Concrete, Solid Specifics

A biggie for me, when I edit or critique, is pushing encouraging writers to really get specific and concrete in their writing. You hear a lot about using strong verbs, but I think we also need strong nouns, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, articles, you name it.

You hear a lot about using details, and I think sometimes, we get carried away by quantity and forget to really pick and choose the right detail (or two) for the moment. Right to me is the detail, whether I’m working on a setting, a thread of internal thought, an action, or a voice, that hits it just right, that evokes an equally strong, solid response in the reader.

I’ll probably come back to this thread in future posts, so I’m not going to try and cover all the ways I think you can weave specifics into your writing. (I’d overwhelm you, you’d throw something (hopefully soft) at your computer, and you might never come back!) Today, I’m just going to talk about setting.

Read this, please:

The mountain was in front of her, the path going up it through the trees. The wind blew, and clouds moved across the sky, making shadows that made the forest even darker. The air was cold, and she pulled her coat closer around her, trying to shut out the silence as well as the cold. She started walking again, up and up, one foot after the other, ignoring the distance that was left.

Now, this:

The huge stone loomed ahead of her, the path struggling up its chipped, hard surface through the pines. The wind sighed, and gray stormclouds gusted across the sky, casting shadows that turned the forest almost black. The air was icy, and she tugged her parka close around her thin body, hoping to shut out the loud silence, as well as the deep chill. She started climbing again, up and up, one heavy boot after the other, ignoring the height she still faced.

Okay, all I did here, pretty much, was replace a word. I added a few. I may very well have gone overboard, just by playing, but reread the two passages. Which one paints you a more clear picture? Which one brings you closer to the scene this woman is moving through, makes you experience more of what she’s experiencing.

These kinds of details are not something to worry about in a first draft (especially if you’re doing NaNo!). Often, we really do just throw our settings onto the page, giving them a placeholder in the scene where they belong. Later, then, we actively research that setting, go physically to the place we’re describing or send some time with it in our imagination. Your critique group 🙂 can help you with the balance of detail–how much is enough, and how much is…well, too much.

Whatever you settle on, though, every setting deserves revision time, a few passes, to make sure your details are the right ones–strong, sensory specifics.

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6 thoughts on “Concrete, Solid Specifics

  1. free2cr8 says:

    Great tip, Becky! Well, I was definitely drawn to the second description. And it’s interesting just how adding a few specific words can make a difference. For instance, simple switching the word cold for icy gives me a better impression of just how cold it is in the scene.

    Like

  2. beckylevine says:

    Thanks! It was a fun exercise to do, just for the blog. And it’s easier to “explain” with an example, than just to describe the problem/fix. More showing, instead of telling, I guess!

    Like

  3. Umm. The second one?

    Not only does the second example show a better picture, but the emotion of how difficult the character’s trek is shines through.

    I can’t help it, but I found a spelling boo-boo: Often, we really do just throw our settings onto the page, giving them a placeholder in the scene where htey belong.

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  4. beckylevine says:

    Ack! What happened to my spellcheck? Off to fix it now. 🙂

    I think the details show the emotion, without me having to do much (any?) internal thought.

    Like

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