Major Fiction Writing Mistake: Vagueness

Maybe you’ve seen a police procedural TV show where one detective asks “Do you believe her?” and the other detective says something like “With those details, she couldn’t be lying.”

When someone lies, he or she tends to be vague. Truth is often accompanied by specific detail.

If you’re a parent, you may have experience with this phenomenon as well. You might hear a ruckus in the next room and ask, “What are you and your sister doing in there?”

A small voice says, “Nothing. Just playing.”

You smell the lie a mile away and yell, “Come in here and play where I can see you.”

Compelling fiction requires good lying.

Have you ever read a novel and got the distinct impression the writer didn’t have any idea what he was talking about? You think, “This writer doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a goat herder in Nepal.”

YOU also have no idea what it’s like to be a goat herder in Nepal either, so why are you busting the writer’s chops? Probably because of vagueness. It smells like a lie.

Specificity is key.

Let’s say you have two men in masks get out of a car to rob a convenience store. Without specificity, even an act as exciting as a robbery can be boring. Know why? Because it’s generic, not specific.

Now I tell you two men wearing Tom and Jerry masks get out of a Ford Mustang to rob a 7-11, it already becomes more interesting. The scene comes alive. You can picture it.

You should be specific in action as well.

 The less nebulous your verbs are the better. Instead of saying “two dogs were fighting”, you could say two dogs lunged, growled, or chomped at each other’s throats.

Instead of saying “he preformed a hostile gesture toward me” you could say, “He thrust his chest out toward me.”

Specificity doesn’t necessarily mean writing pages and pages of description.

 If the reader sees tons of description, she may decide it’s filler and skip it.

Specificity means being precise. You could go on and on about a minor character having slick, black hair and a widow’s peak, a pale and pasty complexion, and high arching eyebrows.

Or you could say the character looks like Dracula without the fangs. The reader gets the same image.

Specificity takes work.

 When you write a first draft, it’s okay to be vague. Boring descriptions are normal. Part of your rewriting process should include pumping up your specificity. It can be time-consuming, but it’s worth it.

Good fiction means getting your reader to believe your lies.



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