Prove it to Me
Which statement is more convincing?
- Alec is the most patriotic man you’d ever want to meet.
- Each Memorial Day, Marco hangs three American flags from his front porch, one for each of his schoolmates who died in Iraq; sings with his church group a medley of The Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and America at the local VA hospital; and serves a ham and eggs dinner at a soup kitchen.
When you’re reading a story and the author wants you to believe a character is patriotic, do you simply take the author at his or her word? Or do you want proof—actions that show the character actually possesses the quality?
In All the Light You Cannot See, Anthony Doerr writes, “Don’t you ever get tired of believing, Madame? Don’t you ever want proof?”
Most of us want proof. Humans are wired to respond emotionally to concrete images, not abstract ideas. We like our images to move. And the more details we add to those concrete action images, the more proof we offer, the more solid those images become in our minds.
Why do people love soap operas and reality shows? We want the gossip, the dirt—the details. When my friend goes on a date, she calls me, not just to say, “It was nice.” She wants to tell me what her date said and how he said it or if he talked too much and whether he paid for dinner and if he kissed her and…all the details. After a football game, even though my husband just watched every play of the game, he watches the post-game show that will rehash all the details.
Give Me Some Details
Suppose I write,
“She wore a black dress.”
That gives you a basic image, but it’s very generalized and not very interesting. This brings it into better focus:
“She wore a black velvet, ¾ length A-line dress with long sleeves and a lace collar.”
Now you—at least you women—could pretty much draw the dress. But do you care? Are you experiencing the image? No, you don’t care and don’t have any emotional investment in the image because it doesn’t tell you anything about the character wearing it.
As the author, I need to make sure my description reaches you emotionally. It needs to make you care about my character. So let me try again:
“The black velvet dress hung on her as if handed down too soon from an older sister. Its lace collar had yellowed and the sleeves were frayed at the wrists and smooth at the elbows.”
Now your mind should be conjuring ideas about the character wearing the dress. Physically, she is likely thin, as the dress is too large for her. That the dress is aged and tattered and doesn’t fit properly suggests that she cannot afford new clothes.
I’ve begun to use description to add details that matter. Let me add more detail that continues to develop my character: “As she tucked her skirt under her knees, chewed fingernails snagged on the velvet.”
Now you wonder what anxiety has her gnawing her nails.
I Think I’d Like a Snack
The more specific detail the author goes into, the more concrete the description is—and the more the reader can picture. That means the reader can relate better and generate more emotion. If I say, “I think I’ll go to a fast-food establishment for a sandwich,” you’ll probably scratch your head. But if I say, “I think I’ll go to Taco Bell for that Cheesy Beefy Melt,” you’ll picture that beef and gooey cheese and your mouth will start to water. Advertisers, in general, write the book on using details to hook their audience.
Wherever you can, use the more specific term for nouns.
A Victorian with a wrap-around porch, not a house
A Weimeraner, not a dog
The Grand Canyon, not the canyon
California rolls, not sushi
Grand Theft Auto, not a video game
Selma, Alabama, not down south
Girl Scout Thin Mints, not cookies
Beethoven’s 9th, not music
Bipolar disorder, not mental illness
Now Make a Scene
Consider this description of a scene:
“After I watched the scary movie, I had to close my closet door before I went to sleep.”
Scared? No? Why not? I gave you concrete images of a scary movie and a closet door. I even gave you a motion verb. Picture those in your mind. Still not scared? Hmmm. Can you guess why not?
Ok. Try this:
After The Exorcist ended at 2 a.m., I pulled the covers to my chin and lay motionless with the lamp on. The hairs on my arms stood on end as a shiver crawled from my toes to my head and exited in a particularly foul breath. The closet door gaped open about an inch. How could I close my eyes while Linda Blair, head turned backward, was waiting to fly out cursing or a demon with coal-red eyes was waiting to shove me down the stairs? Holding my breath, I threw back the covers leapt from the bed to the closet slammed the door shut checked under the bed burrowed back under the covers pulled my pillow over my head. I let out my breath as quietly as I could and saw light sneaking in around the edges of my pillow. The light could just stay on.
Scared now? Yeah, you can’t fool me. You didn’t move a muscle while you read that.
Time for the Exam
Let’s examine the description to see what made it evoke your fear.
First, there are sensory images:
- TOUCH: you feel the covers touch your chin and lie motionless, feel the hairs on your arms stand on end, feel the shiver crawl, hold your breath, throw back the covers, leap from the bed, check under the bed, burrow under the covers, pull the pillow over your head, let out your breath.
- SMELL: foul breath, holding my breath, let out my breath.
- SIGHT: lamp on, closet door gaped open, Linda Blair head turned backward, waiting to fly out, demon with coal-red eyes waiting, covers, bed, closet, slammed the door shut, checked under the bed, burrowed back under the covers, pulled my pillow over my head, saw light sneaking in around the edges of my pillow.
- HEARING: cursing, slammed the door shut, let out my breath as quietly as I could.
Second, I included a lot of motion verbs; can you locate them? (pulled, crawled, exited, gaped, close, fly, cursing, shove, threw, leapt, slammed, checked, burrowed, let out, sneaking) [although they are technically action verbs, ended, lay, stood, waiting, holding, saw, and stay don’t convey motion]
Third, there are many concrete nouns: (The Exorcist, covers, chin, lamp, hairs, arms, shiver, toes, head, breath, door, inch, eyes, Linda Blair, head, demon, stairs, bed, closet, pillow, light)
Finally, many of the images are made more specific with detail: (The Exorcist ended at 2 a.m., the hairs on my arms stood on end, a shiver crawled from my toes to my head and exited in a particularly foul breath, the closet door gaped open about an inch, head turned backward, demon with coal-red eyes, let out my breath as quietly as I could, light sneaking in around the edges of my pillow)
Notice that I didn’t simply string together adjectives and adverbs to create my details. Such images aren’t usually as strong (don’t evoke as much emotion) as when you use nouns and verbs. For example, consider the difference between these two sentences:
She is happy.
Her smile lights her whole face and her eyes crinkle as she laughs.
“Happy” is vague and subjective, whereas the descriptions in the second sentence draw specific pictures the reader can envision.
One of the reasons F. Scott Fitzgerald is considered one of the greats is his mastery of writing craft. Note his use of concrete nouns, action (motion) verbs, and specific detail in this description from The Great Gatsby:
“Suddenly one of these gypsies in trembling opal seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage, and moves her hands like Frisco dancers out alone on the canvas platform.”
Fitzgerald only used three adjectives and of those, trembling is an action and Frisco and canvas are specific nouns used as adjectives.
More next time on several ways to add detail.