Over generalization is a voice killer.
It can dilute your scenes, obscure your meaning, and worse yet, it can bore your reader.
Generalizations are unclear words that settle for an idea rather than a concrete item or place.
Think of it this way - do you ask a family member ( see there’s a generalization - family member ) to go grab you some fruit from the kitchen or do you say - Bring me back a banana. The notion of fruit rattles off so many possibilities that the reader has to wait for you, the author, to clarify it - and then if you decide to peel the now clarified fruit as a banana, the reader may be a little miffed that it wasn’t made clear in the first place.
That’s another problem with using generalizations. By the time you clarify - you’ve added several extra sentences. That may not seem like much, but if you continue to use this technique they’ll add up, and explaining obvious things will take precedence over description or action, bogging things down.
Why waste precious words?
Here are some generalizations - fruit, man, woman, female, male, car, clothes, flowers, accessories, jewelry, hat, purse, animal, dog, drink, dishes, elegant, fantastic, excellent, wonderful, lunch, luggage, make-up, material, nick name, musical instrument, ornament, parent, spouse, perfume, pet, bedding, toy, snack, religion, restaurant, wealthy, rumor, art, toiletries, sibling, soap, stationary, talent, charm, candy, transportation, coat, vandalism, sports, meat, vegetables, young, old, kitchen, bedroom, nationality, etc.
* It’s not that you can’t use these words. In fact some of them are downright necessary. It’s to know when and how to use them.
Take the word fantastic - what’s wrong with it you say.
First off it’s a great word for conversation, because it’s an expression that gives vague praise. That meal was fantastic. And it’s real meaning - as - yummy, delicious, exotic, tasty etc. is easily grasped by the reader.
But to lean on it to describe something - like he had fantastic eyes - if your protagonist isn’t a 14 year old school girl, than Fantastic eyes is rather vague and lame - so is fantastic car, fantastic wife, and fantastic boy friend. None of these things are quite clear and unless it’s used in conversation where the real meaning can be quickly discerned, why bother?
Better to say - His eyes made emeralds look like slag heaps. ( corny but memorable. ) He’s driving the new BMW, the lucky bastard. Or, Jim’s wife not only makes homemade lasagna, she also rubs his feet after his hard day at the office. These are concrete ideas that make clear pictures in a reader’s mind. This is every writer's goal - absolute clarity. Even if you don’t keep the sentence of a wife who makes lasagna from scratch or eyes that make emeralds look like slag heaps, the idea is to reach beyond cliches and generalizations. Paint a picture don’t give the reader a dot-to-dot and expect him to fill it in.
Colors can become generalized if you let them - does a red t shirt fulfill a descriptive need? Or is it a cop-out. It can be either or depending on your style. It's the different between pink shoes and pink Converse sneakers.
Remember every time you eliminate a generalization it helps you foremost before a reader even sees your work. When you snatch for something easy like flowers you box yourself in.
Think of a scene - your protagonist Larry is wandering through a field of flowers and stops to pick some. -
Larry wandered through a field of flowers on his way to Debra’s house. He picked some that caught his eye, some that he thought Debra would like.
It’s okay, if a bit dull. What if I just change a few words.
Larry wandered through a meadow on his way to Debra’s and lured by their scent, he picked some lily-of-the-valley. Perfect for Debra.
I’ve managed to bring in some vibrancy with a few subtle changes. Anyone can use flowers, anyone can pick something by sight, anyone can dress up a field by adding the word flowers. But by eliminating generalizations you give your piece flavor, you give it voice.
Lily-of-the-valley, meadow, scent.
Notice how the new words even sparked a fresh verb - lured and punched up the final sentence. And the interesting thing is people assume being specific means more words when that can’t be further from the truth - even by counting every word in lily-of-the-valley I’ve still managed to eliminate four words. Whether or not those few sentences can stand on their own or need elaboration doesn’t matter - what matters is to get rid of generalized thought.
Generalizations can dance around ideas - Harvey’s wife sent him to the store to pick up some toiletries.
rather vague -
Or - Harvey couldn’t believe he got talked into making a Tampax run.
Brand names can also help define things -
The sheriff sat on the sagging porch drinking a bottle of cola.
The sheriff sat on the sagging porch sucking on a bottle of Coca-cola.
There is a warning with brand names though, remember when and where to use them. When you’re writing an action-packed scene or emotion fueled melodrama, the hero can hardly start rhapsodizing about the make and model of his car.
To avoid generalizations start getting familiar with types of things - different flowers, different animals,
fabrics, foods. This will stop the generalizations in their tracks - lunch will become anything from a greasy
Big Mac at McDonalds to Jambalaya with a slice of lemon ice box pie. Anything but just lunch.
And that is the biggest advantage of eliminating generalizations - it can stop you from telling your
readers who your character is - the showing becomes so much easier.
Instead of telling your readers that Elaine is fastidious - put her in a high class restuarant
and have her send back the angel hair pasta for being gummy.
Put two school boys David and Eric in McDonalds, Have Dave, a rather husky boy,
continuously point out the pretty girls coming in knowing Eric will turn to look so
Dave can steal Eric's french fries. The scene could easily show Dave is more
interested in food and Eric is more interested in girls and it's all based
on eliminating the generalization of a mere lunch - By giving it an
exact place McDonalds and an exact food - French fries -
it gives the reader a concrete visual.
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