What are examples of ‘concrete details’?

Q: A beta reader for my manuscript wrote on it that I need more “concrete details.” What did she mean?

Concrete details appeal to our five senses. All of us live in a world in which we constantly see, hear, smell, taste and touch and so also should our stories’ characters. So rather than describe a city as forlorn, you might describe the sky as overcast, the boarded windows of closed stores, the stench of garbage and urine as passing an alley, the grime on buildings as one leans against a wall, and so on.

Related articles:
• Use concrete details to make writing more vivid
• How to make your writing more vivid

Deliver an eyeball kick for effective writing

One of the best ways to keep readers engaged in a story is to give them an eyeball kick. A term coined by science fiction writer Rudy Rucker, an eyeball kick is “a perfect, telling detail that creates an instant and powerful visual image,” according to the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Consider this example an of eyeball kick (I’ve intentionally boldfaced it.) from the novel “Quantum: Event Horizon” by Zac McNabb, in which the foster parent Ron speaks of his two children:

“It’s alright. The Lord has blessed her with good judgment. I believe the Lord has blessed Samuel with the wisdom needed to keep family secrets. Luke 8:10 says ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to others I speak in parables, so that, though seeing, they may not see; Though hearing, they may not understand.’” Ron picks the raw meat out of his teeth. “That means God wants you to honor your families, and it’s ok keep secrets, because others may not understand.”

What makes an instant and powerful image? First, it must be evocative, meaning it brings out strong emotions or feelings in readers. Ron picks the raw meat out of his teeth accomplishes this by rousing a sense of revulsion in the reader. In addition, the image adds to the story’s meaning by providing a new layer of understanding or an insight into it. The reader suddenly knows that Ron is a child abuser of some sort. In this way, the image creates instant understanding.

Be careful of overdoing it, though. An image that tries too hard to be evocative can misfire, undercutting the story. Delivering an eyeball kick requires a precise aim.

Rotate third-person limited to avoid issues

Sometimes writers structure their book so that the third-person limited point of view alternates from scene to scene between major characters in a book. However, within each scene, only one of those characters’ point of view is used. This literary device is known as third-person rotating limited.

I used this technique in my novel Windmill. Each scene switches to the perspective of one of the four main characters. Their stories overlap to form the larger novel, with each character akin to a windmill’s turning blades, each metal sliver catching the glint of the sun (The sun is a symbol in the book for “truth.”) in a slightly different way. Each character symbolized a unique approach to an issue, so seeing how they incrementally dealt with obstacles arising in the plot aided in the examination of the book’s theme.

Indeed, such a storytelling technique offers several advantages:
• Can get inside more than one character’s head – A story told solely in first-person, second-person, and third-person limited points of view can only be told from one character’s perspective. As with third-person omniscient, a rotating point of view allows the writer to tell the thoughts and feelings of multiple characters; unlike third-person omniscient, however, rotating the third-person limited perspective allows the writer to hyperfocus on each character.
• Lacks omniscient point of view’s disadvantages of being impersonal and implausible – Third-person limited allows writers to tell a story from a more personalized perspective, allowing the reader to better connect with the character; rotating allows for this connection to exist between the reader and multiple characters. In addition, since each of the main characters’ motivations will be better understood, some behaviors by characters won’t appear inexplicable, as they might in an omniscient narrative.
• Maintains a consistent narrative voice for each character – When using an omniscient viewpoint, many novice writers try to make the narrative’s tone imitate the character’s personality. Called the imitative fallacy, this results in a disjointed voice or rhythm to the narration. Focusing on the perspective of a single character in a scene, however, usually eliminates this problem. A rotating point of view allows each of the major character’s personalities to come out in a way that reads smoothly.

The literary device sometimes is referred to in literary circles as episodically limited third person omniscient.

