I’m reading a fabulous book right now called Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs. It’s an adult bookish fantasy that comes out in June of this year. The writing is fabulous, but as I’ve been slowly working my way through it, one of the things I noticed was how the author uses specificity to make the fiction feel real. One of the characters, Esther, is working as an electrician at a base in Antarctica, and the author drops us in with her creating a believable place and person through her use of specific details.
Here’s an example:
Esther left the room.
It was minus ten Fahrenheit that morning and the wind was brutal on the walk from the dorms to the electrical shop, the snow so dry it squeaked beneath her boots. She had to squint against the powerful glare of the sun as it glinted off the white ground and the walls of the squat outbuildings, and she knew Pearl would be wearing her enormous pink knock-off Ray-Bans to protect her hungover vision, looking like a cross between a 1970s supermodel and a car mechanic. If there was a more appealing aesthetic, Esther hadn’t encountered it yet.
She should have accepted that kiss.
The electrical shop was in a dome-roofed building that was little more than a glorified supply closet, packed with so much equipment Esther’s jaw had dropped when she’d first seen it. Wires and cords of every thickness and color coiled around wall-mounted spools, and the walls themselves were lined with towering cabinets full of coax connectors, splicing connectors, and cable ties, and pegboards displaying every kind of plier known to man.
The snow squeaking under her boot. The pink knock-off Ray-Bans. The hungover vision. The domed building. The wall mounted spools. The She should have accepted that kiss…all of these are examples of specificity in writing.
They bring the world, the character, the writing to life. And isn’t that the point in fiction? To make someone feel as though they are right there alongside the character?
Specificity in fiction = resonance.
But what do I mean by specificity? Well it means being specific and avoiding the general.
People don’t connect to general or abstract writing. They connect with things they can see, feel, imagine…
When writing your book, you want to be able to hold up a mirror to your audience. Make them see themselves. Their lived experiences, their world, their feelings, their attitudes, and behaviors.
You can’t hold up a foggy mirror and expect someone to relate to the person they see reflected back at them.
General writing is the foggy mirror.
General writing leads to rejection.
Reflect the world around you—even if you’re creating a whole new world or experience, there must be something that relates to the human experience.
So how do you infuse your writing with specificity? Here are a few ideas:
Through the Character’s Lens
How does your character view the world? What passions and hobbies and experiences color their language and voice and thoughts? This is THE BEST way to use specificity in your novel, because it also shapes and fleshes out your character.
If your protagonist is a chef and they make a mistake in their story, instead of saying something like "I was disappointed" (unspecific), try something like "I felt like the soufflé I'd worked on for hours had collapsed, then burned in the oven" (specific).
Or if they're a bookish person, they might use language relating to books and reading: My next chapter was about to begin; The first day felt like a blank page, etc.
Through Sensory Details
Our world is filled with specific details. We have names for plants, people, animals, pets, food, weather systems, technology, etc.--basically everything. So why not have your character move through/interact with specific things and places? Paint the picture. Use the five senses. Caveat: No info dumping, bring the details into the scenes/action.
We had dinner in silence vs. He eyed me over his bowl of split pea soup, which had gone cold as I'd waited for him at the corner table at Chez Pannise. We'd had our first date at this same table and I remembered how that night we couldn't stop talking. Now the only sound was the clinking of our polished silver spoons against the china bowls and the occasional plop of cold soup onto the white linen table cloth.
Emotions are complex, weighty, and nuanced. They rise to the surface because of a person's history, personality, issues and beliefs about themselves, and especially because of the events of your story. The trick is to get these emotions on the page in a specific way. Try using a combination of physical cues (body language, gestures, visceral reactions) and internal monologue.
Anger surged in him vs. The teacher's word reminded him of the time he'd failed the history exam and Dad had used it too, called him stupid. His jaw clenched as his hands curled into tight fists under his desk. He wasn't stupid, he knew he wasn't. And everyone calling him that made him want to use those fists. Made him want to punch holes in her pretty little "kindness" poster pinned above her desk.
Get specific. I promise it will elevate your writing so much and keep readers—including agents and editors—reading!