This summer I had the privilege of attending a course with Aritha van Herk at the Fernie Writers’ Conference.
Many of our discussions in the course focused on the importance of concreteness in writing fiction. The importance of detail had been explained to me in other writing classes, but I did not clearly connect it to concreteness or understand it as fully as I did by the time I finished the class with Aritha. She had us submit pieces about objects and then in her response highlighted all of the places in which she felt we were being vague or abstract. It is one thing to know you are supposed to avoid abstractions, and another thing to see your abstractions circled on the page. I definitely finally ‘got it’ in a deeper way.
Being concrete, or describing objects, actions, places or people using sensory details helps to create a clearer picture for your reader. Sensory details are things that can be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted. They allow the reader to experience the story through the character’s senses by showing, not telling and allow the reader to be more of a participant in the story. Some key tips in using concrete sensory details include:
1) Envision the details before you write them. Use the dreamstorming technique created by Robert Olen Butler, described my post on Minimum Daily Word Counts, to imagine the sensory details of a scene. Walk through the scene and the setting in your own mind. What do you see, hear, smell, taste? How does the ground feel under your feet? Record a few of the sensory details and use them in your scene.
2) Avoid abstractions. Nice, truth, beautiful, sad, depressed, helpful, stubborn, even tantrum. These words do not tell us much. They are vague and general. Use details and actions to make these abstractions more vivid. What makes the character nice? Does she run a soup kitchen and adopt stray cats with one leg?
3) Look for unique details about everything. What makes items, people, and places in your scene unique? If someone is carrying a purse, what kind of purse is it, is it new or old, what colour is it, how does the character feel about it? Real people have unique characteristics that make them come alive. Find these for your characters and they will come alive too. What do they wear, what do they read, how do they walk, what is in their medicine cabinet? Be precise.
4) Be selective and include the significant or telling details. Writers can go overboard and describe every single sensory detail in a scene or action, such that, as one blogger, Elizabeth Gonzalez, observes, it can take a character half a page to cross a room, because the writer is describing every sensory detail of the experience. This is overdoing it. Include two to three sensory details and be selective about the ones you use. They should be advancing the story and telling us something about the character. As Janet Burroway says – they should be the details “that matter.”
5) Include the character’s observations, emotions and judgments in the details. Each character will react differently to the concrete details of a setting, things or actions. They will observe different things and make different judgments. Make sure the details provided reflect what that character would notice, and that their judgments tell us something about the character and about the object, situation or setting they are observing.
Janet Burroway observed that often what we want to convey in our writing are abstractions, such as truth, mortality, and beauty. But using objects and sensory details to convey those abstractions engages the reader on a far deeper level by allowing them to feel the story with all their senses. Aritha used the example of a woman in a life-threatening situation remembering the taste of coffee, rather than considering her mortality and the danger she was in.
I will now handwrite a note saying BE CONCRETE in all caps in blue ball-point pen on a yellow post-it note and tape it to my office wall. However I am not convinced that those are telling details – other than hinting that post-it notes are central to my existence, and that I know from past experience that their stickiness declines over time.
Photo Credit: tochis via Compfight http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/