Try This: Half a Loaf
Particularize Your Objects!
Here’s an easy trick to put to use. If an object is crucial enough to mention you must make it unique. The term is “particularize” it. No generic sandwiches. No central casting cars. I’m not saying to use brand names, just use some imagination. In Rosemary’s Baby when the title character is given a necklace, it’s wrapped in pink tissue. “Rosemary unfolded the leaves of used-before tissue.” See how easy. Most of us can tell used tissue from new. That simple sensory detail gives the object a history and also marks the gift giver as frugal — or a crass, cheap devil worshiper!.
(Shrug) This is a fairly innocuous one…
Suitable for workplace.
Years back, a student of mine had an elegant way to do this. Whenever he depicted a character taking food from a refrigerator, that food always included half an onion or a half-eaten ear of corn. Doing so instantly gave the story depth by giving the object an implied history.
Of course the way you describe any object depends on the character. His or her body of knowledge and priorities. For status-aware characters, yeah, brand names might be appropriate. But otherwise, just making an object incomplete creates an energy that bridges the past (who ate half that ear of corn?) to the future (who’s going to finish it?). It’s that easy to particularize your objects.
Again, this is like avoiding tennis match dialog. You want to pile up small incomplete issues. Incomplete objects or lies or half-eaten food or unanswered questions. Make your reader carry the burden of unresolved stuff. That’s tension.
For now, Hit the Button! Resolve the tension!
The best half-of-anything story I’ve heard involves the writer Mark Richard. The author of The Ice at the Bottom of The World and Fishboy, legend has it, went to lunch with an agent and a book editor. Both were weighing the idea of signing him. They all ordered deli sandwiches, and Richard ate only half of his. At the end of their meeting, he carefully wrapped the remaining half and took it with him. Seeing this, the agent and editor were struck by Richard’s poverty. Unless the sandwich lasted for two meals, he wouldn’t have dinner. After Richard had left the deli, the two resolved to help him succeed in any way possible. He never said he was counting every penny, but the careful way he’d saved the sandwich showed them.
"A crass, cheap devil worshiper." I feel called out. Nice.
I like that these “realistic” small details can seem so inconsequential but that they can also offer so much to a story without being implicitly apparent.
For example, say you’re writing a war story and you have the main character walk past the corpse of an enemy sniper. You have the main character notice dozens upon dozens of tally marks engraved in the wooden stock of the sniper’s gun. This detail alone hints at a past that entwines both the deceased and the weapon/object in a somewhat ambiguous and grim backstory.