Twist endings best avoided in storytelling

There’s a tale from the early 2000s about a group of women spelunkers who are trapped after a cave-in. Unfortunately for them, there’s a monster that’s also underground and begins picking them off one by one. Fortunately one of them through her wits and physically prowess escapes. Then, just as she enters the liberating sunshine, she wakes up. The escape has been a dream, and she’s still trapped underground.

If you let out a groan, then like most readers you’ve had it with twist endings. Also known as O. Henry endings and Twilight Zone endings, these surprise conclusions to your story are best avoided.

The reality is that twist endings rarely work except for young, novice readers who are seeing them for the first time (which may be why so many young, novice writers pen such endings!). Why don’t they work for older readers? Because the ending undermines the story’s whole premise. The writer has set up the reader for one thing but then tricks him.

No one likes having a joke played on him.

The twist ending betrays the psychology of the reader-writer relationship. After all, a writer must convince the reader that the story is worth reading in large part by presenting a stimulating character and an intriguing problem to be solved. If a reader sticks with the story, he’ll feel cheated when the author undermines those two promises, however. Take the spelunker story above. The twist ending tells the reader that the character isn’t truly stimulating because she doesn’t use her wits or physical prowess to survive; further, the problem to be solved really isn’t intriguing because the author implies that it’s unsolvable (We all know there’s no way for Bambi to defeat Godzilla, after all, so it’s not much of a story.). In short, the twist ending is the old bait-and-switch.

Of course, sometimes the twist ending does work (and even is expected, as in “The Twilight Zone” episodes). For example, the twist ending might be a contes cruels, a French term in which the ending/punchline is meant to horrify readers. This occurs in the original 1968 “Planet of the Apes” movie. As the story nears its end, the main character, astronaut George Taylor, gains his freedom from the cruel apes, thus resolving the story’s central problem. The movie could have went to credits there, but tacked onto the film is Taylor stumbling across a half-buried Statue of Liberty, horrifying the viewer into realizing that humanity destroyed itself and hence created its inferior status as a second-class animal. This serves as an anti-war statement that doesn’t alter the reader’s understanding of the character or the story’s central problem.

Use third–person limited for greater clarity

One type of third-person point of view is third-person limited. This is when the narrator tells the story only from the perspective of what the main character can observe and think, but unlike first-person limited, we also observe the main character through the author’s eyes.

Here’s an example of third-person limited:

Nevar nervously separated the tools she needed for the flight, and Evod, finally quiet, helped. She admired her family’s craft, a sleek saucer powered by duo artificial singularities that warped and folded space so they could outrun even light. The others around them had begun performing the same preflight checks that she and Evod had done hours before, and soon all the port seemed a blur of activity, like a rain flurry with drops flashing in every direction.

She tried observing the others in action, watching their repetitive and certain motions, but Evod herded her into the spacecraft. “Focus, focus!” he snapped, and she knew he was right, that she must stop behaving like a child at a sucrose stand.

Notice how we see events unfolding through the eyes of Nevar, the main character: Evod’s noisiness, the port activity, Evod’s admonition. We do not see the world through the perspective of her competitors or of Evod. Further, the word “I” never would appear in the piece unless spoken by someone; that’s because Nevar isn’t telling the story – the author is. The author even offers a small comment, describing Nevar’s movement as “nervous” (Nevar might not describe them as such!).

Third-person limited offers several advantages:
• Gives the writer more flexibility than first-person point of view – If the story above were told only from Nevar’s point of view, the author could not offer his perspective on her. The audience no longer would be looking upon the stage that the main character acted but would be standing upon it in the main character’s body.
• Provides a less biased perspective – Stories told in first-person also carry the weight of the main character’s subjective views and perspectives. Sometimes this can make the protagonist less acceptable or likable to a reader, who is more enlightened than that character. Third-person limited moves the reader to the usually more enlightened perspective of the author.
• Offers a clear sense of who the reader should identify with and invest in – Stories told only from the main character’s perspective sometimes don’t make that persona the hero but someone whose weaknesses cost him. The author’s insertions show readers how they should view the character. Because of that, readers often like this point of view.

