literature, writing

The Power of Specificity in Fiction

The internet is rife with tips and guides that tell aspiring writers how to write. Many writing “rules” are generally agreed upon (i.e., avoiding excessive use of adverbs, and the whole showing rather than telling issue). But from everything I’ve seen, one of the most overlooked and undervalued pieces of writing advice is “be more specific.” Specificity breathes life into your narrative. I’m far from the first to observe this, but it’s a piece of advice that’s often been sidelined in favor of more technical feedback. Suspension of disbelief is a big part of enjoying fiction from the reader’s perspective, and the easier you can make it for your reader to believe in these people and places, the more memorable your story is going to be.

Specificity in Character-Building

In good fiction, you barely notice the level of specificity in the storytelling because it feels natural. When people tell stories in day-to-day life, there tends to be a familiarity in the way they describe things. For example, my best friend works in a restaurant. But if someone asks me what she does for a living, I’m not going to say, “Oh, she works in a restaurant.” I usually say something along the lines of “she’s a bartender at Famous Dave’s.” (Not where she actually works, FYI—gotta respect her privacy). This is an incredibly basic example, and not enough to make for good fiction, but it’s a springboard for getting into the specifics.

Think about the people you know best. You probably know some pretty random and specific information about them, even though you don’t know everything about them. Maybe you know that your mom’s favorite scarf is the plaid blue one she hangs by the door when she gets home every day. Maybe you know that your best friend’s comfort food is Kraft Mac and Cheese. Maybe your sister hates her coworker Jack because of that one time he forgot to add fries while bagging a drive thru order and he blamed it on her.

We tend to understand people in bits and pieces, in zooming in on the specifics that are most memorable to us—often because they tell us something about that person (maybe your best friend likes mac and cheese because her dad used to make it for her when she was a kid, or maybe your sister hates Jack because she’s always holding grudges). The same logic can be applied to character-building. Even as the author, you don’t need to know everything about your characters. But if you can zoom in on some specifics that will tell the reader something about your character, it’s going to go a long way toward making your characters more believable. They will start to feel like real people, because you’ll be presenting them in the same way that we tend to think about real people.

In prose, this can also factor in to describing physical characteristics. A lot of aspiring authors think of their characters in a sort of laundry list of colors: blue eyes, brown hair, tan skin, red lips. There’s not anything explicitly wrong with knowing or mentioning some of these details in passing, but do they really tell us anything? How many people in the world have “long, dark hair,” and how different do those people all look? Like anything else, specificity is going to paint a clearer picture for your reader, and align more closely with the things we notice about people in real life. If I wanted to describe my husband, for example, I might mention that he has brown hair—but it would be a lot more interesting to say that he has a scar across his nose from getting hit by his own boomerang as a child.

Specificity also has its place in dialogue, but how that specificity comes into play is going to depend on who your characters are talking to and how they relate to one another. If I go to grab a drink while my best friend is bartending, for example, she’s not going to tell me about how she’s worked there for six years and is studying chemistry at CSUSB, but she might tell a stranger that. On the flip side, she’s probably not going to tell that same stranger that she’s pissed off at her boss for scheduling extra bartenders on a slow night, effectively cutting her tips in half—but she’d definitely mention that to me in undertone while sliding me the pomegranate margarita I ordered. Dialogue can be a great place for revealing your characters’ specific goals, motivations, frustrations—you name it. But you have to exercise caution so that it doesn’t feel like that information was inserted just for the audience’s sake.

Lastly, be sure zoom in on specifics when crafting your characters’ backstories. When you think about your childhood, for example, you probably have some pretty specific memories—not just generalizations. If someone asked about my experiences in elementary school, I could just say I was bullied, and that would be true. But it would be a lot more memorable if I told them about the time Leanna Smith sat on me while we were playing ponies during recess because she wanted to be the gray pony, and she she refused to get up until I agreed. That’s a light-hearted example, but it applies equally to characters of all backstories. With backstories, some generalizations are okay, but a backstory crafted entirely from generalized or vague statements—I went to school, my mom died when I was ten, now I work at the pizza shop—aren’t going to carry the same weight as zooming in on those vivid, specific memories.

Specificity in Setting

Equally, specificity is important in defining your setting. A lot of aspiring authors rely far too heavily on preconceived notions and end up overlooking their setting entirely, both on the micro and macro scale. You might imagine that your characters are in a bar, but what sort of bar, exactly? There are about four different bars within walking distance of my house, and I live in a tiny mountain town. If I say I’m at the bar, am I talking about the outdoor brewery with string lights, populated by mostly snowboarding and hiking clientele, or am I talking about the wine bar with live music, where all the middle-aged moms hang out while their kids are across the road playing baseball? Or maybe I’m talking about the dimly-lit pool hall that all the bikers stop in while out for a cruise on Highway 2. And don’t forget to give your locations a name—unless it just happens to be the only bar in town, I highly doubt it’s actually called “The Bar” (unless you’re aiming for very meta).

