be specific

When I read fiction I like to savor the author’s style (or voice, or way with words). If words are ingredients in a story soup, then specifics are some of the most flavorful spices. Great writers spice things up with bold specifics that grab readers and don’t let them go.

Here are four instructive excerpts, two from Young Adult fiction and two from literary and contemporary genre fiction. Highlighted words are those I’ve marked as notably specific:

1. From Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:

“I slowly peel and eat a handful of nuts. My last cracker. The groosling neck. That’s good because it takes time to pick clean. Finally, a groosling wing and the bird is history. But it’s a hollow day, and even with all that I start daydreaming about food. Particularly the decadent dishes served in the Capitol. The chicken in creamy orange sauce. The cakes and pudding. Bread with butter. Noodles in green sauce. The lamb and dried plum stew. I suck on a few mint leaves and tell myself to get over it.”

handful – you can picture a handful. It is a specific amount.

A poor choice might have been: “some.”

groosling – this is a fictitious bird described as similar to a small wild turkey. Coined words are specific. This one sounds like a hybrid of “goose,” “grouse,” and “duckling,” which makes it all the more effective.

A poor choice might have been: “bird.”

creamy orange sauce – creamy alone or orange alone would not have been specific enough to be notable; combining them makes the sauce more specific.

A poor choice might have been: “tasty.”

lamb and dried plum stew – three specific elements: lamb, dried and plum. (You could argue here for the inclusion of the previously mentioned noodles with green sauce, since that is an unusual combination.)

A poor choice might have been simply: “stew.”

mint leaves – evokes a specific taste for the reader.

Better than simply: “leaves.”

2. From Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak:

“Older students are allowed to roam until the bell, but ninth-graders are herded into the auditorium. We fall into clans: Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, Cheerleaders, Human Waste, Eurotrash, Future Fascists of America, Big Hair Chix, the Marthas, Suffering Artists, Thespians, Goths, Shredders. I am clanless.”

roam – the verb is specific because it suggests the conceit, developed in part here and further developed later in the text, that the students are treated like wild animals. Since we more often than not associate the word “roam” with animals (“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam”), the verb is specific to the effect the author wants.

A poor choice might have been: “freedom” instead of “to roam.”

ninth-graders – numbers and labels are specific.

A poor choice might have been: “we.”

herded – like roam, this verb specifically connotes animals and so equates students to animals, a conceit and a theme Anderson is developing.

A poor choice might have been: “brought.”

clans – this is specific because we tend to think of clans as outmoded, perhaps medieval and violent. It is humorous, provocative and honest to associate student cliques with clans.

A poor choice might have been: “groups.”

All of the clique titles are obviously specific. A lazy writer might have simply written: “groups.”

3. From Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea:

(Though Hemingway is known for his lean and sometimes deceptively simple writing style, he uses here several specifics.)

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.”

salao – especially powerful because it is exotic. It is the exotic name of a specific kind of unluckiness. The contrast between Hemingway’s simple, archetypal choices (such as old man, boy, sea, fish) and his specific choices (such as Gulf Stream, eighty-four days, and salao) further accentuate the boldness of the specifics, which thereby stand out in greater relief.

A poor choice might have been: “terribly unlucky.”

skiff – a specific kind of small boat.

A poor choice might have been: “boat.”

Gulf Stream – any proper noun, any name is specific.

A poor choice might have been: “ocean.”

Numbers – are inherently specific. Saying “eighty-four days,” for example, is interesting. It suggests counting the days. Eighty days without a fish… Eighty-one days without a fish… And so on…

A poor choice might have been: “a few months.”

4. From Stephen King’s Under the Dome:

“Rory saw his smiling (but of course modest) face on the front page of USA Today; being interviewed on Nightly News with Brian Williams; sitting on a flower-bedecked float in a parade in his honor, with Prom Queen-type girls surrounding him (probably in strapless gowns, but possibly in bathing suits) as he waved to the crowd and confetti floated down in drifts. He would be THE BOY WHO SAVED CHESTER’S MILL!

I saved King for last because he has sold far more books than have the other authors. Thus, more readers have voted with their dollars for the stories he tells in the style he tells them. I think that one key component to King’s phenomenal success is his use of specifics. While I chose the four excerpts because each approaches the best that its author has to offer us, King consistently writes in the manner of the excerpt I’ve included much more often than do the other three writers. In other words. King’s excerpt is representative; it is not the exception. These are the sorts of specifics that you can count on whenever you read Stephen King.

USA Today – a specific title that most readers will know. Any time you can activate readers’ experience (i.e., memories), such as reading USA Today (I, for example, think of seeing a copy of this publication left outside my door at many of the hotels and motels at which we stayed during our recent two-week West and Southwest road trip), it’s a good thing. This is making use of Mental Real Estate.

A poor choice might have been: “the newspaper.”

Nightly News with Brian Williams – see above. Note that the title is even more effective when quoted in full, with the anchor, Brian Williams, invoked.

A poor choice might have been: “the news.”

flower-bedecked – this adjective connotes the careful application of flower decorations, a la The Parade of Roses at The Rose Bowl.

A poor choice might have been simply: “a float.”

Prom Queen-type girls – a specific type of girls that most of us well know.

A poor choice might have been: “pretty girls” or “babes” or “hotties.”

strapless gowns – not just any gowns, they’re strapless.

A poor choice might have been: “dresses.”

in drifts – we get a specific image from this. If King had left it at “confetti floated down,” the result would have been serviceable but the imagery not as specific.

A poor choice might have been simply: “and confetti fell.”

THE BOY WHO SAVES CHESTER’S MILL! – this specific imagined headline helps us to enter the mind of Rory, whose viewpoint we are now following.

A poor choice might have been: “the hero.”


Now excuse me while I go try to practice what I preach!


(Photo by: Robbert van der Steeg)


2 thoughts on “be specific

  1. Frank says:

    thanks! substantial observations. Could you pls recommend me something to read on “Mental Real Estate”? I work in genre, where it’s extremely important.

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