Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing Wednesday: Specificity

In writing one decision that the writer has to make is how specific to be on something. There are people who hate specificity with the heat of a mainstream star of O9 classification. (The heat of a million suns.)

This topic came up when someone looked over my book where a plot point had the Nazis trying to crack the human genome with the latest Hollerith Tabulating machines. I took the speed of the machine and the number of calculations it would have to do and came up with the time, 3 trillion years. Instead of saying 3 trillion years it was suggested that I just mention it would take longer than my character wanted.

Naturally after doing the calculations to find out how long it would take I wanted to leave the result in there. But I also looked at it from the reader's side. Anything over 50 years was too long, so the exact number didn't matter to the plot. However, when I read science fiction I like it when there is a grounding in real math.

I ended up compromising and having the Nazi tell my character that it would take a long time, and my character responded, “According to my people longer than the life of the sun.” Most people can't really grasp the difference between 5 billion years and 3 trillion years. It is still an awful long time.

I'm wondering how do you feel about specificity in fiction?


  1. Depends.

    Being specific throughout a book if it doesn't elucidate a character or reinforce a concept (like, say, showing computerized results in a readout) or do something to make the story more real, more vibrant or more believable is probably a waste. However...

    I'm a character writer/reader. If being specific adds to the story/character, I'm for it. CP3PO stating the the exact astronomical odds of surviving flying through an asteroid field (although it was all nonsense) was (a) funny and (b) was key to his character. Definitely keep.

    Being specific can reveal an anal personality or a savant math ability without requiring any other explanation or description. It can reinforce an existing impression or character or reveal an unexpected facet of an existing character.

    It can spice up a relationship between characters particularly if one is dealing with an exact/specific/anal character vs. one who's relaxed and might reflect the reader's thinking.

    Like all kinds of things that are fun for the writer to include in the writing, scenes or recitations of backstory or sidestory or whatever, inclusion really depends on what it brings to the table. If it adds to the clarity, plot, or characters of the story, even the ambiance, it's probably a keeper. If it doesn't, don't. (Which is an indication of one way you can keep those little details if you really want to keep 'em.)

  2. Must remember to edit my own comments better. Sorry about the many typos and poorly turned phrases.

  3. Other than the Anal vs. Relaxed (which could be painful if not combined) your comment was fine.
    It's just one of those things that I have to look out for in my edits.

  4. Ha ha! Particularly so since I'm still up to my eyeballs in yaoi.

    Ass jokes strike me as particularly funny at this point in time.