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The Details are Juicy…

a screaming couple in this photo illustrates the power of surrounding your writing with specific details

“Kevin screeched out of his driveway and roared down Devers Avenue.  Her words still stung his ears.  “Why should I tell you my feelings?  You don’t care.  You can’t even remember to take the garbage out on Tuesdays.”  Shannon had been making accusations a lot since her sister’s divorce became final last Tuesday.  Living 3 months with unpacked boxes devouring each room in their new home hadn’t helped her feel any more settled…”

 

What do you know about Kevin from this paragraph?  Think about it for a moment.  I made up two people, told you their names and the name of their street, included specific quotes one of them had made, gave you the backstory of Shannon’s sister’s divorce and let you know that they’d moved 3 months ago and still hadn’t unpacked.  You even know that their garbage gets picked up on Tuesdays.

 

Your brain has also assumed that Kevin and Shannon are married, or at least live together.  Their relationship doesn’t look too hot.  They’re probably a young couple.  If you continue reading, you’ll discover that they live in Louisville, Kentucky, at 5306 Devers Avenue.  Kevin manages the Highland Cleaners on Bardstown Road and has struggled with a gambling addiction that he tries to hide from Shannon.  Shannon’s been thinking about Brian Summers, her 11th grade chemistry lab partner that she saw in Food Lion yesterday.  He lived in Hopkinsville before being shot and killed, along with his mom, by his dad today.

 

The Power of Specific Details

Did I make that story up or is it completely true?  You can tap into worlds in people’s imaginations if you include specific details.  Yes, you still need to choose interesting verbs and nouns with shape, color, names of places and familiar things.  They elevate your details from the boredom of a police report to an entertaining novel.  But if you don’t have the details, your audiences’ left brains won’t believe that your writing has any connection to reality.  They’ll stop your imagination from engaging before it ever gets started.

 

The story above mixes some current news stories with google map details and some of my own imagination. But it sounds convincing enough for you to believe it’s true.  Look at the difference without the specifics…

 

“He screeched out of his driveway and roared down the street. Her words still stung his ears.  She’d been making accusations a lot lately…”

 

Can you feel your brain’s hunger for details?  Which street?  What’s his name?  What words still stung his ears?  Why has she been making accusations?  Yes, it’s still a compelling image.  But I’d better answer the questions in the audiences’ mind quickly before they tune out.

 

Using Specifics in Your Writing

Specific details are the only cure for your audiences’ intellectual appetite.  Talented writers satisfy this instinctively or consciously in two ways:

  1. They make up a fictitious character using a person they know, or a modern-day story they’ve read and surround them with details from a world that they have personally experienced.  Agatha Christie mysteries, Charles Dickens‘ novels and Steven Spielberg‘s, Lincoln, all fall into this category.
  2. They completely make up entire histories, languages and worlds of detail to make their imaginative story believable.  Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings, Gene Roddenberry‘s Star Trek and Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451 fit into this style.

 

In both cases, the amount of research and detail boggles the mind.  Tolkien spent more than a decade writing detailed histories that he never used or only mentioned in one sentence of his books.  Gene Roddenberry hired engineers, scientists and linguists to create believable futuristic technical terms and alien tongues.  Steven Spielberg assembled teams of historians and screenwriters to create meticulously crafted stage props that occupy one second of the movie and rarely come into focus.  Making stories believable is hard work.

 

Even C.S. Lewis, who wrote his beloved series, The Chronicles of Narnia quickly and effortlessly for children, had spent a lifetime studying literature, mythology and the Bible.  The characters and themes he creates just happen to include details from each plus circumstances that he himself experienced.  Some people have more natural talent than others.

 

If you want to make your stories believable, without a decade of research or a lifetime of intellectual study, pretend that you’re writing to or about a specific person or event you know.  Choose details that have actually happened to them.  Write their dialogue with words you’ve actually heard them use.  Include their history and then switch the numbers and names so that no one can tell where you got all of it.

 

People will start asking you how you came up with something so vivid and true to life.  Just smile and tell them that it popped into your head one day.  And then go back to the reading, the exploration and the hard work that have piled up a mountain of juicy details for your imagination to access whenever it wants.

 

PS: Below is a video of the exact thing I’m talking about and my feedback in a workshop I taught with Roy H. Williams for a business recently in Austin.  If you want to spend two days making your writing soar while living in a mansion and eating some amazing food, check out the two workshops I’m teaching for adults and kids this year at Wizard Academy.

 

No One Told Me How to Write Workshop – 2 day workshop for adults, Jan. 14/15

Young Writer’s Workshop – 2 day workshop for kids (ages 12-16) plus one parent, July 17/18

 

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