Sometimes a good sentence zings in like a mosquito on a mission from the Minnesota woods. When I hear or read a good line, it often catches me off guard and makes me see my world in a new way.
When I first started teaching creative writing, at the California Institute of the Arts, I carried home a pile of final projects to read. In the story I began with, a student described the veins on his grandfather’s hands as “swollen ropes.” Another student wrote about a maypole from her youth that had brightly colored ribbons “hanging in glorious tendrils to the grass.” Those are the kinds of analogies and details that give writing life, whether you’re writing fiction or not.
It occurred to me then, too, that some people think great writing is all about good grammar. Good grammar alone is box architecture. A square cinder-block building may stand, but there’s nothing exceptional about it. It has no personality, no feeling, no style. It’s a house but not a home.
In high school and most of college, English class bored the hell out of me. Why? I didn’t see the fun and freedom in language—I didn’t grasp that it was something to be handled like film, that images could be slammed against each other, or similes and metaphors could carry me to new heights. Perhaps my teachers didn’t know this either, or I just didn’t absorb it. Now, ironically, I teach English, and I try to lead students to this water’s edge. One of the points I try to make to them—and now to you—is that beyond grammar is the idea of writing with specifics. I offer you a few major points.
1: God is in the details.
This simply means that you should avoid the general for the specific. “How was the dance?” you might ask a friend. “It was nice,” as an answer, may not tell you a lot. In contrast, the following brings more: “I danced with Daphne Richards who wore white shorts and a royal blue sweater, and when I held her during Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Back in Your Arms,’ I could feel her skin was moist from the previous dance, and I could smell her perfume, which reminded me of orange blossoms.” That speaks volumes.
Words such as “nice,” “good,” “fun,” and “awesome”—and all stand-alone adjectives in general—don’t have as much power as when you appeal to the senses.
I have an exercise to help you work on this skill. It’s in three parts. Try this: Go outside with a pencil and paper to where a stranger might pass. You might sit on a stoop in front of your house or at an outdoor cafe.
A) Describe an object nearby or a person whisking past by giving details—just write on your paper without a lot of thinking, much like a sketch artist begins a sketch.
B) After that, come up with a simile of this person or object by using the word “like,” as in “He is like a ____________.” Just fill in the blank. Come up with two or more, and again write as quickly as possible.
C) Now create a metaphor by saying the person or object is a ___________. Fill in the blank with a noun.
For example, one person I tried this with went to an ice cream vending machine and wrote: “A) ‘Klondike, the Original’ says the silver wrapped square with blue ink. There’s a picture of an Eskimo. The machine says it ‘accepts $1 bills’ and to ‘insert face up.’ B) The ice cream square is like an invitation to all my needs. It is like a cigarette ad—so much promise. I can be fulfilled. C) Because I have no money, the ice cream is unreacheable… so the ice cream bar is a dancer in a cage. It is Emily Dickinson, where need is greater than attainment.”
I am constantly impressed by the results of this exercise. Even people who do not write very often come up with some amazing lines.
2: After creating structure, let yourself get lost in the moment.
Again, harking back to what I often implore, don’t feel you have to write a perfect first draft. Allow yourself to be imperfect. I find the best writing comes when you know what you want to say in general (or from an outline), but then you allow yourself some fun in saying it. Allow yourself to be impulsive. Try out sentences or thoughts that stretch you. You can always erase them later. As in the exercise above, if you just do it without spending a lot of time pondering, good things will come.
3: Analogies—similes and metaphors—are important.
Similes and metaphors are one way to get specific. They don’t come tripping naturally from my fingers. Hence, I don’t worry about creating them in a first draft. In rewriting, I’ll often look for spots to insert a simile or metaphor. Similes and metaphors evoke images and feelings—they are specific.
To provide examples to my class of the rich use of simile and metaphor, I sometimes grab a book by Tom Robbins, such as Jitterbug Perfume. Some critics say Robbins goes overboard, but that’s what I love about his work. His analogies come like a runner’s breath, one automatically after another. For example, I just opened the above book to read:
“They stopped to catch their breath after the rigorous descent. There, sitting against the base of the cliff, sequins of sweat sewn to their brows, they regarded one another as pilgrims—or survivors—do. Kudra folded her hands over her uterus, where some very strange little swimmers recently drowned. Alobar issued a sigh that was shaped like a funnel: a full quart of beet juice could have been poured through it” (p. 148).
Notice the analogies: Sweat is described as sewn sequins. The travelers are pilgrims, survivors. Kudra’s abdomen is described as her uterus—an important point—and the “swimmers” you can guess. Last, a sigh is compared to a funnel—quite unique. Come up with your own unique comparisons.
If you like a more “normal” or nonfiction example of analogies, I offer you this from Time:
“The Chickasha twister settled in like a plow, ripping an 80-mile gash northeast through a corner of Oklahoma City and several suburbs for an endless four hours. Thousands of Oklahomans heard the shriek of the warning sirens gradually overwhelmed by a sound variously described like a locomotive, or a screaming jet engine, or nothing on Earth.”
That certainly gets you into the moment, much more so than, “A big dark thing came down on the city creating a big noise. It ruined houses and made a mess.” As you read a book or story you like, underline good descriptions and lines you love.
4: Writing is a dance between the general and the specific.
Despite what I said in rule #1, you need the general to set the scene. Then you get specific. Back and forth. Ursula K. Le Guin in her excellent book, Steering the Craft, describes this process as “Crowding and Leaping.” If you’re telling a story, fiction or nonfiction, you first have to quickly get into the who-what-where-when-why-how in a general way before getting into specifics. You then focus on an event, a crowding of details, before leaping to the next event.
In novels, short stories, playwriting, and screenwriting, you the writer choose which scenes to show. Between each scene is a leap. Other than the rare work, you do not show every single minute in a person’s day.
Even in such non-narrative and “dry” situations as writing a software manual, you set the stage by describing in general what a function can do before giving the exact details—the keystrokes and effects—of how to work the function. A good software manual leads the reader into understanding why something is important or what it does before getting into specifics. Trying to understand a poorly written manual shows you how important specifics can be.
5: Use active verbs.
“Spot is tired. Jim is happy.” One of the biggest ways to make your writing more interesting is, after you write a first draft, seek out and destroy forms of “to be.” This means “am,” “are,” “is,” “was,” “were,” “be,” and “been.” Replace them with more active verbs. “Spot fell to the floor, dog tired. Jim swooped Jill up in his arms and licked her neck like Spot might.” Already the situations and sentences are getting more interesting.
You won’t be able to replace all forms of “to be”—nor should you—but getting in the habit of using active verbs also will take you into metaphorland. Sirens don’t literally scream, after all (no vocal cords), and winds don’t literally whistle (no lips), but such active verbs can paint a scene well (even though there’s no paintbrush.) Active verbs are great tools to use.
While specifics alone won't make your writing great, using them has the effect of balance. Remember the moment when you first learned to ride a bicycle? You found balance. Then everything else came along naturally: the pedaling, the steering, the enjoying. May the wind whip through your hair as you find the balance in your writing.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.