Have You Thought About This? : Specificity

In a continuation on last week’s post about reality, I want to talk about specificity.

Have you thought about this? The connection between specific images and reality? So far, it’s the most fool-proof way I’ve found of making a piece seem more real.

Think about it. You’re living your life. You’re walking around. Or, okay, you’re sitting in front of your computer. But what are the things that you see? And how do you see them?

Here are two things I see.

1. I can see my rice cooker, which is Cuckoo brand, has a pink top decoration, a white bottom, and is made of shiny plastic. An orange, square console on the front says my rice has been warming for 61 hours, and there’s a rice paddle hooked on the side with a grain of black rice at the top. Don’t look at me like that. It’s a type of rice. It’s not burnt.

2. I see my refrigerator, which has an advertisement menu for a donkasu restaurant held up with a magnet that used to be on the back of a notepad my dad gave me that had snow leopards on it. I used all of it. The other corner’s held up with a green “v” magnet and a yellow “e” magnet. The “l”, “o”, “y”, and “u” are scattered lower on the freezer potion of the refrigerator, and I’m missing an “o”. There’s also a mini Van Gogh calender up top with a pink post-it note that says “Barry’s Rabies Vaccine”.

What did you notice? There’s a heck of a lot of information. You would never write about every single object in a literary scene like that. “But it’s so real! It has everything!”

My question is: is that really how we see things? And the answer is undoubtedly “no”. If we processed and registered every single object we see and every piece of information we know about, we would get overwhelmed really easily. The reason we’re advised, then, to avoid info dumps, is because we although we may want to be overwhelmed by something in our literature, it’s not the sheer amount of useless information.

So, where do we draw the line?

I’d say there are two general guidelines you should follow:

Let the reader see what the character would naturally notice.

And let the reader see what the reader needs to notice that the character might not.

Call out the important things and leave the rest behind.

If my piece is about how a girl feels isolated and confused in a new country, it would be good to include the fact that there’s weird black stuff on the top of the rice cooker’s rice paddle, but leave out that it’s just a different kind of rice.

If my piece is about a deteriorating relationship with my father, I could play up the idea that I tore the magnet off the back of the notepad, so there’s scrappy torn paper still stuck on the front of it.

What do you think? What’s important information to share about any scene? What’s information that can always be left out?


. image specificity — we see specific images every day, not “omg the leaves are red” — how we process.

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2 Responses

  1. PenguinAttack says:

    I think specificity is a difficult concept to grasp sometimes! I don’t try particularly hard to use specific images, but I find that picking a colour, or a central THING is the way to go in poetry. I went through a period of minimalism, so I try to only keep the images I think are most effective, and usually they end up connecting. This isn’t always successful, I love imagery; colours, lines, shapes and such, it’s hard to get over that initial love and break down to the necessary components.

    When I write prose I usually saturate with images by accident and I try to cut back to “Important image”, focus on the colour or the way it waves. I don’t think people notice objects, necessarily, like you say. I think they notice what it’s doing or how or why or what’s around or on it. We seem to zoom in on the key component and run with it, that’s the best kind of writing for me.

    • Hannah says:

      Oh, yeah, I definitely agree with you that they notice what’s important to them about the things around them. I guess when I said we notice objects, I was thinking about them in their static state, rather than from the point of view of those who had already noticed them.

      Pingu, what do you notice in your room right now, and if you wrote yourself into a scene, would you believe it?

      “She sat in the computer day all Saturday, using toilet paper to wipe her lips, the 2L bottle of water on the bed by her feet.”

      Does that seem real?

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