Can you be more specific?

Writing tip #9

At one point early in my career I was told to ‘leave out all these details’, because ‘the client will either get it or they won’t’ and even if they do ‘you need to leave the details to the director’. I would rate this among the worst advice I have ever received in all my life. I’ve always found the small absurd details to be the very thing that makes a joke or sketch funny, and had a natural knack for writing them in (until I was told to write them out). In my time in this business, I’ve found that you’re going to come across many unimaginative people who need pictures painted for them, and any great director will either love your stupid details or hate them and make them better regardless.

This theory goes beyond comedy as well, because as I mentioned in my last post about that IKEA ad, ‘specificty sells and generality bores.’

We don’t have the leisure of prologues and episodes and three and a half hour run times to tell our stories. We have 30 seconds, if we’re lucky. So including details that help establish a character or an environment or a time and place are the difference between good and great. Or, when it comes to advertising, if we’re honest, ‘not shit’.

Since I mentioned IKEA, let’s play with flat pack furniture. So, if I just say ‘We open on a couple assembling flat pack furniture’, most brains are going to imagine a generic stock library looking pair of people assembling bits of wood with an allen key. Let’s add some details to paint a more vivid picture.

We open on a young couple assembling flat pack furniture. The floor is strewn with nuts, bolts, bits of wood, and ghost-like sheets of fabric. A tortured-looking man, somewhat resembling Bear Grylls four days into an Amazonian trek, clumsily rotates a giant crinkled sheet of instructions. His partner, hair like a Fraggle and mascara running like a glam rock bassist 45 minutes into a set, exasperatedly holds up two pieces of wood. Only one has holes, and one doesn’t. “Siri, why does my Hargendörf not connect to my Flerg”, the man desperately shouts into his phone.

This might seem like a lot, and I’ve gone a bit overboard on purpose, but this is really only a few seconds of intro to set a scene. But the image in people’s heads is far more specific than just a couple putting together some furniture. Suddenly everyone listening is ‘in’ the moment. Feeling it. Relating to it.

Two friends sit at a booth in a diner. One’s ordered a burger and fries, the other, a salad. The friend with the salad spots the chips opposite her, and starts acting like a hungry seagull.

Two friends sit at a booth in a diner. One is about to bite into a big, juicy burger with the lot. Her salad-ordering friend, sat opposite, eyes like saucers leering at her side of chips below, cocks her head like a crazed seagull. “You… want… you want..a ch-” she begins to ask before the friend “CAAAAAWWSSSS” loudly and extends her arms like Kate Winslet on the Titanic. Everyone around them stares. A waiter drops a bottle of ketchup. In the distance, a tugboat horn blows.

I’m making this stuff up on the run, and it might seem obvious while reading this now, but the specific details added are doing an incredible amount of heavy lifting to establish tone and personality and character.

Even the way you introduce a character can benefit.

Matrix-like overcoats blowing in the wind as the doors open, Terrence and Gerald wield their Myki scanners aboard the 86 tram with the unabashed confidence of a pair of NYPD Blue detectives about to take down El Chapo’s cousin.

As a writer, getting really specific not only leads to, in my opinion, better and more engaging writing, but it allows you to inject yourself in the work. Your sense of humour. Your vivid imagination. Your appreciation of the absurd. Or, if the piece is emotive, your ability to tap into insight, and behaviour, and tug on the heart strings.

Don’t always leave the details up to someone else’s imagination. They mightn’t have any. Often, it’s our job to give them one. So really imagine how you want the scene to play out and write it in such a way that your audience has no option but to see what you see.

In short, be more specific.

Writing tip #1 

DON’T CHAIN YOURSELF TO A WHEEL - 

Writing tip #2 

READ YOUR SHIT OUT LOUD - 

Writing tip #3 

WRITERS DON’T NEED TO READ - 

Writing tip #4 

MANIFESTOS MAKE MILLIONS 

Writing tip #5 

STRAIGHT HEADLINE, TWISTED VISUAL ISN’T JUST FOR PRINT

Writing tip #6

PUT SOME ORDER AROUND YOUR CHAOS

Writing tip #7

BECOME THE BEST PRESENTER IN THE AGENCY

Writing tip #8

CRAFT YOUR SCRIPTS AS YOU WOULD SHARPEN A BLADE

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