29 February 2016
“A guy walks into a bar and orders a drink.”
This may paint a picture in a reader’s mind, but it’s pretty generic. It could be any guy, in any city.
Good fiction should have the have the ring of authenticity to it. One way to convey authenticity is by including specific details.
“A guy walks into a bar and orders a drink. He was old and tired, and he wanted to escape his loneliness for one night by getting very drunk.”
Slightly better, not much. It tells us a little bit about the character and his intent, but it is still pretty generic. Also, it breaks an important principle of good writing: show, don’t tell. This sentence tells us what the character wants, but it’s usually better to show the reader a specific detail and let the reader infer the character’s desire.
Let’s replace some generic words with more specific ones:
“A grizzled prospector stumbled into the dark saloon and demanded a bottle of whiskey.”
Better. It is no longer a generic bar in a generic setting. We can infer it is a bar in the old West. The character is not just any “guy,” but a type of character typically found in Westerns. The more specific verbs “stumbled” and “demanded” convey more about his personality and the condition of his body, as does the adjective “grizzled.” The type of drink he orders and the quantity reveals something about his state of mind and his tastes. What’s more, it does so by showing, rather than telling.
In fact, we may not need the second sentence now, because we can infer the prospector’s reason for ordering the whiskey. People usually don’t “stumble” into a place if they are expecting to meet someone. And only someone who is lonely and/or miserable would order an entire bottle of whiskey for himself.
Continue to specify a few more details:
“The sun had fallen low in the sky when Dan Perkins, grizzled and grey haired, stumbled into the smoky parlour of the Fortune Trail Saloon. His face was tanned, his clothes were worn and soiled, and he smelled like the back end of a pack-mule. Leaning against the blackened oak counter to steady himself, Dan wiped a spill of fresh blood from his eyebrow, slammed a fist-sized bag of gold dust onto the counter and demanded a bottle of The Last Rites – a foul, chestnut-coloured mixture of Irish whiskey, Indian medicinal herbs, and homemade moonshine, popular among the dying and those who no longer cared to live.”
TIP: If you’re struggling for details, use Google or Google Images.
Provide the reader with specific answers to basic questions like “Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How?”. You should also incorporate as many of the senses as possible. If you are writing from the point of view of a character, what specifically would that character see, hear, smell, taste and feel? If your narrator is omniscient, include details that convey to the reader what it would have been like to be present in the story.
Each specific detail tells the reader much more about the characters and the world they inhabit than a general term can. Does your protagonist carry a handgun or a Philadelphia Derringer? Does he like cheese or Camembert? Does he live in a house or a homestead? Does he sport a watch or a Rolex?
There is no limit to the number of specific details you could build into a passage of descriptive writing. So you must be selective. Too many details can slow the action, and if they aren’t of vital importance to the story, they can become boring. On the other hand, a few telling details inserted in the middle of the action can paint a rich picture for the reader without slowing things down.
– Adapted from How to Write a Book