A Pirate's Resources

Being Specific

How to Become More Specific

I recently shared how being specific was a way to set limits and create focus, and, generally, to communicate clearly. With limits and a focus, the reader doesn’t have to work very hard to visualize and engage with the story.

Want to help your student learn to be more specific?

Here are three specific ways (there are many more in exercise 2 and beyond in
A Pirate’s Guide): Have them choose a noun (a character, a place, an object). Ask them to describe the noun with adjectives. Then ask them to add details about location - where is that object? Finally, you can add an activity. How’s that for simple? For example - let’s say the thing our student wants to make more specific is the town the story takes place in. They can add adjectives - festive, rural, run-down. They can add location - in the middle of America, or on the brink of a mountain peak, or hidden inside a glass bottle. They can add an activity - a town that is celebrating its centennial, or hosting a marathon, or being buried in an avalanche. This kind of brainstorming can lead to all kinds of interesting combinations. We might end up with a run-down town, located on the brink of a mountain peak, that is being buried in an avalanche. Or a festive town that is located in the middle of American and is hosting a marathon. Or a rural town that is celebrating its centennial, all inside a little glass bottle. Each of those would lead to a very different story, a very different image in the mind of the reader, and a very specific focus for the writer.

Being specific in this way - about ANY and EVERY thing in our stories - will help the writer to have limits and focus, and give the reader a vivid picture in their minds. And as they practice this skill (in writing, or in the exercises), you might find that it spills over into other areas, bringing greater clarity and description to their lives.

(These are just a few ideas to get you started.
A Pirate’s Guide has more questions and brainstorming space to really dig into what it means to be specific in exercise #2, and pretty much every exercise after that!)


Exercise 2 :: Being Specific :: Communicating Clearly

One of the greatest skills, in general, that A Pirate’s Guide teaches - something useful across the board of their education and life - is being specific. It’s so important, in fact, that is the second exercise in the book, and actually lays a foundation for all the remaining exercises. Why is this? And how do we help our children become more specific?

To illustrate, let’s imagine a character together. Let’s say that the character is a boy. If you asked a group of 10 people to draw a picture of that character, you’d get 10 totally different boys. Some might be 3, others 10. Some might be tall, others short. Some might be… you get the idea. So let’s be more specific. Let’s say the character is a 10 year old boy, 5 feet tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. If we ask everyone to draw him again, the pictures will be closer, but we’ll still have 10 different versions of that boy.

But I want my reader to be thinking of the same boy that I am - seeing the same boy that I see in my mind. So I need to become very
specific indeed. I need to describe his clothing, his hair style, how he smiles, which backpack he wears (and how he wears it), etc. If there was a room full of 10 year old boys, 5 feet tall, how can I describe MY boy so that you can pick him out of the crowd? That’s specificity. It’s helping the reader to see what’s in the author’s mind.

Being specific is a way of setting limits and creating a focus. Being specific communicates an idea more clearly to the reader. And clear communication is a worthy goal not only in story-telling, but in life. The more specific the writer is about ANY aspect of their story, the more the reader will understand what the writer means.

In Real Life :: Being specific in real life is just as important as in story. Actually, it’s more important. If I write a vague character and you imagine it differently that I anticipated, it’s not great, but oh well. But if I ask you to grab the spice from the cabinet, and I’m not specific, my cinnamon pancakes might taste like pepper! So much frustration in life comes about because our communication lacks specificity. Take a moment today, and have your child pay attention for a time when being specific helped them get what they wanted, or conversely, when being vague resulted in something they didn’t want at all.

Finding it in the Story :: again, not an “element” of story per se, this is another skill you’ll need to have to be a great communicator! (But you can easily find examples of being specific throughout the entire story. You’ll find specific examples in the story portions that are embedded in the exercise itself.)


Characters - What do they want?

Once we know who the characters are by describing their characterizations, we’ll want to ask the next big Character question: What do they want? Identifying a character’s desires helps the author know who their characters are and what they will do.

What is a desire? Anything the character wants. They could be hungry and want food. They could be lonely and want a friend. They could be angry and want to fix a problem. They could be mean and want to steal some candy. There are all kinds of desires - and brainstorming can help you find out what your character wants.

To begin brainstorming Character Desires, we can always ask questions and let our imagination and ideas run wild. Another really effective way to brainstorm Character Desires is to take the characterizations that you have created for your character - describing who they are through specific details (see
this post for more on that) - and use those to find desires that grow out of their characterization. As always, you can use your child’s favorite character as a way to help explain this. Luke Skywalker is an orphan - that is a characterization. What might being an orphan cause him to want? He might want parents. He might desire to grow up and have a family of his own. It might make him want to join the Jedi’s so he can have the big family he never had. For each characterization, an author can brainstorm many different things the character might then desire.

Another way to brainstorm is to take those same characterizations, and ask “what might she desire in opposition to that characterization?” Leia is a princess, and her desire might be to just be an ordinary girl that no one notices. Or Chewbacca is a hairy Wookiee, and he desires to play at the beach and not spend a month cleaning sand out of his hair.

As your child begins to figure out what their characters might want, they will find it important to be as specific as possible. What does this look like? Suzy is an only child. She wants to play with friends. That’s a desire that comes out of her characterization. But which friends, what kind of friends, when? Becoming specific looks like “Suzy wants to go to summer camp and live in a cabin with a group of friends for a whole week” Or “Suzy wants to have a friend she can rely on and get to know really well, and who will come play at her house every Thursday afternoon.” Those are two different very different Specific Desires that come out of the simple desire (to play with friends) that comes out of her specific characterization (only child).

Using Characterizations to brainstorm Character Desires - things they want because of their characterizations, and things they want despite their characterizations, will give an author lots of different desires to play with as they get ready to have their character take ACTION.

(These are just a few questions to get you started.
A Pirate’s Guide has more questions and brainstorming space to really dig into what your character wants in exercise #17).