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Concrete, Significant Details


Writers are frequently advised: show, don't tell. What this means is that it is crucial to address the senses. Vivid writing contains concrete, significant details.

Concrete means that there is an image, something that can be seen, heard, tasted or touched.

Detail means that there is a degree of focus & specificity.

Significant means that the specific image also suggests an abstraction, generalization, emotion or judgment.

The notion of detail is important to the image, because it moves away from the generalized and toward the particular. For example, creature is a generalized notion, hard to see except in the vaguest way. Animal is still vague. Four-legged animal is a little more specific. Dog narrows the field. Mix-breed Shepherd we start to see. Old Sammy asleep on the red rug, his haunches twitching in his dream brings the dog more sharply into focus. Our minds summon up an image. At the same time, this last sentence resonates with the ideas of age and uneasy sleep. If it said his teeth bared and gnashing in his dream, we'd also guess that old Sammy has a capacity for meanness.

If specificity as well as concreteness is crucial to vivid writing, so too is the significance carried in those concrete details, the ideas or qualities that they suggest, the way they reveal character, attract or warn us; the way they lead us to think & feel. A list of physical details without such hints will not move us: The lawn is green; there are four trees; there is a white picket fence about three feet high and a flagstone walk leading up to the white door. We want to have our intellects & emotions also directed toward the meaning of the details.     

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Try This Exercise for Each of Your 15 "Finger" Exercises

Begin with the largest general category you can think of--minerals, food, structures. Think big! Then narrow the category step by step, becoming more specific until you produce detailed & vivid imagery. Build a one-page scene of fiction (300-450 words) around this imagery. Include characterization, dialogue, stage biz, etc. (In other words, utilize the basic elements of fiction writing.) Without naming a quality make your imagery suggest an idea or feeling--or slant the reader's attitude toward the thing you're describing.
(Click on my examples at the top of the page.)

adapted from Janet Burroway's IMAGINATIVE WRITING