One danger of third-person limited, however, is that the reader loses a sense of intimacy with the main character. Rather than fully experience the universe with the main character, the reader can feel too superior to him. If your goal is to have the reader relate to the main character, then this may not be the best choice for your story’s point of view.

Prologue, epilogue offer info, action to boost tale

Sometimes a novel begs for a different opening than what appears in Chapter 1, though the story really begins with those opening first lines. Or the novel might need a different closing despite the story’s central problem has been resolved. In such scenarios, you may want to consider adding a prologue (in the case of the former) or an epilogue (in the case of the latter) to your book.

Traditionally a prologue establishes the story’s setting and provides a number of background details that will help the reader better understand what’s happening in Chapter 1. Often this is a big info dump, such as the description of the desert world Arrakis and the interstellar political situation in the science fiction novel “Dune.” Other times, it’s a brief story that occurred years or months before the main story. Such a story provides an incident that will later help explain how the characters motivations came to be.

This is not to say a prologue can’t be set after the novel’s main action, however; in such cases, the novel then is about how the main characters got to the events that occurred in the prologue. That means the prologue should be fairly spectacular and interesting to the reader or it’ll fail.

Another option is to use the prologue to position the reader’s attitude toward the story; for example, “The Princess Bride” opens with a grandfather reading a bedtime story to his grandson with the read story being the main storyline; we then know through this opening that the story is mainly a humorous fairy tale. In that instance, though, the prologue is less a prologue than simply the frame story.

An epilogue is more like an afterword. Sometimes it serves the purpose of bringing closure to the story by telling what is happening weeks or months later, and more properly is the story’s denouement. Other times, it sets up the characters for the author’s sequel by placing them in a situation (It may even be a scene or chapter from that next book.).

Sell your book by asking people about themselves

All too often authors approach marketing their book by talking about it. That seems to make sense; after all, your objective in marketing is to show potential buyers that your book is of value to them, and that means you have to tell them what’s in it, right?

You may want to take a counterintuitive approach, however: Have potential readers talk about themselves.

When using social media to promote your book, ask your followers/friends a question that will elicit a response. This question should relate to your book, though you won’t tell readers that.

For example, on the Twitter page for my hiking guidebooks, I recently asked these questions:
• What’s your favorite national park trail?
• What is the most annoying thing you’ve seen another hiker do on a trail?
• What item not essential to survival is always in your backpack?

Not to sound cynical, but the reality is that most people like to talk about themselves or share their opinion. So a question draws people to my tweet rather than encourages them to pass on it when they sniff out a sales pitch.

Should they reply to the question, their answer will go to all of their followers – which means so does your tweet. That’s as good as a retweet.

Should you continue to ask questions over the long-term, eventually those who enjoy participating with replies will follow you (if they don’t already), will check out your profile, or will click the link in your tweet.

The question and that link should relate to the book you’re selling. So the link for the first question I tweeted above could take them to a blog entry related to national parks – a blog entry, by the way, that includes information about my hiking guidebook to national parks – or it might take them to a page on my website where that hiking guidebook can be purchased.

Types of third-person point of views

By far, the most common point of view used in literature is that of third-person.

When the narrator is not a character in a story, a third-person point of view is being used. All characters in a third-person tale are referred to using pronouns such as hesheit or they but not Iwe or you. The latter three pronouns would place the narrator within the story.

Authors like third-person narration because it offers a tremendous amount of flexibility in plotting and character development. While first-person and second-person points of view limit the writer to the perspectives of a single character, third-person opens the story wide. The story can be told from the viewpoint of several characters, all of whom can grow to varying degrees.

Third-person can be thought about by using two different scales: limited/omniscient and the subjective/objective.

The limited/omniscient scale runs between two extremes. Third-person limited occurs when the narrator tells the story only from the main character’s perspective. In contrast, third-person omniscient allows the narrator to tell the story from multiple characters’ perspectives.

