In nearly every creative writing workshop I’ve taught, someone asks for more—more details, more specificity, more singularity. Rarely does anyone recommend vagueness or imprecision.
In story, you need both. Specificity brings your characters to life, moving them from cliché to a complex, idiosyncratic individual. Specific details also flesh out the narrative dream, helping the reader experience your fictive world.
But lack of specificity, giving only a partial glimpse, can create suspense and an opening for the reader to engage more fully in the story. By being imprecise, you spark a reader’s imagination, and the result is a richer, more engaging experience. James Baldwin uses lack of specificity to great effect in his stunning short story “Sonny’s Blues.”
The story opens like this:
I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.
Instead of naming what the narrator is reading in the newspaper (the direct object of the sentence), Baldwin uses the pronoun “it.” By doing this, Baldwin creates two crucial things: suspense and curiosity. The suspense is magnified because he repeats “it”—six times—as if whatever the narrator is reading is too shocking, too overwhelming, too devastating to name. We keep reading to discover the dimension and depth of the “it.” We are in suspense, moving to the second, the third paragraph—Baldwin masterfully making us wait—until we find out the narrator has read that his brother, Sonny, a jazz pianist, was picked up in a raid on an apartment downtown for peddling and using heroin.
Later in the story, Baldwin uses pronouns again—not only for suspense, but to bring the reader closer to the experience. In this scene, Sonny has been released from prison. He begins to open up to the narrator about his heroin use and his suffering. We are deep in the scene, and Sonny is impassioned and vulnerable.
It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out—the storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love to it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.”
This passage relies on “it” to convey what Sonny is feeling. There is a sense that Sonny isn’t sure what to call his feeling and is choosing this word in the moment. He finally narrows down the “it,” turning it into a metaphor—the storm inside. But he quickly returns to “it,”—“You can’t talk it and you can’t make love to it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening”—as if the metaphor can’t contain the enormity of his emotions. Only “it” can serve as a big enough container for his torturous feelings. The use of pronouns also sparks the reader’s imagination. As she tries to define the storm, the reader turns inward, searching her own experiences of inner turmoil.
At the end of the story, the narrator accompanies his brother to a nightclub to hear him play with other jazz musicians. For a while, Sonny struggles on the piano. He hasn’t played for over a year. Then, the musicians all gather around Sonny and he begins to play.
Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting.
A little later in this same scene, Baldwin writes:
And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.
Baldwin isn’t writing about the notes or the melody, but the bodily and atmospheric effect of the music. Similar to the storm inside in the earlier passage, the effect is intangible, even preverbal. What better way to use language, and at the same time, move beyond language, than the vagueness, the imprecision of a pronoun?