‘Get the name of the dog’

Name names, number numbers

I still remember — more than a decade later — one of the thousand heartbreaking stories about Hurricane Katrina victims, an AP report about the Superdome evacuation:

Devil in the details Get Snowball’s or Tubby’s or Frisky’s name.

Devil in the details Get Snowball’s or Tubby’s or Frisky’s name. Image by Charlie Stinchcomb

Many people had dogs, and they could not take them on the bus. A police officer took one from a little boy, who cried until he vomited. “Snowball, Snowball,” he cried.

As powerful as that story is — the poor child cried until he vomited, for gosh sakes — the two most wrenching words are “Snowball, Snowball.”

Why? Because details drive stories.

As The Poynter Institute’s editorial guru Roy Peter Clark counsels:

“Get the name of the dog.”

Name names and number numbers. Get specific, tangible detail.

1. ‘The name of the dog makes the story real.’

Clark writes:

A man ties a bowling ball to the neck of a fluffy, white, three-legged dog and throws the dog into Tampa Bay. The mutt is rescued and, eventually, adopted.

I can’t explain why, but the story is incomplete, and barely satisfying, without the name of the dog. In fact, I’m more interested in the dog’s name than the villain’s name. Was its name Sid or Nancy, Butch or Fluffy, Aries or Ariel? The name of the dog makes the story real.

So “get the name of the dog, the brand of the beer, the color and make of the sports car,” Clark counsels.

2. Tubby, we hardly knew ye.

William H. Broad named names when writing about the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in an article about how engineers use disasters to learn to improve structures:

The span, at the time the world’s third-longest suspension bridge, crossed a strait of Puget Sound near Tacoma, Wash. A few months after its opening, high winds caused the bridge to fail in a roar of twisted metal and shattered concrete. No one died. The only fatality was a black cocker spaniel named Tubby.

Poor Tubby.

Notice how “black cocker spaniel” is more effective than “dog” and how “Tubby” is more effective than “black cocker spaniel” alone.

3. Concrete passages more understandable.

The other day, I was working with communicators at a financial services organization on their content marketing pieces. For a story on the organization’s financial camps for kids, they’d written:

As the weather warms up and the end of the school year looms, a familiar dread emerges among parents of preteens, middle schoolers and high school students: What will keep their children busy this summer?”

Pretty abstract; pretty dull. I encouraged them to find a concrete detail to liven things up.

What have your kids done when they were bored? I asked. And from the back of the room, one communicator yelled out:

“They painted the schnauzer.”

Oh, I think we have a lead, I said. What color did they paint him? The communicator answered:

“They used Pepto-Bismol.”

Oh, I know we have a lead.

Just one more thing … What’s the name of the dog?

Frisky.

Show, don’t just tell.

The best messages weave concrete details and abstract meaning. They show and tell, maintaining attention while delivering the message.

So you know what to do: Get the name of the dog.

Learn more about concrete detail.

“Information is absorbed in direct proportion to its vividness.”
— Diane West and Jennifer Dreyer, principals, Tamayo Consulting Inc.
Want more tips and techniques for engaging readers through concrete, creative material? Learn my whole system at our Master the Art of the Storyteller Master Class on July 25-26 in Portland. You'll learn quick ways to add colorful detail to even the most tedious topics.

Want more tips and techniques for engaging readers through concrete, creative material? Learn my whole system at our Master the Art of the Storyteller Master Class on July 25-26 in Portland. You’ll learn quick ways to add colorful detail to even the most tedious topics.

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“Ann transformed my writing in a mere 12 hours.”
— Brent Buchanan, communication, advocacy & political professional, Cygnal