November 23rd, 2020

How Specifics Make Your Stories Universal

By Tiffany Yates- Martin

The first time my husband read something I wrote, I eagerly awaited his feedback. “What did you think?” I asked breathlessly.

“It was good!”

“Say more about that…” I prodded.

“I liked it.”

“But what did you like about it?”

“I don’t know…it was good.”

My then-new spouse wasn’t trying to be opaque or difficult or euphemistic (though it took a few days of pouting and grousing for me to figure that out), and I wasn’t (just) seeking more praise (though it took a few days of bewilderment for my hubs to figure that out).

I needed clear, objective input on exactly what was and wasn’t working so I could figure out how to fix it. I needed specifics.

What kind of specifics?

Just as we as writers can’t address the possible weaknesses in our stories until we understand exactly what they are, readers can’t fully engage with those stories without a clear, concrete, granular sense of detail.

Yet one of the observations I most frequently make with authors’ manuscripts in my editing work is that key elements may lack impact because they feel vague or generalized. Not only does this prevent readers from grounding themselves in the world of your story, it can also result in ambiguous writing or a lack of clarity that may frustrate them, lower stakes, and reduce the effectiveness and immediacy of your story.

Example #1:

My dad died of a heart attack, and I don’t want to die having never really let myself live like he did.

versus

One day my dad trundled in to work—eight fifteen on the dot, just like always—worked until six, then went to sleep on the two-hour train ride home and never woke up. Heart attack, the doctor said. Just like that—while the rest of our family was being a family, he worked and worked and worked and then one day he died. I don’t want that to be me.

Both these passages convey the same idea, but one does it with generalizations that offer the reader little context, that create no concrete picture in her mind.

In the first passage we understand the point the character is making, but it’s intellectual, not visceral; theoretical rather than real—vague rather than clear.

In the second example we get enough specific details that we have a concrete image in our minds:

  • We can paint the rest of the picture for ourselves—which is what creates that magical synergy between author and reader that draws readers directly into the world of the story and fully brings it to life.
  • We get a fuller idea of the narrator’s father—that he was a man of structure and routine, perhaps a workaholic.
  • We get an idea of the protagonist’s feelings about him—that his dad wasn’t around for their family, in fact didn’t fully feel part of it to our narrator and that maybe he resents it.
  • And we have a much more direct, visceral feeling for how that affected his own goal not to live his life that way.

The author doesn’t spell out every tiny detail—just enough to create a concrete suggestion of these story elements and give the reader rich raw material to build on in her own imagination.

Example #2:

She fled an unhappy marriage.

That certainly conveys some information about the character’s past. But as Tolstoy famously said, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” An unhappy marriage might suggest any of a broad spectrum of issues, from incompatibility to abuse.  It leaves out nuance.

Look what even a few strokes of specificity add to this simple line:

One day she packed a bag and walked out and never looked back, vowing no one would ever make her feel invisible or small again.

Now we can fill in more of the picture from our own perspective:

  • We may never have been in a verbally abusive or belittling marriage, but most of us can relate to the feeling of someone making us feel inadequate in some way.
  • We can viscerally understand the emotions and reactions and impact of that based on our own firsthand experiences.

This is what I mean by the specific invoking the universal: The more concrete and granular a picture the author creates, the more it may resonate with each reader’s direct experience of the universal feelings attached to these situations and events.

Example #3:

Despite perhaps wildly differing personal experiences, we can understand feeling minimized, unseen, unhappy, etc., by reflecting on times when we felt those things ourselves—albeit perhaps for different reasons.

In Brit Bennett’s astonishing novel The Vanishing Half, Stella Vignes decides to abandon her mother, her hometown and community, and her twin sister to pass as white to circumvent the limited opportunities she feels her future holds as a Black woman in the segregated South, yet finds herself haunted years later by the secret she carries.

Bennett’s pinpoint-specific character and situation may not reflect the lived experience of the bulk of her readers—but they hit on universal motivations and emotions that allow readers to viscerally understand and react to Stella’s choices and their effect. They bring her story to rich, vivid, immediate life.

  • We may never have faced that exact situation for ourselves, but most of us can relate to the desire to transcend strictures or limits put on the opportunities available to us.
  • We can probably relate to the pressures and emotions of hiding something about ourselves that we fear others seeing—whether that’s a secret, a vulnerability, a shame or regret, etc.

