Have you ever read a story or piece of writing and found yourself struggling to picture what’s happening? Or you’re bored? Or you can’t imagine, or identify with, the characters?
There could be a number of reasons for these issues, but one way to address problems like these (and massively improve your writing, scene-setting and character development) is to use specificity in your writing.
I provide an overview of the topic here. If you’d like to learn more about honing the mechanics of your writing craft then I highly recommend Shaelin Bishop’s YouTube channel.
WHAT DO I MEAN BY ‘SPECIFICITY’?
To me, specificity means being specific (and not vague or generic) about the details in a scene.
I could look out of my window and announce that someone is walking their dog (there are lots of dog walkers where I live). This might be a sufficient amount of information to convey to the person I’m speaking with.
However, this tells the other person nothing about the breed of dog or its behaviour: trotting obediently by the human’s side? Tugging at the lead? Stopping every few metres to sniff at something or pee?
It says little about the dog walker: alert or baggy-eyed? Still in their pyjamas? Looking at their phone?
If I tell you ‘someone is walking their dog’ it might bring about a vague mental image. If I tell you there’s a brunette woman being dragged along the pavement by an enthusiastic dalmatian with a pink lead and collar, and then the woman falls flat on her face in a drift of fallen autumn leaves, then this tells you a lot more and immerses you in a sharper, more dynamic scene.
In just one line: the mental image is clearer, the immersion is stronger, and we already know lots about the scene and the characters involved (time of year; breed, personality and likely gender of the dog; relationship between dog and dog walker etc). If this event later turns out to be significant to the plot or character development, then specificity helps draw the reader into, and through, the story.
WHY SPECIFICITY MATTERS
Specificity matters because it increases the reader’s immersion in the story. It is much easier to experience a scene and the antics of a group of characters if you can:
See the specifics of what they are doing, or which objects they interact with
Hear their individual voices (gender, depth, accent, how something is spoken etc)
Smell what the characters smell (food? Damp? Furniture polish? etc)
Taste the meal they are eating, or taste air freshener on the air (or floating dust, or burning flesh)
All of these details immerse the reader in the setting, convey important information about what is happening, set the tone of the scene, and help us understand the characters and their relationships with each other.
The specifics used to describe a scene or character interaction can also tell you a lot about the individual who is telling the story. Which details are chosen, and the way they are described, can tell you about the narrator or point of view character’s personality, opinions, and their own relationships with the characters in question.
In my earlier example with the dalmatian, my personality and views will colour how I describe and react to the scene. Am I horrified and rush outside to help? Do I watch through the window and laugh until tears roll down my cheeks? Do I frown and grumble about ‘bloody dogs’? Do I find myself smiling at a distant memory of my childhood dog behaving in a similar manner? Each of these reactions tells us something about the character narrating the event, as well as the event itself.
Even a description as simple as ‘he ate a meal’ versus ‘he ate a full English breakfast’ can convey more information without lots of additional words. It tells you:
The (probable) time of day (although full English breakfast is one of my kids’ favourite evening meals!)
The (possible) nationality of the eater (I get the feeling other nations don’t appreciate the yumminess, affordability, and versatility of baked beans)
This might be sufficient. However, you could easily add more detail to convey further information about both the character eating the meal and the narrator (if they are different): where is the meal being eaten? (home-cooked? Greasy-spoon café? Posh version in a high-end restaurant?) How much food is on the plate? How do they eat it? Do they leave any food? Do they drink it with tea, coffee, juice, or water? Is the narrator salivating at the smell, or are they repulsed by the fat glistening on the sausages? Does the eater use ketchup or brown sauce? (to most people this won’t matter: to the English this question is CRUCIAL, and the correct answer is brown sauce).
IMPORTANT: SPECIFICITY ISN’T ALWAYS REQUIRED
A note of caution: you don't have to describe in detail every single photoframe, item of furniture, or dust mote. Try to choose a few key details that matter: they are the details that provide valuable information and insight about the setting, the characters, the plot, and the tone or message of the scene. For example, which photoframe is important? Is it clean or dusty? Who is featured in it? What are they doing in the picture? Mentioning the laminated chipboard television stand might not be important (unless it has a bearing on setting / plot / character / tone).
Like with ‘show, don’t tell’, you need balance between specificity and ‘vagueness’. If the scene is fast-paced, or you need to move the plot along, or the detail doesn’t really add anything to setting, plot, character, or tone, then you’re not going to stop and spend a paragraph describing how the character prefers crispy bacon and ketchup with his full English breakfast (although the ketchup thing could provide a clue to their deep-seated villainy).
As with any piece of writing, you need to select which details to draw attention to, and which ones can be described briefly, or left out altogether.
SPECIAL CASE: RED HERRINGS AND PLOT TWISTS
This is a situation in which the writer may be deliberately vague about a detail which later proves crucial to the story. This is an effective way to plant the clue but not draw the reader’s direct attention to it, thus helping the writer foreshadow the outcome whilst fooling the reader about the massive plot twist at the end. A vague description of these clues means the reader is less likely to notice the clue, or, if they do detect it, they misinterpret its meaning or significance.
SPECIAL CASE: CHARACTER DESCRIPTION
This topic could form a blog post all by itself!
In general, the same principles apply to character description as for describing a scene or sequence of actions.
A mistake many writers make is to list a new character’s physical characteristics: blonde hair; blue eyes; (the writer subconsciously assumes ‘white’ as the default so they may not even describe the character’s skin colour); tall, slim, wearing a pale-blue dress and sandals, size 6 feet etc.
The trick is to pick out a few important (and possibly unique or unusual) details about the character’s appearance and mannerisms that tell us the most about them. The details chosen, and the way they are described, also tells us about the person doing the describing!
Maybe the pale blue dress is important because it’s winter and they don’t seem to feel the cold. Maybe their hair is short and they play with it frequently. Maybe they have a tattoo of a butterfly on their chest, and the narrator disapproves. This description might still need work, but already it tells us more about the person (and the narrator) than a list of physical traits.
Even if you describe each detail of a character's appearance, readers will still picture the characters in their own way. So choose a few interesting details which best convey the character’s mannerisms, presence and motion through the world, and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.
A note of caution: please, please, please can writers stop treating white or pale skin is the ‘default’? While I advise to pick a handful of key character details, you should convey the race or skin tone of every main and side character (yes, all of them) as early as possible. As an additional note, please don't use 'food descriptions' to convey skin tones (especially darker skin tones). It’s offensive to many people and it’s been done to death. There are excellent resources to help you accurately and respectfully describe different skin tones, and to help you in writing the perspective and experiences of characters of colour. Writing with Color is a great place to start.
In general, don’t skip the specifics when describing scenes, events, characters, and character interactions. You don’t need to describe everything, but by being specific about the key details which most effectively convey tone, setting, character, action, or theme, you can more effectively immerse the reader in your story, and show (or strategically hide) important information.
WRITING HACK SERIES
This is part of a series of blog posts featuring writing hacks which will instantly improve your writing!
BEFORE YOU GO…
What do you think of the 'writing with specificity' hack?
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I do not use generative AI to produce or inform my blog, my images, or my fiction. All my content is generated by the chaotic firing of my own (human) brain! (I have access to some images through my Wix subscription). I do not consent to the use of my content, images, or fiction to train generative AI models. Please contact me to discuss permission and compensation if you wish to use my content in this way.