Monday, May 9, 2011

When Writing Fiction, Be Specific

I have been blogging a lot about short stories, probably because I am writing a collection of my own right now. I am also consulting on the short-story collection of one of my writer friends. Thus, I have some pointers for writers in terms of short stories – and in terms of fiction in general.

Be Specific
I cannot urge this enough. With the short story especially, you have little time to get across a lot of information. You don’t have time to be coy. Just spit it out: What are you talking about, who are you referring to. If you are introducing a character who is the main character's mother, don’t call her something else, like “confidante” the first time we meet her. She might be the main character's confidante, but why not give us more information? Don't just make up a bunch of metaphors that only allude to who she is -- why not just tell us who she is. I know this might seem “on the nose,” but, in a sense, it needs to be. And if this character isn't just the main character's mother, but her step-mother, then please tell us that too, from the get-go. I know a lot of writers want to build a kind of mystery around their characters, surprising the reader later, but unless you are a very experienced writer, this is probably not going to work. State the facts.

Name Your Characters
I know there are writers who have lived on this planet, who are capable of creating these wonderfully dreamy worlds in which characters don’t actually have names but are only spoken of in terms of pronouns and nouns. “She went to the store.” “The girl didn’t like the boy.” I think Marguerite Duras, who is one of my all-time favorite writers, probably did this. But remember, Duras almost won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Most of us are not Duras. So please name your characters. Don’t try to create a wistful story by leaving out the names. It doesn’t make the story wistful, just confusing and vague. Give your characters names! This not only makes it easier for us to sort through the information, especially if there is more than one character with the same gender. “He needed to speak to him about his problem.” Huh? Which guy has the problem? Tell me!

Names also tell us a lot about a character. A character named Tracie has a different personality than one named Sloane, or one named Persephone. Names are important. Names make us relate to the character more when we're reading. We want to sink our teeth into details.

Same thing, writers: be specific. Location can tell us a lot about your characters: what kind of social status they have, what their interests are... Don’t expect readers from different parts of the country (or world) to  comprehend the idiosyncrasies of the boroughs or parts of your city, even if you are writing about New York or Paris. You are still going to need to describe the part of town or the neighborhood in more detail than just stating the place.

And if you are talking about mountains, why not tell us which mountains? Vermont or Colorado or Aspen? Think about the different kind of people who live in those different mountainous places. See how it makes a difference?

The same goes for locations within locations. So your character is sitting in an office. What is the office like? Describe it! Is it an opulent office, or a run-down one? A real-estate agent's office... Well, is this agent successful or not? This isn’t a screenplay. We need description here. You and only you, as the writer, have control over what the reader feels when they read your piece. Why not make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand the world you are trying to create for them?

Jobs and Age
Again, I am advising that you be as descriptive as possible. What kind of job your characters have describe to the reader who they are. Of course, we are not the sum total of our jobs, but let’s say all you do is write that your main character works at a club. We need to know what kind of club it is: a Kiwanis club, a dance club, a country club, a casino?

In terms of ages, think about how things mean different things to people of different ages. The stakes can be raised or lowered by a significant degree, depending on age. A single 20-year-old is different than a single 40-year-old. A married 20-year-old is different than a married 40-year-old. If you don’t come out and state the age, then you need to allude to it – a lot. You need to be very specific. X character is in college. Or she’s just graduated. Or she just recently celebrated her X birthday. 

Also, be specific about relationships. A son-in-law picks up his wife’s mom from the airport, and he’s late. Don’t let this just escape us. This is the perfect time to launch into some back story, even if this is a short story. Have the mother- and son-in-law always gotten along? Does Mom approve of him? Does she hate his guts? This is going to determine how she feels about him being late. And don’t let that confrontation escape us either. Let's see it!

Again, be specific about objects, stuff. If your main character has just packed a lamp because he is moving, what kind of lamp is it? A lava lamp is very different from an antique lamp given to you by your grandmother, which is very different from a lamp purchased at Z Gallerie or one purchased at a thrift shop.

I'll will include more tips later, so stay tuned.


  1. Very good advice. I love specifics. I like a writer who has done their research and knows how to interject it through meaningful details. It really makes the story come alive.

  2. Yes, and you couldn't imagine how many writers are not specific with their writing. It really deflates the content.