There are specific traits that I loathe seeing when it comes to books. On the hierarchy I have for these, the one whom always takes the top is the poorly written fight scene and hollow words. But if I was to give myself the time of day to pinpoint the rest of my nitpicks (let’s face it, that’s the point of this blog), the third addition to this list would be the dreaded abstraction. And this is mainly because my early writing was riddled with them.
But as with all of my rants, it will do you little good if I just go into this guns ablazin’ without giving a proper definition of what I mean. You remember back in middle-school were your grammar teacher taught you the difference between a concrete word and an abstract word? Well, of course you do, you must be an intellectual if you are reading this blog?
Alright, in case your mind isn’t feeling up to snuff today, allow me to remind you. In essence, abstract words reflect ideas and concepts, whereas concrete words refer to tangible things. For example, philosophy, peace, fear, love, and hate are all good examples of an abstract word. These words certainly do bring about images into one’s mind as to what they might mean, but these images are broad strokes rather than precise ones. Furthermore, they do not directly point to a tangible object. Bricks, trees, table, and meat, are all examples of concrete words. These words bring about a more specific image, and they also refer to something that can be touched.
Now, when it comes to vernacular, you’re allowed to use these words without a care in the world. Unfortunately for you, you decided it would just be splendid to become an author, which aside from boosting your low self-esteem, is going to set restrictions on how you use these words.
As I’ve said in the past, there are only a few objective goals that prose must reach, among these is to make words as precise as they can possibly be. And by this I mean that you must use language in such a way to convey the idea that’s bubbling up in your head. Abstractions, as the name implies, are a direct obstacle in this core desire. But before we get too technical, I’ll pass you an olive branch and start of with an example.
The woods were a lonely place and a deathly quiet had settled there. Ronnie walked forward with a fearful step.
This kind of sucked, but that’s kind of the point of it, so let me be kind enough to explain. Let’s tackle this in parts so that we don’t go crazy, starting with the first sentence. Firstly, comes the use of the word woods. This, is not that bad, however, there is no doubt in my mind that it could be tweaked to produce a more specific image. However, the word does a good enough job at conveying an area, so we can let it slide. What is not forgivable is the use of the word lonely.
This is another case of failing with show don’t tell. You see, while the author is telling me that the forest is lonely, he’s yet to explain to me how it is lonely. This just makes it all the harder to immerse myself in the words being presented here.
As for the second half of the sentence all I can say is that, although it’s not a bad piece of description, it doesn’t really use the necessary sensory details to give me a crisp picture. The final sentence is too on the nose, and the use of the phrase fearful step is another example of shoddy description. I know what is going on in these sentences, but I don’t understand it. So let’s fix it.
The grove stood in silence. Not soul tread about it, down to the chirps of birds that had gone mute and the foxes whom had ceased rustling the shrubs. Ronnie’s legs trembled, but despite himself, he hauled his feet to take a step down the old dirt path that led into the heart of the forest.
Now this is healthy. Notice how every sentence is capable of telling you more details due to the use of concrete descriptions? In the piece I gave before, it felt as though each sentence existed only to convey very little detail, but with the use of precise wording, I was able to kill two birds with one stone.
My descriptions of the lack of animals was enough to get across the idea that the forest was both silent and empty of life, while the final sentence I use to describe Ronnie’s movements give a clearer idea of what he’s actually doing. And this is all because I got rid of Abstractions.
And you can too!
In essence, Abstractions are words that give across big ideas. As with all big ideas, these can be torn down into a number of smaller, and precise details that get across the original message while enhancing immersion. It’s all a matter of asking yourself how? If you say that something is lovely, then how is it lovely? If you say something is irritating, then how is it irritating? While just stating the idea in vernacular conversation might be enough to get across your message, you have to remember that you are writing a novel. As a result, you need to make it easier for a reader to understand what you mean without much effort.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes children’s books use abstractions to avoid complex language that will put a kid to sleep, other times, using a simple abstraction can work to get across feeling. But remember, this post is in reference to most description you’ll find yourself doing. And I think my guidelines should be helpful in most circumstances. So what do you think of Abstractions? Do they have much merit?
As always, this has been the QuestingAuthor. Keep Writing, my friends.