Specificity Thats A New One On Me

Effective beginnings make use of specific details. These may be details of speech, setting, characters' thoughts—anything relevant. Effective use of details, more than any other single factor, distinguishes publishable manuscripts from those that have a good story line but somehow "aren't quite right for us." The right details gain you, the writer, three advantages:

•Details anchor your story in concrete reality. Not "Mary was an animal lover" but "Every night Mary fed her eighty-pound Labrador retriever all the best parts of what should have been John's T-bone." A specific animal, a specific time of day, a specific action to show us—not tell us—that Mary loves animals (maybe more than she loves John).

•Details set your opening apart from the hundreds ofothers similar to it. In the first paragraph, you haven't yet had time to develop subtleties of character or nuances of plot. Your story opens, say, at the dining room table—and so did ten others the editor saw this month. But yours will stand apart if the details you include are not the same ones the other ten authors used—in other words, not the first details to come to mind when you think of a generic dining room. These details are fresh, original, individual without being bizarre. They reveal that the writer has a fresh and meticulous eye. They pique interest by not being more of the same old thing.

• Details convince the editor you know what you're talking about. My story "Out ofAll Them Bright Stars," which takes place in a diner, begins, "So I'm filling the catsup bottles at the end of the night, and I'm listening to the radio Charlie has stuck up on top of a movable panel in the ceiling ..." These two details came from my own experience as a diner waitress. When your details are accurate like this, the editor unconsciously awards you the precious prize of credibility. You sound like someone who knows about diners, so maybe you know how to tell a diner story as well. The editor reads on to find out.

Conversely, the wrong specific details can destroy your credibility in the first paragraph. I'll never forget the student whose story announced that "The blond trucker had just finished filling his diesel semi with regular when I drove up to the pump."

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