The same mistake often gets made when dealing with large-scale settings. Say your main character is from London—well, where in London, exactly? Because someone from Chelsea and someone from Hammersmith are bound to be two different people. And even then, is naming neighborhoods enough to make your setting feel believable? Probably not. Maybe you’ll want to describe the pub on the corner (run-down, or flashy and touristy?), the street your character lives on (busy, or quiet?), the sort of people they encounter on the day-to-day. The more specific you can get in fleshing out your location, the better. You often hear people say that you should “write what you know,” and while I don’t believe that advice applies across the board, people will notice if you’re writing a location that you don’t have at least a rough knowledge of.

This is equally important—if not more so—when writing stories that are set in fictional locations. If you’ve invented a town or city set in a real-world location, use similar real-world settings as a reference point for adding specific details. When creating a fictional village for my Icelandic romance, I drew inspiration from what I saw around real Icelandic villages in the southern region. What sort of names did they give to their tour companies? How did the locals behave toward tourists? If you can draw from personal experience, this part will be made a bit easier, because you’ll already have those highly specific memories that you can adapt and modify for your characters’ own experience of the setting.

When dealing with the wholly fictional universes common to fantasy and science fiction novels, this gets trickier, because it becomes harder to draw on personal experience and the only preconceived notions about these sorts of settings come from other SFF media—which means if you rely on those notions, your work will inevitably feel derivative. The key to creating a believable universe is to remember that it still needs the same specificity as anything else. Say your MC was raised on a spaceship. Great. What is that spaceship called? Does it have separate segments that function as neighborhoods, and if so, which one did your MC grow up in? If you’re writing a fantasy with different cultures, what is a cultural practice that your MC holds dear? What attitudes and prejudices do they hold toward other cultures? Does your MC have any specific memories in this regard?

Last but not least, I cannot emphasize enough how often I see authors who hire me on Fivver overlooking the setting in their query letters or synopses. Lines like “when so-and-so moves to the city . . .” or “on a remote farm” are rampant. But what city? A remote farm where? These phrases give us a vague idea of the setting, but they’re not specific enough to make it feel real or even the slightest bit memorable. And that’s when authors actually bother to touch on the setting in their query or synopsis—most people get so wrapped up in trying to condense their story down to a couple paragraphs that they don’t even mention the setting at all.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Specific?

Of course, there can always be too much of a good thing, and specificity in your story is no different. Finding the right balance is key—too much specificity can result in rambling purple prose, whereas too little will inevitably result in a story that’s unfortunately forgettable. A good rule of thumb is to think about the scale of what you’re describing, relative to your book. If you’re writing a first-person narrative with only the one main character, then you’re going to have plenty of time to weave the specifics of their backstory and their interests throughout the plot, without it feeling like overload. But if it’s their little brother that only appears in one brief scene, we probably don’t need to know about his irrational fear of bumble bees or his preference for chocolate milk over regular.

The same can be applied to settings: if the bulk of your story takes place in San Francisco, there will be plenty of space to flesh out various locations contained within the city throughout different scenes. Maybe one scene they’re out to dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe on Pier 39, and another they’re going for a casual stroll through Golden Gate Park, past a topless sunbather and a girl walking five dogs; all of these specific details woven throughout the story will contribute to the greater whole, meaning there’s little need to dump a description of SF on your reader all at once.

In short, exercise caution when introducing specificity—use it only where it is relevant, where it tells the reader something about the people or places you want to bring to life.

Some Closing Thoughts

Specificity is important in any storytelling, but the shorter your story, the more you’ll need to cherry-pick the vivid-but-relevant details to make it convincing and make readers empathize with your characters. Authors can learn a lot from song-writers, in this regard—take a look at this fantastic article about Taylor Swift’s song “All Too Well,” and how its specificity makes it one of the best songs on the album.

And of course, there are authors out there who broken these “rules” a hundred times over and still managed to tell a fantastic story. But everything in writing should be deliberate. As with breaking any other convention, I think it’s a good idea to get a feel for the specifics of your story first, so that you know why you’re choosing to elaborate or omit in various places throughout. At the end of the day, it’s up to you as the author to make the most of the story you’re trying to tell.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Specificity in Fiction”

  1. Oh yeah, specificity in fiction is key. Another related branch is concrete versus abstract. Inevitably, the more specific you go, the more words you’ll have to use, and writing is always a choice between the two. And that’s where we make the tough decisions as writers. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True, definitely a question of balance, always. I also think specificity can happen on a much smaller scale, in some cases—saying “the city” versus specifying “the windy city,” for example. One word makes all the difference.

      Like

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