Monday, March 29, 2010

Specificity of Detail Will Enhance Tone and Interest

In writing, we want our details to be as specific as possible without pulling us out of the narrative.  We need to provide our readers with the sights and sounds of a place without overwhelming them with superfluous details which distract from the true beat of the story...
Here are examples of different approaches to detail. Take the time to note the tone and feeling of each example. What do you see? What do you feel? Do you want to read more?

“I went somewhere.”
Too general

“I went to the park.”
Very direct, rather minimalist, but could be built up with future statements like “Outside, it was raining.  The shiny metal slide glistened with water.  The place was deserted.”

“I stopped by the playground over on Guilford.”
Still direct, but more detailed.  Note that the tone has changed – this seems much more cheerful than “I went to the park.”  Generally, reducing the words per sentence increases the sense of hurry or foreboding – increasing the words per sentence increases the sense of comfort or careful consideration.  Make sure the tone of the details matches the tone of your story.  It helps here, too, that we've substituted "playground" for "park."  Not only is it more specific, but it carries the connotation of rambunctious six-year-olds scrambling up-and-down the jungle gym.

“I stopped by that little kids park over on Guilford with the big sign that says ‘Clean Up After Your Dog.’”
Note that the level of detail here has taken away from the direct feel of the prose.  The sign is distracting.  Is it necessary?  Does the narrator have a dog?  Is he going to clean up after it?  It would be better to break this up, perhaps like so:

“I stopped by that park over on Guilford.  It’s the one with the big sign that says ‘Clean Up After Your Dog.’  So, naturally, I brought Sparky along.  And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna carry a little baggie to pick up dog turds from Sparky’s butt.  I guess it’s just too bad for those little kids.”
Note that this example goes back-and-forth between general and specific.  Breaking up the sentence describing the park allows us to linger more on the park itself – it also focuses our attention on that sign.  And that brings us to Sparky and the narrator’s disgust with pet regulations.  “carry a little baggie to pick up dog turds from Sparky’s butt” is very detailed, and the choice of “turds” and “butt” tells us right off just how gross he finds the idea of picking up after a dog.  And why is it so gross?  Because some “little baggie” isn’t about to keep his fingers from touching the stuff.

As you write, strive for the right balance between solid details and leaving room for the reader's imagination.  It's a tough line, to be sure, but one that will certainly pay dividends in both the interest and readability of your work.

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