Writing Tip #20

Describe the ruckus. During dinner last night, my daughter relayed something funny she saw on the Nick toon T.U.F.F. Puppy: “Dudley Puppy went into another dimension,” she said, “and one of the laws when he was stopped by a robot was: No crying in slow motion while pantsless and holding shiny objects.” She was laughing hysterically as she told me, adding, “What makes it so funny is that it’s so specific.”

She’s right. Sure, the writers of T.U.F.F. Puppy know their tween audience’s penchant for underwear jokes and offbeat randomness, but think about your favorite movies, television shows, books. Generalities normally don’t make for memorable scenes. The magic is in the details. When you write, dig deep and pull out very specific information about the scene or person you are describing. This doesn’t mean you need to tell everything there is to know, but enough to create a lasting image in the readers’ mind. Specific highlights of a moment. Specific details about a person’s dress or the car she drives or the way she holds a child.

I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from The Breakfast Club:

Mr. Vernon: “What was the ruckus?”

Andrew Clark: “Uh, what ruckus?”

Mr. Vernon: “I was just in my office and I heard a ruckus.”

Brian Johnson: “Could you describe the ruckus, sir?”

For 25 years, my friend Viki and I have been saying this line to each other whenever one of us is having difficulty with a description of something or is being too general.

Dina: “I saw this really cute pair of shoes at the mall.”

Viki: “Really? What did they look like? Can you describe the ruckus?”

After a nice, little laugh, she or I will then go on to describe in more detail.

I remember once in the middle of the night, while I was working on Baby Grand last summer, I was stumped on a death scene. The way I was writing it, it seemed to be like every other cliched death scene I’d ever read/seen. I lamented my dilemma on Twitter, and, like a beacon in the darkness, came a tweet from Nelson Leith, who said that I should find one tiny detail — something that might be funny under different circumstances — to differentiate the scene. It totally worked, and I moved on, a happy writer.

Describe the ruckus, and you should be all right.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Tip #20

  1. OMG! You have no idea how timely and specific this new tip is for me at this exact moment in space. It is a double confirmation of the place that I’ve been stuck in–no, mired–and something that my tutor has been gnashing his teeth over about most of my writing. More details! More descriptors! More emotion!

    I’ve been given another parachute. Thank you!

  2. I agree with this. When I read about a ruckus, I want to see in my mind the details of what’s happening. I don’t want to read about a generalized ruckus.

    I really laughed at the dialog about the ruckus, because there obviously was something that happened that these other two guys were covering up. This is the impression that came to my mind as I read it.

  3. I just had to go look up the etymology of “ruckus”…

    Weird…: “1890, possibly a blend of ruction and rumpus.”

    “ruction”: “‘disturbance’, 1825, dialectal or colloquial, of unknown origin.”

    “rumpus”: “1764, of unknown origin, possibly an alteration of robustious ‘boisterous, noisy'”

    Hmmm… I can hang with the boisterous and noisy disturbance, but all that “possibly” and “unknown” makes me wonder what the ruckus actually was :-)

  4. Great tip, Dina! There are some things we can leave to readers’ imaginations, but in many cases they need specifics to visualize the scene the way you intend it. As you’ve said, we don’t need to include too many details, but choose specific ones that act as conductors of imagination.

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