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Build Strong Writing with Concrete Details

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

August 2009

"The writer has to describe everything: an object, its shadow, a person’s slightest gesture . . ."

My niece told me that a guy at work was “really weird.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s just, you know, weird.”

“But how did you come to that conclusion? What did he do? What did he say? What does he wear? Does he stink from sweat or is he wearing your perfume?”

My niece rolled her eyes. I’m sure she regretted mentioning this guy to me at all. She probably forgot for a moment that I, as a writer, was going to dig, dig, dig for specific details.

She sighed. “Well, first he came to work with his clothes all wrinkled, like he’d slept in them or something. And then someone saw that he was sleeping in his car. And then someone else found out that he had lost his apartment. His car was now his apartment.”

“Oh, gosh,” I said. “Wasn’t his salary high enough? Do you think he was on drugs? Had he been living with someone who threw him out?”

“Aunt Rochelle, I’m not going to get into character motivation with you, too.”

This conversation is a template of so many others that I’ve had with non-writers. People don’t use enough concrete detail to really tell you anything at all. They have the specifics in their mind, but they either don’t want to take the time to tell them or they don’t know that it’s important to tell them.

The writer has to be the opposite. He has to describe everything: an object, its shadow, a person’s slightest gesture, the temperature of the breeze, the scents in the air. You can always cut back if it’s too much, but you can’t make that decision unless you have the details down on the page. These details invite the reader into the world we are creating, lets him see what we see, taste what we taste, hear what we hear, smell what we smell, touch what we touch.

"Salinger gives us a wealth of concrete detail, telling us that there were 97 ad men in the hotel."

Of course a writer has to be selective. You can’t put in everything or the pace will grind down to a halt, the reader’s mouth with change from the “o” of wonderment to a locked yawn. If you describe the bark of a tree, the shape and shine of the leaves, the root structure, the scent of its blossoms or needles or leaves, you’ve given the reader a picture of a whole forest.

Take a look at the concrete detail in the first paragraph of A Perfect Day for Bananfish by J.D. Salinger.

There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long distance lines, the girl from 597 had to wait until noon to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-sized magazine, called “Sex is Fun—or Hell.” She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks Blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.

Salinger gives us a wealth of concrete detail, telling us that there were 97 ad men in the hotel. But think of what it big yawn the story would have been if he described each of them. He uses “advertising men” as a symbol for a certain type (a stereotype) that we’d be familiar with so our mind fills in a crowd of men in suits with forced smiles, trying to pitch their wares.

". . .these examples moved from something indefinite (like the “weird” guy my niece had been telling me about) to something definite."

But the girl from 507 is done in the concrete detail that a reader would need to get to see her, get to know what sort of an individual she is.

“Using her time” means reading an article in a women’s magazine about sex and taking care of her elaborate toilette: lacquering her nails, taking care of her clothing. The details of the clothing: the beige suit, the blouse from Saks, show a certain social class she belongs to. And these details also sum up her character: shallow, self-absorbed, without ever actually saying it. It’s always best to let the reader draw his/her own conclusion.

In The Making of a Story (Norton Guide to Creative Writing, 1998) these examples, Alice LaPlant gives these examples of general/abstract writing vs. specific/concrete writing.

General/Abstract: She was sad.

Concrete/Specific: She sat in her rocking chair in her room, knitting a gray scarf, weeping into the unfinished woolen stitches.

General/Abstract: My father hated noise.

Concrete/Specific: The neighbors became accustomed to my father throwing open the windows and dumping a cold water on the neighborhood kids who were playing too loudly near the front porch.

General/Abstract: She had a drinking problem

Concrete/Specific: Three times a week, she opened a bottle of white wine, not even chilled, and drank it from a coffee cup until it was dry. She brought the cup into the bathroom and continued to sip from it, even as she brushed her teeth.

Each of these examples moved from something indefinite (like the “weird” guy my niece had been telling me about) to something definite that the reader can make a mental picture of, understand, draw his own conclusions from.

The art of choosing the concrete details to build your images is one that takes practice. The best way of testing out whether or not you’ve got the proper balance is to read it out loud to someone and watch to see if he leans forward in his chair or begins to nod off, head drooping, mouth ajar. Listen for the snore. Then delete, delete, delete.   

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro




Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.