Specifics, Please!

How’s this?

I pushed open the door, walked to the car, drove a few miles past farmer’s fields, and found myself at Myra’s house.

Well, I suppose it gets the job done. And perhaps you want your reader to concentrate on something else. But what about this?

The old screen door squeaked and protested as I pushed it open; it slammed shut behind me. I jumped the three steps to the gravel path and swished through the unraked leaves downed during yesterday’s thunderstorm. My poor little MG, so impractical on Nebraska’s many dirt roads, sat muddy and forlorn; I hopped in and turned the key. It never does like to start. Just as the battery was almost dead, it coughed into life, complaining loudly through the hole in the muffler. The road, still muddy from the storm, was not kind to my MG, splattering mud everywhere, and I slid a little more than I liked around the sharp 90-degree bend near the massive oak. Thumping up and down over the washboards, all that remained of the corn crop was stubble, not yet plowed under. After a few more equally sudden turns, I caught sight of Myra’s farmhouse, mightly lonely on these flat western Nebraska plains. The outbuildings had long given in to nature, but Myra had worked miracles to bring the old homestead back to life. A bit of woodsmoke drifted skyward from the red brick chimney. Her driveway was more a hole in the fence; I turned in and skittered through the mud, almost too deep for the MG to find any traction. Myra appeared on the porch, clearly alerted in advance by that rusted muffler. She leaned against the sole pole holding up the sagging porch roof and waved as I drew closer.

So, I ask, which is more interesting? Which excerpt sets the scene? Which draws you into that old house along with Myra and Jim? I daresay the second.

Why? It’s full of specifics. Not a door, but a screen door that squeaks. Not a yard but a yard full of fallen leaves. Not a car, but an MG with a bad muffler and poorly-tuned engine. Not a road, but a muddy, slippery dirt road. Not a corner, but the corner by the old oak. Not a driveway, but a hole in the fence and then slip and slide through yet more mud. Not a house, but the sole surviving structure with a sagging porch and a red brick chimney. Oh, and we’re not just anywhere. We’re in western Nebraska where it’s mighty flat. And it’s autumn, after the crops have been harvested.

So, do the same. You can overdo it, of course, throwing in detail that doesn’t help set the scene. (“I switched on the light in the bathroom, pausing to appreciate the three compact fluorescent lights where normally round bulbs would be. I felt the smooth porcelain sink and savored the aroma of the crushed flowers Myra so thoughtfully placed on the little table.”) Well, I guess the presence of compact fluorescents might say something, but most sinks are smooth and porcelain and crushed flowers usually smell good. I think it might be more honest to say something along the lines of “the crushed flowers fought to overcome the bathroom odor, but I’m afraid they lost the fight.”

Instead of telling us about your character, describe him or her by specifics. The colors. The smells. The furniture. The books. And so on.

Hmm…I wonder just what Myra and Jim did after that old MG clattered to a halt? I might have to think that through.

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2 Responses to Specifics, Please!

  1. Nick says:

    Thanks for the great comment Dave. I’m hoping this is one of your posts, since this is where your comment leads to. I don’t know if I would consider myself an expert (or if I ever will) as there is always room for improvement.

    Since I chose this post, I’ll add my opinion on your argument. Great details are nice and I do like your writing style, but be wary of verbosity. Attacking the issue as a short story writer/journalist my first instinct is always to say the most with the least. I always try and pick and chose my details and let them tell as much information as they can. Anyone can be taught grammar, but I think style is the hardest part of writing to master.

    Good luck, your site looks great.

  2. susan palmer says:

    I agree with both of you. Short stories require almost a poet’s touch to capture a vivid description by using just the right word in a sentence. Sped rather than ran. Sped reveals intention. Ran could have any number of motives. Smirked rather than smiled. you know all this.

    I have read novels that go on too long with too much description just when I was expecting the villain to strike, and other novels with so little description a whole week passed in one sentence and the character’s motives were lost or bypassed.

    Thus the value of a critique group, an editor, or a friend who will read and rant.

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