The subjectivity/objectivity scale also stretches between two poles. Third-person subjective (aka third-person intrusive) incorporates the narrator’s commentary about what is occurring in the story and was popular in the 19th century among such writers as Charles Dickens. Third-person objective (aka third-person impersonal or third-person unobtrusive) leaves out the narrator’s editorializing and was championed by such 20th century writers as Ernest Hemingway.

Of course, the two scales can be combined. For example, a story could be written in third-person limited objective, in which the narrator focuses on the perspectives of a lone character and offers no commentary on the story’s action, or it might be in third-person omniscient subjective by telling the tale from the perspectives of multiple characters with commentary from the narrator about the value of their thoughts and actions.

Why you can’t get your outline into words

Sometimes despite penning an outline, the writer can’t seem to organize those points into complete sentences and turn it into a draft of a story.

Is this writer’s block? Probably not. After all, constructing an outline shows that the writer’s creative energy is high.

The problem likely rests with the depth of the outline itself. Take a look at the outline and ask:
• Is the action beat-by-beat? In the extreme, an outline is detailed enough that a writer can literally turn each beat into a complete sentence or two. Anything sketchier than that suggests the author hasn’t thought enough about the plotting, even if they haven’t written it on paper and are merely relying on the outline to jog their memory.
• Are the major characters developed? An outline should give the main character’s motivations and reasons for resolving an issue. Conflicts between characters and the reasons for them should be listed and explored. A story revolves around the characters, so ensuring this is in the outline is vital.
• Does too much offstage action appear in the outline? Rather than focus on the story, sometimes writers create outlines that instead provide lots of exposition and background information. While that is important for an author to know, it doesn’t translate well into an actual story.

If the outline does contain beat-by-beat action, developed characters, and plenty of onstage action, then perhaps the problem is the story itself. What was brainstormed for the outline simply may not be the story the writer wants to tell. In such cases, always feel free to deviate from the outline. After all, the outline is just a map, and there are many routes for reaching the story’s end.

Some writers fret over the imperfection of their first draft as they convert an outline into complete sentences. If so, let go! Don’t worry about the first draft being just right. Let it be full of incomplete sentences and typos. That’s why it’s a first rather than a final draft – because it needs to be revised.

Finally, an outline simply isn’t for every writer. Many prefer to free write as they find an outline restrictive and believe it hampers their creative process. If you’re having trouble converting an outline to a first draft, you may be one of those writers. In that case, set the outline aside and just try writing. You might be surprised by the results!

Streamline writing by cutting perception fallacy

When writing from a character’s point of view, authors should avoid the perception fallacy. This clunky kind of storytelling assumes that if a tale is being told from a specific character’s point of view, then all description must be filtered directly through that character’s senses and perceptions.

For example, an author would write:

Thales slammed the wax tablet so hard against the table that he heard the children laughing outside suddenly quiet. He threw his door open and saw a triangle of sunlight spread past him into the darkness. “You urchins, get out of here!” he shouted.

But readers don’t need to know that Thales “heard” the children laughing outside quieting or that he “saw” the triangle of sunlight spreading past him. Readers presume he can hear/see that. In any case, that he can hear/see it is largely irrelevant. Still, you’ll want to keep the detail of what was heard or seen in the story, as it moves the plot forward. Given this, a much better way to write the scene would be:

Thales slammed the wax tablet so hard against the table that the children laughing outside quieted. He threw his door open, and a triangle of sunlight spread past him into the darkness. “You urchins, get out of here!” he shouted.

As a story is being told through the lens of the author, filtering it through the character’s perceptions adds an additional lens that slightly blurs the story if only at the edges; such a lens is intrusive. Sometimes to get around this intrusiveness, the novice author will wrongly have another character tell our character what the author wants the reader to see; this actually adds a third lens to the story and often can be even more intrusive.

When the author persists in the perception fallacy, readers ultimately will become confused by exactly what is the author’s perception, the narrator’s perception, and any other character’s perceptions.

David Smith coined the term in an article for SFWA.