The Universality Is in the Details

I started thinking about universality since we want our novel’s theme to have universal appeal—meaning a whole bunch of people all over the world should be able to relate to it at perhaps any time in history. But while we’re thinking in broad, all-encompassing ideas, I want to make a distinction here.

Don’t make the mistake in thinking that in order to appeal to a wide audience with a universal appeal we have to write in very general terms and details. You may think that the more unspecific you can get with your locale, setting, time period, problems presented, the more universal the novel will be.

You may think if your character can have a general problem—say a bad temper or he’s a Scrooge—a lot of people will identify with him . . . so you decide to not be too specific and take the risk of making your novel’s world so small that no one will relate.

General Is Not Universal

So some authors have their characters in some unnamed place and time, engaging in activity and dialog in a way that philosophizes and narrates but is hard to picture. They think if they set their book in a certain time that in a decade or two it will read dated and won’t endure as a classic.

What we learn by examining powerful novels that have stood the test of time is that they are exactly the opposite. They zoom in on a tiny moment in time in a very specific place. Sometimes that moment may just cover a few weeks and that place only one house on a block in a small town in the middle of nowhere. How about To Kill a Mockingbird?

Of course, some books have a much wider landscape and could be epic novels, like those of James Michener. He actually felt brash enough to start one of his novels with the creation of the planet as the start of his story (can you name that novel?). But if you’ve read any of his books, you will know he’s the king of detail.

I’m a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Something he said in an interview really stuck with me decades ago and influenced my novel writing all the way through. Remembering what he said about detail inspired me to write this post, so I’m going to put a little excerpt of this interview with him from the Paris Review 1981 (which I happily found doing a Google search):


 There also seems to be a journalistic quality to [your] technique or tone. You describe seemingly fantastic events in such minute detail that it gives them their own reality. Is this something you have picked up from journalism?


 That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing. That’s exactly the technique my grandmother used. I remember particularly the story about the character who is surrounded by yellow butterflies. When I was very small there was an electrician who came to the house. I became very curious because he carried a belt with which he used to suspend himself from the electrical posts. My grandmother used to say that every time this man came around, he would leave the house full of butterflies.

But when I was writing this, I discovered that if I didn’t say the butterflies were yellow, people would not believe it. When I was writing the episode of Remedios the Beauty going to heaven, it took me a long time to make it credible. One day I went out to the garden and saw a woman who used to come to the house to do the wash and she was putting out the sheets to dry and there was a lot of wind. She was arguing with the wind not to blow the sheets away. I discovered that if I used the sheets for Remedios the Beauty, she would ascend. That’s how I did it, to make it credible. The problem for every writer is credibility. Anybody can write anything so long as it’s believed.

Even One Little Adjective Can Do the Trick

This point about fine detail making a passage believable is such a great message for writers. Instead of shying away from being very specific in our scenes in order to achieve a universal appeal, think about making your small details very specific, the way a journalist would do if reporting an event they witness. You are like a reporter detailing events for your readers, so if you use detail like this, it adds believability. And believability is the key to universality.

This week, try to think like a journalist as you write or rework a scene. Everywhere you have general descriptions of things, come up with very specific details. Don’t overload with details. Note that Marquez only needed to add the word yellow to make the appearance of butterflies seem real. A few specific details can be powerful, and they add clear imagery in your readers’ heads, which is what you want.

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  1. As ever, your article is timely. The project I’m working on is a tricky one, as three of my main protagonists are in the arts,and much of the story is set in New Zealand. I’ve taken care to place the action against the background of the arts, without dumping facts on any prospective readers, and have added ‘yellow butterflies’ to create impressions, but not detailed descriptions of the various locations. I really liked your reference to ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ – in the same vein I would add ‘Rebecca’ (Daphne Du Maurier) as it retains a universality while remaining in a specific time and place. The same could be said for Dickens of course!

  2. I love this — especially Garcia-Marquez’s rationale for why details matter. I have been struggling with this in my WIP, and I feel it really gets better with more detail, and more relevant detail — ie. descriptions that convey more than information (like attitude, context, etc.).

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