There was a man who worked at a factory who made some stuff.
Let’s be honest. If this was an opening line, you’d close the book, put it back on the shelf and ask, “How did THAT ever get published?” But what if I told you this line could be fixed by using one simple writing tip? The one writing tip I tell everyone I know. First of all, you may look at my picture and say, “Kyle, you’re twelve years old. What could you possibly know about writing?” Well, the truth is I am a lot older than I look, and after working at this craft for over ten years, I’ve picked up a thing or two. What I’ve learned is the best writing tip that will transform your fiction is this: be specific.
Let’s look at that opening sentence again. It’s so vague it is almost comical, and you could use it as a throwaway line of dialogue if you wanted.
Ralph: “So Mike, what do you do for a living?”
Mike: “Oh I work at a factory, where we make stuff.”
But if you really want to fix the opening line, be specific. “Mike Collins was a boiler technician at the EastCon sugar beet factory.” See how much better that sounds? Now you know exactly what Mike does for a living and if you live near a sugar beet factory, you have a horrible smell to go with the description as an added bonus. Obviously, this line is no “Call me Ishmael.” But it is descriptive. When you are writing a story you need to be as specific as possible. Your hero didn’t step into a car, he stepped into a ’57 avocado-green Thunderbird. Your hero didn’t pull a gun. She pulled out her Luger P08.
When I wrote a short story about a young boy on the day of Pearl Harbor, I wrote how his family usually “listened to the radio on Sunday nights while they ate dinner.” But that wasn’t specific. What was on the radio on Sunday nights in December of 1941? The Jack Benny Program. And what dinner did his mom usually make on Sundays? Roast beef. “We would always eat roast beef as we listened to the Jack Benny Program.” This makes the scene come alive.
The Devil isn’t the only one who should be in the details
Without these concrete details, your reader is eternally kept at arm’s length. We as writers can forget that the reader does not have the same mental image we have when we are writing the story. If we want our visions to become their daydreams, we have to give them the right tools. We have to tell them the skyscraper was 22 stories high. We have to tell them that the old floorboards creaked in such a way that made her feel like she wasn’t alone in the house. We have to tell them that the barbed wire tore into his hands as he held on for dear life. We have to tell them that the orange juice had the kind of pulp that gets stuck between your teeth. We have to tell them that the smell of boiled carrots reminded her of her grandmother.
If you were paying attention, you may have noticed that I used the five senses for these examples. This is because when you boil it down, that’s what being specific is all about. It’s sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. While technically all your reader should smell is the scent of a brand-new book, if done right, your world will come alive. They’ll smell the sweet aroma of cranberry sauced being made, pine needles, and hot cocoa and before you know it, your reader on the beach is feeling the itchiness of an ugly wool Christmas sweater. When she gets home, she’ll put on Bing Crosby’s Mele Kalikimaka and won’t know why. This is the magic of writing, and you can accomplish it by using one simple writing tip. So don’t be vague in your writing—be specific.
What is your favorite writing tip? Share your secrets in the comments below!
Kyle Morgan is a fulltime college student at Grand Canyon University, where he is majoring in Professional Writing for New Media. The youngest of three boys, Kyle is the final bird in his parent’s nest in the ever-growing state of Idaho. On his blog Cranial Flatulence – A comedy blog. (wordpress.com), he recounts his hilarious, and often embarrassing adventures of being a homeschool fundamentalist in the Pacific Northwest. You can check out his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.