ABCs of Flash Writing: S is for Specificity

Posted by on May 6, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: S is for Specificity

I Can’t Believe I’m Using a Sports Metaphor But Here It Is Anyway: Specificity, The Triple Hitter

Downtown Tacoma, Washington is home to a street of warehouses that have been converted into antique shops. Each shop has a different focus: mid-century lamps, vintage magazines, designer-repurposed furniture. But one shop, let’s call it Granddaddy’s, deals in the bizarre. Its walls are lined with porcelain clowns’ faces in bright colors. Party hat-wearing Ken Dolls from the 1960s stand precariously close to table edges. Enormous and delicate Victorian birdcages hang from the ceiling. 

When I visited Granddaddy’s recently, the owner—let’s call her Lydia—was talking loudly to two enthusiastic customers about her about her recent antiques hunting excursion in Texas. She emphasized that Texas was the place for antique hunting. She reiterated how Texas was, without a doubt, the best place to find quality goods anywhere in the country. Then, she directed her customers to look at her prize find: two taxidermied goats wearing turn-of-the-century nightdresses and bonnets.

When I was telling the story of Lydia’s goats a few nights later—and showing the (obvious) picture I’d snapped of them—to a few friends, I couldn’t remember the exact word Lydia had used to describe her find. The wrong word would turn Lydia into something she wasn’t. It would make her pathetic instead of dogmatic, pathological instead of eccentric. I thought to myself, did she say, “Aren’t these great?” No, too pedestrian. Did she say, “Aren’t these amazing?” No, too disinterested. And then it came to me. The word she used to describe Texas, the goats, the strange items in her overstuffed and rancid-smelling shop: fabulous. She said, “Aren’t these fabulous?” Of course. She couldn’t have used any other word. And if I’d used any other word in the story I was telling, my listeners wouldn’t have understood Lydia. Not properly anyway.

This kind of specificity—finding exactly the right word—also makes all the difference in a piece of flash fiction. Precise word choice is important. Unlike in a longer story, your details have to do a lot in a short space. You can’t spend sentences describing characters because you only have sentences for the entire story. So, your words and phrases must play double, triple, or even quadruple duty in the story’s function. In other words, specific descriptions must describe, characterize, and theme all at once. Just think: the paragraph Dickens uses to detail the dilapidated owner of a dilapidated antique shop is the same length as your entire flash piece. The consolidated short form requires details and descriptions to be disorienting in their unusualness and startling in their precision.

I’ve been teaching my students about how to incorporate anecdotes or stories into their essays. Their first instinct, I’ve found, has been to pull away from the specific because they don’t think specificity is universal. They like to write impersonal phrases like, “If you try hard, then you’ll find success,” phrases that don’t say anything concrete about anyone or anything. But when they add specificity and details—when they move to the individual, the micro—their stories come alive. One student wrote about how her father was so committed to becoming an art professor he withstood criticism for 30 years. Another wrote about how when she was a new immigrant to the United States, she was too afraid to raise her hand in class when she knew the answer. Specificity, whether it’s in students’ first essays in college or in seasoned writers’ flash fiction, makes characters, situations, and action original, even if we’ve seen the same premise and character a thousand times before. 

I’ve been in lots of antique shops over the years. Every single one of their owners was more than a little kooky. Still, I’ll never forget Lydia because her catchphrase: Fabulous. I’d say I’d write a story about her, but I guess I already have.

Alicia Bones finished her MFA at the University of Montana in 2016. Her work has been published in Fairy Tale ReviewQueen Mob’s TeahouseNecessary FictionEntropyQu, and Maudlin House, among others. She lives and teaches in Washington state.