a chicken. He’s a plain chicken, but you persevere and tell them his name is Neal and he lives on a farm where he’s afraid of the scarecrow. This time, you don’t draw the tractor and the barn. Maybe you just draw the scarecrow and he has scary teeth and only one arm made out of old pantyhose dangling by a safety pin. You ask them who Neal’s friends might be and what they’re going to do to help him. You ask them what they think happens next. They cry when their mothers come to pick them up. They want some more interesting details about Neal and the pantyhose-armed scarecrow.

What did you do right?

This time you didn’t insult their four-year-old intelligence. Everyone knows farms have tractors and barns and cows with black spots. Everyone does not know about chickens named Neal with scarecrow phobias.

So, how can a writer apply this preschool lesson to a novel?

“She walked into the teacher’s lounge. It was shabby and old. The couch was worn-out and the bulletin board was faded. She shook her head in disgust.” This tells your reader what the teacher’s lounge looks like, but you drew the details on non-specific paper. The environment is explained, but how real is it to the reader? How have you used details to make them care?

“She walked into the teacher’s lounge and carried her Tupperware container to the microwave. It was just like the one her grandmother had bought for her graduation present in 1988, with a dial instead of digital buttons. A thin layer of something yellow, mustard or maybe watery cheese sauce, smeared across the handle and black gunk filled the cracks in the control panel. She yanked at the door. The interior was stained orange and covered with splatters of tomato sauce along with the smell of years worth of burned popcorn. She wondered if she’d make it through eighteen more years of teaching until retirement.”

This time you didn’t mention the shabby couch or the boring bulletin board, but I’ll bet the reader knew it was there based on the details you gave about the microwave. Now you’ve allowed them to use their own imaginations to fill in the scene. It’s more real because they created it themselves. They own it. AND you used the details you gave them to create empathy for the poor teacher nuking three thousand more meals in the nasty microwave before she can retire.

Own your details and be specific with specifics. Readers will use their own imaginations. Hopefully they’ll care more about your characters. Maybe they’ll even cry when their mothers make them stop reading about your chicken named Neal.

Beth lives in Salisbury, NC with her husband and three children, where she tries to find time between loads of laundry and cooking to complete her middle grade suspense novel. She’s a member of the local children’s theater board, SCBWI, and proud to be a critiquing Mudskipper.