An incorrect “the” can kill you, in a teeny tiny way.
There’s a massive difference between “the” and “a”. Yeah, one has three letters and one has one. I caught that. This is picky, picky, but it matters.
Use “a” for a person or a thing you are introducing to us. For the first time. After that, use “the”.
Alice reaches for a worn looking stuffed dog with blue eyes. The dog sits near a small stuffed zebra.
We meet the dog and it’s “a” dog. Once we’ve met him, he’s always “the” dog. When we meet the zebra, it’s “a” zebra.
All well and good, but, later in the same scene, the writer makes a mistake.
David slouches outside the junk store. He clutches ROSCOE, a stuffed zebra, to his chest.
We’ve already met the zebra, but the use of “a” this time makes us think it’s a second zebra. Confusing? Yes. A giant mistake, no. But you want the reader to stay with you through thick and thin.
Here’s another way “the” can mess up your careful plan.
Say you’ve got an office. A woman standing at the desk. A man sitting behind the desk. The woman holds a pack of cigarettes.
Ruth slams the pack on the desk. The cigarettes slide out.
What’s the difference between that and…
Ruth slams the pack on the desk. Cigarettes slide out.
In the first example, whether the writer intended it or not, ALL the cigarettes slide out. In the second example, which is what the writer actually meant, SOME cigarettes slide out. Which you can say…
Ruth slams the pack on the desk. Some cigarettes slide out.
Ruth slams the pack on the desk. Four cigarettes slide out.
Ruth slams the pack on the desk. A few cigarettes slide out.
But if you say “the cigarettes,” you haven’t created the image in the reader’s mind that you intended. Ugh.
Wow, this writing stuff is hard!