If you’ve gotten your story back from Betas and ARs and their comments are: “This is generic” or “This is boring” or “I need more worldbuilding”, your story might be lacking specific and unique details.
Think of it this way: Pictures, or it didn’t happen. Where’s the proof? Gamers might say: Screenshot or it didn’t happen.
In writing, you don’t have the luxury of sharing a photo or screenshot. The details you add to your descriptions supply that proof. When done well, you can prove your story happened.
For example, when someone — let’s call him Grand Inquisitor — asks you, “Where were you last night?” and you’d rather not reveal how you spent the night in, Netflix-binging, and eating an entire flan by yourself, how do you evade the question? Easiest response would be vagueness. “I was out.” Does this lead to Grand Inquisitor believing you, or not believing you?
More often, the vague response leads to: “Out where? With whom? Doing what?” Grand Inquisitor doesn’t believe you and is asking for more proof.
But instead of being vague, you could’ve supplied details as proof.
Grand Inquisitor: “Where were you last night?”
You: “Some college friends were in town for a conference so I took them to Giacomo’s for dinner.”
Grand Inquisitor: “Oh, did they like it?”
You: “Eh, at first they were put off by the line to get in, but I assured them it was worth it. Then of course I had to take them to Mike’s Pastry, even though I hate that place on Friday nights. Always neck-deep in tourists.”
Grand Inquisitor: “Well, of course you had to take them there. They’re tourists! Tell me you made them try the cannoli.”
Details gave the explanation truth (perhaps not the truth), just as Details can give truth to your writing. But! The details must be specific and unique. It was friends from college, not a random friend. It was Giacomo’s, then Mike’s Pastry, not a random restaurant, not a random bakery. There was a long line to get into Giacomo’s. Then Mike’s Pastry was crowded with tourists. Those details can legitimately cover a large chunk of time.
SPECIFICITY AND UNIQUENESS:
Paying attention to Specificity and Uniqueness in your story will help you:
- make your characters memorable.
- build a solid pocket universe.
- avoid clichés like the plague.
- make your story stand out.
Details convince a reader to believe you. Don’t be evasive, coy, or vague. That leads to distrust.
Now, if you’re sure you’re using enough descriptions, perhaps you’re describing the wrong things.
Describe through your characters. Treat it like one of those body-switching or suddenly-teen movie moments, and your protagonist is trying to convince the reader that she/he is who she/he claims to be: the hero, the saint, the World’s Greatest Lover, the unstoppable evil. How? By describing things only she/he would know or notice. That’s how she/he will establish her/his truth, and that’s how you’ll establish yours.
Let’s put our serious pants on and deconstruct an example from a limited 3rd POV with Wood Priestess Anna as our Protagonist:
When his name was called1 Shi came forward, tossing his curly ebony locks2, and bowed. He was tall3 and handsome4, with a gleaming sword5 at his side.6
1. This can be shown better.
2. Kill me now; “tossing his ebony locks?” First of all, who is he tossing these locks to? Secondly, purple prose cliché! Thirdly, whenever you’re tempted to use “locks” to describe hair, understand why. Because it’s been done so often that color + “locks” seems like the accepted way to describe hair – ebony locks, gold locks, scarlet locks. Do you want to be like everyone else, or do you want to stand out?
3. As tall as what? This reveals almost nothing about the character being described or the POV character. What does tall mean in the story’s pocket universe?
4. Same goes for handsome. Whose judgment is this? The POV character’s? The writer’s? Is this something you want the reader to feel about the character being described? Then give that character details that have meaning to the POV or main character.
5. Gleaming? That’s it? That’s all I get about the sword?!
6. Overall, this is adequate for introducing someone who’ll probably die soon.
Let’s chisel him out of the crowd and breathe some life into him:
The clarion bellowed the next person’s name. “Shi Bautista!”
Shi strutted forward1 then bent at the waist in what barely qualified as a bow. He was taller than the other Genians by at least a head, though shorter than any man, even most women, in the abbey hall2. With a wry grin, he scornfully surveyed the room3. The sword at his side, secured to a low-slung belt by faded, knotted ribbons, slept in an ink-stained scabbard of cracked leather4.
Anna leaned forward, body as taut as a new harp string5.
1. Specific and unique: Shi doesn’t just “come forward.” He struts.
2. When describing something that can be measured (ie. tall, wide) compare it to something relevant to the POV character. Again, specific and unique. I have no idea how tall a Genian is but apparently, my POV character does.
3. Have you ever been to a party where you didn’t know anyone, and the hostess takes you around the room introducing you to people? Who did you remember? What specific and unique details made indelible impressions in your memory? Crooked nose, overplucked brows, lopsided grin, sadly sparse soul patch? Find those qualities in your characters and those details will separate your Super Special character from every other sidekick, Love Interest, and antagonist.
4. Specific and unique. What does the state of his sword and scabbard reveal about him? Who uses ribbons to tie on a sword, for god’s sake? Why are there ink stains on his scabbard? Why is the leather cracked? Anna notices these details – which implies they’re significant. And she says the sword slept in its scabbard. Why? The more details you add, the more important something seems. So for the love of all that’s holy, don’t spend too many details describing “the crowd” or “the room” or “the forest” or “the stranger” unless you intend to use them in a significant manner.
5. And here’s more “proof” that Anna thinks this is a significant moment. Character reactions (action or thought) will reveal what they think, and figuring this out is better than being told. Which is more satisfying: hearing your friend say “That librarian is so hot.” Or watching your friend fidget, stammer, stumble, turn red, turn pale, or run away whenever the hot librarian is in sight and figuring it out for yourself?
In your WIP: Replace the generic with specific and unique details.
CAVEAT! Too many details can slow your pace. Beta readers would be helpful in pointing out where you need more/better details, and where to choose pace in favor of it.
What are some of the most memorable details in your favorite books?
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