General vs. specific


One of the Girl Group members wrote me a short e-mail this week: she was in a terrible time crunch, rushed off her feet. She described her major task briefly, ending with, “You can imagine.”

That phrase—“You can imagine”—got stuck in my head.

In fact, I couldn’t imagine what she was going through since it was something I’d never experienced. She left me wanting to know more, which started me thinking about how we use generalities in writing.

We all make assumptions about what and how much other people understand, and those assumptions sneak into our writing. Writing from our own experience of the world, it’s easy to forget that other people don’t necessarily have the same experiences. No two people brush their teeth the same way, yet we imagine that the way we brush is the way everyone brushes. It’s risky to assume that the facts of your life are common to all readers.

So if you write, “Susie brushed her teeth in the usual way, and went to bed,” what are you assuming about your reader’s experience of teeth-brushing?

Will your reader think that Susie spent two minutes brushing sketchily and then dashed into the bedroom to leap under the covers? Or will she think that Susie used her electric toothbrush for five minutes, flossed, rinsed with chlorhexidine, smiled at her teeth in the mirror, and then strolled down the hall to her bedroom? Those are two very different Susies.

However, teeth-brushing may be a throwaway in your story. I often remind my students and clients that when the doorbell rings, a character should probably just go to the door and open it; he doesn’t have to get up, walk across the carpet, turn the doorknob, and pull the door open. Those are meaningless details that pad the action and add nothing.

Unless the way the character gets to that door is important (like crawling through a pool of blood), just get the character from here to there. General is a better choice  when you don’t want or need the reader to pay attention to anything more than simple mechanics. Effective writing is partly a matter of choosing when the specific is important—when it will illuminate character, set a scene better, make the plot work to advantage.

I learned to watch out for generalities from another writer friend, who would underline phrases in my work and then write in the margin: Really? Are you sure?

For instance, I might have written, “Children love to ride their bikes far away, to escape their parents’ watchful eyes.” Really? Good question. Some children might do that, but all children? No way. These particular children love to do that, while other kids prefer to ride around the yard in full sight of Mom and Dad.

The sentence is a dud unless we get the specific picture: “The two girls who lived down the block from Susie loved to ride…” And then, of course, the reader needs to know what it is about those parents that makes the kids want to escape. That’s what gives a story bite: less generality, more specificity where it counts.

What it comes down to is that you–writer—must be watchful. Sometimes you have to look assumption in the eye and recognize it clearly as assumption. And then you can use explanation, description, detail, dialogue, all the tools you own, to be specific so the reader can take the journey with you.

Sometimes. Not always. Your job as a writer is, in part, deciding exactly IF and WHERE you have to bridge those “assumption gaps” for the reader. You have to decide if specificity matters at point X in your work, or if you can let the reader make her own way. And the reader, for her part, owes you a little latitude. But how much?

In my linked short stories about a girl and her family, the mother isn’t always nice. Some readers have been unhappy about that: Does the mother have to be so mean?  Well, not every mother is nice, and this mother belongs to the Not-So-Nice Club. I wanted a little more latitude; I wanted those readers to drop their own assumptions and enter into the notion of a not-so-nice mother.

At the same time, though, the objections made me think carefully about whether that mother did have to be so mean. She did; the stories (especially the last one) don’t work if the mother is too sympathetic. There are times when you have to stand by your decisions: “This is what I mean. Take it or leave it.” And be prepared for the fallout.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge comes to mind. This book isn’t a huge favorite of mine, but I admire Strout’s insistence on her character’s nature: Olive is unlikable, but the stories that make up the novel are so involving that you go along with Olive’s abrasiveness anyway.

All this may appear to be getting us away from the issue of general vs. specific and the assumptions we have to guard against, but it’s not: Mean Mom wasn’t working because although she was very specific in her mean behaviors and remarks, I hadn’t made it clear why she behaved that way.

I had assumed it didn’t matter why Mom was mean, and it mattered very much. Mean was too general; without grounding it jarred repeatedly. Readers were really saying, “If I knew why Mom became so mean, I could get past my problem with her.” They needed the specifics, so that her meanness—though still irritating—would feel true to the character and therefore justified and necessary.



 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Seminary Co-op Bookstores, Chicago, IL

Longfellow Books, Portland, ME

Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC


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