We Need Detail in Here: An Ode to Specificity

by Dan Reade

One of my favorite classes to teach in my day job as a community college professor (it’s my night job and weekend job as well) is our course on creative writing. For all the many reasons that society’s observers may bewail the current generation (and bewailing the current generation may be one of the longest running themes in societies), creativity should not be on the list. My students are incredibly talented young writers, with a sense of vision that is informed by a massive range of diverse inspirations, from movies to stories, from YouTube to anime. But there is one area that often comes up where I feel at times like we’re pushing uphill: specificity.

Questions of specificity tend to appear during the course’s section on poetry: we (before COVID) sit in the best circle we can manage in the cramped classroom while someone reads from their current work, and then in the discussion that follows, we delve into issues of the specific. “You said,” one student might offer to the author, “that the relationship in the poem reminded the speaker of nature, but what kind of nature? Like, a park? Or a forest? Or a desert?”

When it is the writer’s time to respond, they will often offer this answer: “I didn’t want to get into more detail because I wanted to give the reader room to see themselves.” Whereas, the author explains, a more specific collection of details might leave the reader feeling unwelcome or out of place, less specific language allows anyone to paint themself into the poem’s world.

Everyone nods. Since I’m trying to give my students more space to discover ideas for themselves, I do my best to swallow the “but” I can feel bubbling up in my throat.

There is of course no right way to write a story—if there were, my creative writing classes would be a lot less interesting—but it is in these discussions that I’m drawn to an idea that heavily informs my writing: the need for individual connection.

To be clear, the argument offered is not an illogical one, and it is not one that is specific to any particular level or type of writer. And to be honest, I find myself thinking about this idea a lot when I write science fiction. My stories, like the story you’ll see in this month’s issue of Analog (get your copy now!) is about a familiar enough technology—cloning—but it focuses primarily on the impact of cloning one particular person, a boxer trying to restart his career. The story contains some exploration of how cloning might impact the world of sports—including making possible the seemingly impossible, namely, the Seattle Mariners winning a World Series—but its focus is on the boxer and on the reporter who is writing about the boxer. The details of the impact of cloning in this fictional world are presented in a manner that is specific to those two men. But what I often find when sending stories through a critique circle for review are requests for more expansive descriptions of the impact of whatever futuristic technology might be at the heart of the present narrative. How might cloning impact other forms of employment outside of sports? What might cloning do in terms of medicine or retirement or family? The urge again seems to be to go wide, to go general, to encompass as much as one can within a given story so that all readers have a place. That expansiveness is not the same as vagueness, but I think it often comes from a similar impulse: a desire to give the reader more space to write themselves into the story.

There is of course no right way to write a story—if there were, my creative writing classes would be a lot less interesting—but it is in these discussions that I’m drawn to an idea that heavily informs my writing: the need for individual connection. This need is one that I think most writers can feel at some level, even if, at least for me, it took a while to figure out how to articulate it. The crystalizing moment was part of another one of my classes, in which we read an excerpt from journalist Shankar Vedantam’s 2010 book The Hidden Brain. In the excerpt, Vedantam uses the plight of Hokget, a small dog left on an oil tanker when its crew is forced to abandon ship. According to Vedantam, the story of Hokget spread globally, leading to thousands of dollars in donations to humane societies, most of the money meant to pay for an attempted rescue of the dog. Hokget was eventually saved, a happy ending to the story, but Vedantam contrasts the money donated and the ink spilled over the rescue of a single terrier to the lack of similar attention given to much greater and more impactful tragedies. The story represents, Vedantam argues, the human tendency to focus on the immediate and singular over the distant and vast. The story of one dog on one ship moves us to give. More generalized stories of continual suffering in a distant land, or even at home, are too often met with indifference and apathy.

Vedantam’s larger point is to explore how our mind works in order to understand human thought and action on a wider scale, but if I could, I would bring his findings back around to stories. Any writer worth their monitor pixels likely recognizes, either explicitly or intuitively, that no matter how vast the scope of a story, the reader needs that individual character to create that sense of connection. Personally, and I can only speak for the personal here, I have never read a narrative of a battle focused entirely on troop movements that excites me. I’ve never read a story of a social movement that only tells its tale from the level high above the protests that got me ready to join the march. Such stories almost certainly do exist—there are as many ways to tell as a tale as there are authors to tell them—but it in most instances, it is the individual soldier, the individual protestor, the individual person caught or active in a dramatic moment, that excites the emotions and creates that pull that narrative is so capable of evoking. In our everyday lives, sports are a primary example of this. In football (of the American or world varieties), it is the team that wins, but it is the star player who receives the write-up and who is invited to the talk shows to discuss the secrets behind the championship. While the global perspective is more authentic, the personal perspective is more captivating.

The focus on the individual as it applies to fiction is perhaps particularly apt in science fiction. Science fiction, after all, has been repeatedly called “the literature of ideas.” But ideas on their own often make for poor fiction; the bloodlessness of much early science fiction points to that. While there is still room and readership for modern versions of “The Cold Equations” (which appeared in this magazine over sixty years ago), and while world-building and the application of scientific principles to fictional set-pieces still excite and engage most of us, it is the specific characters that draw us back as writers and readers and fans. Galaxies far, far away only mean so much if the people we meet there bore us; we are drawn more to the future Hokget on some derelict ship than we are to multiple chapters detailing the history of the interstellar war that left Hokget adrift.

To be clear, none of this is meant to argue for only one type of fiction or one best way to write. Science fiction is large; it contains multitudes. But as I think of those students, both past and future, and their entirely logical conclusion that it is via vagueness that we open up possibilities for reader engagement, I am drawn instead to what seems to me to be the overpowering evidence that the opposite is true, that it is in the specific story of a specific person in a specific place at a specific time that we find the narrative hook that grabs us and keeps us on the line.

The inspiration for “The Home of the King” came from an article by Charles Farrell previewing the 2017 made-for-TV boxing match between Floyd Mayweather, an actual boxer, and Connor McGregor, a UFC champion with no significant boxing experience. I don’t (here’s a big admission) follow boxing or UFC, and so Farrell’s article seemed like it would be of little interest, but Farrell excels at bringing the personalities involved in that fight, and in boxing in general, to life, at making them living creatures in my imagination in the same way a television camera can focus in on the individual faces of tragedy or triumph to make those events come through loud as a klaxon. That is the true power of effective narrative: to make the distant real, to make the experiences of someone else—real or fictional—feel like the event next door, or the event in our own house, or the event in our own heads.

Our world is filled with forces and events that stretch our abilities to comprehend them. This has always will been true and likely will remain that way. But when we see that individual character—whether a terrier or a boxer or a student edging their way into creative writing—that is our access to those forces and events. It is the character that brings them to life.

Dan Reade lives in southern California with his amazing spouse and what is objectively the world’s cutest dog. He teaches writing and literature at Norco College.

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