Using specifics will also add punch to character motivations and goals—consider a character who “wants to find love” versus one who demands a partner who can see and appreciate her for who she is, rather than what he wants her to be (Sandy in Grease), or a protagonist who wants to vanquish the terrorists holding hostages inside a building versus the one desperate to save his wife and family so he can reconcile with them (Die Hard).

As humans we don’t deeply engage with abstracts; we crave detail, specificity, and most of all connection on a human level. We understand story through the universal human reference points we all share.

Example #4:

He was determined to save the family farm

doesn’t quite suggest the same driving need to preserve a legacy as:

His father had worked this land all his life, and his father and his father before him, their sweat and tears and blood as much a part of these fifty acres as the soil, and that strong unbroken chain wasn’t going to snap with him.

Example #5:

They even apply to descriptions: Compare the images in your mind between

 She took in his gorgeous high-end kitchen

versus

The reflections off the miles of quartz countertops and gleaming Viking appliances practically blinded her.

Notice how just from a few concrete specifics, your imagination lets you fill in more detail on your own—I’m betting your mental picture included more than just appliances and a countertop:

Did you also see the cabinets, the sink, the flooring, the color scheme?

Sparked by specific detail, you create a much clearer and more vivid picture in your mind than from the vague generalization of “a high-end kitchen.”

Enhancing your stories and readers’ experience of them with specifics doesn’t mean adding tedious laundry lists of detail. Experiment with shading in just enough nuance to bring a few details into sharper focus so that readers can engage by filling in the rest of the picture.

When you think of your favorite stories you’ve read, what details live most vividly in your mind? How do you use specifics to bring your own writing more fully to life?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent more than twenty-five years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling, award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the author of the Amazon bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She's led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers' groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers' sites and publications. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of the Breakup Doctor series and her most recent release, A Little Bit of Grace (Berkley, 2020). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

23 responses to “How Specifics Make Your Stories Universal”

  1. Great examples. Thanks Tiffany

  2. LauraDrake says:

    Brilliant, as usual, Tiffany. I was just reminded of this, reading Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin. OMG, if you haven't read it, run and pick it up! Not only a fantastic read (many tissues destroyed) but I learned more about getting specificity on the page for emotional depth, and some backstory tips as well!

  3. This is a great post, Tiffany. I’m reminded of what Roger Ebert said, in his wonderful review of Brokeback Mountain, about the movie being about so much more than gay cowboys:

    “Strange but true: The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.”

    And also, of course, the iconic quote from architect Mies van der Rohe: “God is in the details.” True in every form of art, and worthy of our attention!

  4. barbaralinnprobst says:

    I echo what Kathryn and Laura said! Great examples to illustrate an important point! The only thing I might add is that there are times when brevity can have a huge impact, but I think it has to do with when and why it's used, and if it's used sparingly, with great precision. For example, if the details have been dropped into the story and then the character makes a simple statement. The starkness can be so powerful because it confirms what the reader has been sensing, the conclusion she has been moving toward but perhaps dreading. In that case, the details were already there, waiting for the statement ... What do you think?

    • Thanks, Barbara! Yes, specificity is most useful in key areas of story--otherwise we'd all have endlessly detailed descriptions of how a character navigates through every moment of her day. 😀 But I'm not sure I understand your contrasting the concept with brevity? I don't think the two are mutually exclusive, and from your example I don't think I'm seeing how you mean these concepts as two sides of one coin. I may not be reading your intention or question correctly.

  5. Alice says:

    Love this post. I’ve been putting off backstory because I didn’t want a big long scene. You explained well how to without being over wordy, one can create a world or feeling for the reader. Thanks

  6. Just the advice and examples I need right now as I attempt to write a sequel to my first memoir. Thanks!

  7. Micky Wolf says:

    Great post! I, too, fear the info dump that descends like a fog over the innocent reader. Your suggestions for how to enliven with specifics are most helpful. Thanks again!

  8. ecellenb says:

    Fabulous, examples, Tiffany.
    Thank you!

  9. dholcomb1 says:

    enjoyed your examples

    denise

  10. Jenny Hansen says:

    I'm late to the party today, but I want to thank you for this post. I adore seeing examples of how to make our writing better and yours were perfect. 🙂

  11. Charlotte Hunter says:

    Loved this one. I'm always trying to universalize my writing by finding just the right particularization for that moment in a story. It's not easy, and I appreciate these examples. Thanks for doing this.

    One small correction: Tolstoy, not Dostoevsky.

  12. Victoria Marie Lees says:

    Excellent examples. They help us all understand your point about specificity. Thanks!

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