Writing Fiction: Are specific descriptions better?
Not long ago, I was critiquing a short story and came across a passage like this:
The gravel parking lot had six spaces. Two were filled by Ford F-150 pickup trucks, and the rest were empty. There was a convenience store on the west side of the lot with printer-paper signs in the window. The signs were written in black marker and read, “50% off your second $2.99 donut,” “$0.99 black coffee,” and “Bathroom for customers.” Detective Walker gazed into the twenty-three pine trees clumped together at the north edge of the parking lot that formed the entrance to the forest. Cicadas hummed, and there was no sign of human activity around him. The victim had entered the woods from this position last Tuesday at approximately 8:30 pm. Walker went into the forest.
This isn’t an exact copy of the passage because Scribophile doesn’t allow leaking member writing, but I’ve emulated the style.
I struggled to identify what bothered me about this description. Eventually, I commented, “too specific.” This felt strange. We’ve all received feedback telling us to be “more specific,” and I never imagined going in the opposite direction. But I had to. Because a few weeks later, I also received the feedback “too specific.”
For context, the author of the passage above and I were both writing mystery short stories. Our genre exacerbates the problem of overly-specific descriptions because readers assume specific facts are clues or red herrings. The author above and I had inadvertently overloaded readers with dozens of irrelevant facts. What’s worse, is that readers were recording these facts to memory, thinking they might be important.
When I was reading the other author’s piece, I experienced the frustration firsthand: How does the author expect me to remember all these details? Then, later in the plot: Wait, so I paid close attention to all those facts earlier for nothing?
After discovering the mistake, there’s a temptation to remove all the facts that aren’t important to the plot:
Detective Walker walked through the parking lot and entered the forest.
However, this makes your writing feel more like an outline than a story:
- Detective Walker walked through the parking lot and entered the forest.
- He found the victim’s lost backpack four miles out in the woods.
- He drove back to the police station.
- Examiners found traces of mashed potatoes in the backpack.
- The detective deduced the culprit was Chef Carl.
To fix this, the next logical step is to add more detail but not be so factually-specific. You might turn to sensory description:
A few pickup trucks were planted on the coarse charcoal-grey gravel of the parking lot — mechanized beasts of burden with muscular metal exteriors. The short rectangular building at the edge of the lot had chips in its baby blue paint, exposing bits of wood like brown pimples. The bright yellow sun glinted off the building’s small glass windows, which were obscured by paper signs advertising sales. The handwriting on the flimsy white sheets was done in a bushy black marker with sharp straight lines forming each capital letter. Detective Walker couldn’t hear any activity inside, and no other cars came down the road after his. The humid air was silent except for the hum of insects coming from the woods. No footpath or sign of human activity stained that mass of green. The forest was packed with wild trees, stretching out their webs of branches and verdant needle leaves until there was no space to move. But the victim had found a way through that tangle of life. So Detective Walker would have to do the same.
Without context, this passage might not seem bad. But imagine if we added that much environmental description for every simple character action. Some might define this as a “pacing” problem.
Nothing significant is happening here, so this scene doesn’t really deserve to be a scene. It should be a transition that sets up the next scene but isn’t as bare as the “outline” above. How do we do this? The answer is a combination of all three examples:
A few pickup trucks sat in the parking lot. A convenience store at the edge of the gravel had chipped baby blue paint and signs advertising things like “$0.99 black coffee.” On the other side of the lot, a clump of pine trees barred the entrance to the forest with tangled branches and pointy leaves. Detective Walker followed the victim’s path into the woods.
Having some specificity allows us to make the convenience store feel real without a long visual description. Including imagery makes the writing more like a story than a collection of data. And shortening the sequence stops the reader from spending a significant amount of time on a non-significant moment.
Like many things in life, it’s about balance. That statement could apply to anything, but unfortunately, I don’t know how to be more specific about being specific.
— Douglas Fitz