Take One More Step

We can grasp a concrete notion better than a general one. That’s why a well-told detail is specific. Let’s take a typical example of a lazy description: “The crowd hurried by, trying to get out of the rain.” Even if I know the place and time beforehand, do I really feel like I am participating in the action? 

Stop for a moment and describe one person hurrying. Is an older man cursing because his umbrella just flipped inside-out in the wind? Did a young woman clip the neck of the heroine with her umbrella spokes as she bulled past?  Does the hero look down at his front and see it all spattered, making him readjust how he is carrying his umbrella? Forget the crowd. Look for examples within the crowd. You don’t have to go crazy: each one of the examples I just supplied is merely one sentence apiece. 

The specific detail can also include a short burst of dialogue. For example, everyone in New York City knows it’s impossible to hail a cab when it’s raining. You can ratchet up tension if the heroine, flailing her arm uselessly, suddenly shouts: “Goddamn all the cabs in this city!” Everyone nearby turns to look at the madwoman—and we now know how hard it’s raining.

Where specifics really work is with repeated actions that are glossed over in passing. Sticking with the topic of city life, how about: “All the petty indignities of the daily commute were getting him down.” Now, how am I supposed to get inside that? 

Give us an example of the indignities. A lead character races over to a miraculously available ticket machine at a train station, only to find a taped piece of paper over its view window, reading: “Out of Order.” A woman alone in a two-seater hears the train doors close, and as she sighing in relief, an immensely fat man who just made it on walks down the aisle, nods slightly at her, and plops down with all that blubber beside her. 

As noted before, this sort of work can be as brief as you like. The key is, whenever you use a plural, consider whether you can turn it into a singular. Then you’ll find the example wonderfully lights up the rule.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye toward actions or events described in the plural. When you find one, determine if it’s consequential enough to deserve a fuller example. If so, sit back for a few moments and sort through the possible examples of that blanket statement. Write down a few, allowing your mind to continue to play with the idea. Once you stop and listen, so to speak, you’ll find that your mind contains a flood of terrific singular examples.

"There are two cardinal sins from which all others spring: Impatience and Laziness." — Franz Kafka 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.