There’s a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 in which Falstaff explains why he and three of his fellows ran away from a fight. They were ambushed, he tells Prince Hal, by a hundred armed men. His account is harrowing:
I am eight times thrust through the
doublet, four through the hose; my buckler cut
through and through; my sword hacked like a
Notice the specificity of the detail he offers. Falstaff invites his listener into the scene, makes his story believable by providing these details that add texture. Eight sword-thrusts through his doublet and four through his hose! Those telling details speak not only of the violence of the encounter, but also the nearness of the danger.
Falstaff made seven men pay with their lives, he says, before he was ambushed from behind and the tide of the battle turned:
But, as the devil would have it, three misbegotten
knaves in Kendal green came at my back and let drive
at me; for it was so dark, Hal, that thou couldst
not see thy hand.
Again, notice that Falstaff is painting a world with his story. He’s not just set upon by vague attackers, but attackers wearing Kendal green.
But you have probably already noticed the problem with Falstaff’s description of these last three attackers. Prince Hal certainly did:
Why, how couldst thou know these men in Kendal
green, when it was so dark thou couldst not see thy
Falstaff’s story is a lie. Prince Hal knows it because he and his friend Poins had ambushed Falstaff and his three partners as an elaborate practical joke–for the express purpose of hearing what kind of lies Falstaff would tell to explain away his cowardice.
Falstaff knows what all good liars and con men and fiction writers know: concrete, specific detail creates the illusion of truth. Bad liars (and bad writers) are vague and abstract. They leave themselves wiggle room. But good liars and writers double down on the specifics.
I should add that surprising and unexpected specifics make a story more believable than the specifics that everyone expects–as long as those surprising details remain within the realm of possibility. Let us not forget that real life is forever surprising us with details that we would not have guessed. Surprising but believable–that’s the sweet spot for stories that feel like real life.
However, as Falstaff discovers, those specifics are also where you are in the most danger of losing your audience. If you get the smallest thing wrong, you’re busted. I read a non-fiction student story the last week in which an old coach talked about a player who had been drafted by the Spartans. I appreciate the specificity, but only professional teams draft players, and there aren’t any professional football teams called the Spartans. That one mistake shattered the feeling of reality that this writer had worked so hard to achieve.
This is why bad liars and inexperienced writers gravitate toward the vague and abstract. When you keep things vague, you aren’t as likely to get things spectacularly wrong. But without specific, concrete details, you can’t really get things right either. You’ve just got to get out there on the tightrope and do the best you can to provide the details that will bring your scenes to life without making those little mistakes that destroy the illusion. It takes courage. I bet you’ve got plenty of that.