For laughs, scares, tears, and thrills, nothing brings out emotions and draws in your readers like the little details.
Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy made a huge impression on me as a teenager. Its dry-but-absurd British sense of humor was just the thing I was looking for as a follow up to my Monty Python obsession. But for all the novel’s famous bits (42, the Infinite Improbability Drive, Marvin the depressed robot) and wacky sensibility, there was one word that was a comedic revelation for me. It’s a word I think about all the time when writing my own stories.
It’s the word “third,” which, I think we can all agree, is not a particularly funny word.
It appears in the first sentence of Chapter 7. Our heroes have encountered the Vogons, who, the Guide tells us are “one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy. Not evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous.” We are told that we should never let a Vogon read us poetry because, their poetry is, “the third worst in the universe.”
A lesser comic writer would have written that Vogon poetry was the worst in the universe and been happy to get a laugh from the absurdity of including such an inane detail about an antagonist who has just blown up the Earth. (That’s not a spoiler.)
But I argue that it’s Adams’ use of the word “third” that takes this absurd detail and makes it truly funny. At first it seems a bit counterintuitive. After all, one might think that describing something as the worst would be funnier than describing it as the third worst. But “third worst” is funnier than “worst” because it’s specific. It implies so much more (was there a universe-wide poll?). Calling something “the worst” is basically meaningless. We say things are “the worst” all the time. Calling something “the third worst” makes the reader want to know more.
Consider Douglas Adams’ hero (and mine), P.G. Wodehouse, whose humor is all about the details (and mastery of language). Here is one gem, from The Code of the Woosters in which Bertie is describing a creamer. “It was a silver cow. But when I say ‘cow’, don’t go running away with the idea of some decent, self-respecting cudster such as you may observe loading grass into itself in the nearest meadow. This was a sinister, leering, Underworld sort of animal, the kind that would spit out of the side of its mouth for twopence.”
Or, take this great bit from the Steve Martin movie The Jerk. The first sentence offers a nice example of specifics being funny: “I know we’ve only known each other for four weeks and three days, but to me, it seems like nine weeks and five days.” But then Navin (Steve Martin’s character) keeps going, and it’s all the little details that make it sing.
I know we’ve only known each other for four weeks and three days, but to me, it seems like nine weeks and five days. The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days. And the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days. But the fifth day, you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day, but then you came back and later on the sixth day, in the evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I-I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it.
Comedian John Mulaney, in a Tonight Show interview, talked about Murfreesboro, TN, which he claimed sounded like it had been named “by a dying Confederate general as he barely sat up in bed eating mashed potatoes.” Every part of that description is great, but it’s the mashed potatoes that got me.
Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz talks about starting out with a big concept for the show (originally about a family losing all their money and then fighting for a better life), but that he set that aside to focus on the characters. “Let me just make it all about… the specifics of the family. As much detail as I can find in all of their lives.” Ideas are great, specifics make those ideas land.
Specifics are important in bringing out the tears, too. In “The King of Tears” episode of his podcast Revisionist History (S02E06), Malcolm Gladwell discusses how it’s the use of specific details that make country music songs so sad. “We cry when melancholy collides with specificity,” says Gladwell. He compares the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” to “Boulder to Birmingham” by Emmylou Harris. Both songs are about losing a friend; both songs are full of sorrow. But one song is generic and the other is packed with specificity. See the difference details make:
Childhood living is easy to do
The things you wanted I bought them for you
Graceless lady you know who I am
You know I can’t let you slide through my hands
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away
Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away
Boulder to Birmingham
The last time I felt like this
I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire
And I stood on the mountain
In the night and I watched it burn
I watched it burn, I watched it burn
I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham
I would hold my life in his saving grace
I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham
If I thought I could see, I could see your face
Specifics matter in horror as well. While it’s the Big Concept that gets people to buy the book or go to the movie, and it’s the Big Reveal that everyone remembers and discusses, it’s the specifics that make your heart race and haunt your dreams.
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline offers a terrific example.
It sounded like her mother. Coraline went into the kitchen, where the voice had come from. A woman stood in the kitchen with her back to Coraline. She looked a little like Coraline’s mother. Only . . .
Only her skin was white as paper.
Only she was taller and thinner.
Only her fingers were too long, and they never stopped moving, and her dark red fingernails were curved and sharp.
“Coraline?” the woman said. “Is that you?”
And then she turned around. Her eyes were big black buttons.
I don’t love Stephen King as a writer. I agree with a critic who once said he felt King writes with his fists. But nothing has ever terrified me as much as this passage, from Pet Sematary, involving a woman talking to her husband about how her twin sister had died from a (rather extreme and probably not very medically accurate) form of spinal meningitis. It’s too long to excerpt here, so visit this site to read it. (This passage features detailed, disturbing images, so don’t read it if you are bothered by this sort of thing.)
Coraline’s “mother’s” eyes; the images of the suffering sister in Pet Sematary; the “third worst poetry,” watching a canyon burn… these details in writing allow readers and audiences to connect with the emotions you’re trying to convey.
Your Story Needs A Good Straight Man
How much physical description is enough when you create characters?
Sensory Language IS The Detail In Your Writing
Use All Five Senses To Enrich Your Writing
Narrative Structure, Part Two: It’s OK To Stray (or: Don’t Forget Your Cockroach Races)