1. Defining Abstract and Concrete
Turning to our trusty dictionary we learn that abstract means "existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence." In turn, concrete means, "existing in a material or physical form; real or solid; not abstract." So, you can say that the two are opposites of each other.
In terms of language use, abstract language, or an abstraction, is the presentation of an idea without concrete context. An example of an abstract sentence could be: "He behaved in a gentlemanly manner." The idea of a gentlemanly manner could mean a variety of actions were performed. Being a gentleman can include several different things to several different cultures. There's no specific, concrete way in which to interpret his behavior, so it is left up to the reader's imagination. It is abstract, an idea.
If we were to transform that into a concrete sentence, it might read something like this: "He pulled the chair out for his guest, waited until she was seated, then sat down opposite her at the table." By giving a specific action we present the idea of being gentlemanly without leaving any doubt in the reader's mind as to what we mean.
2. Using Concrete Language Effectively
As a general rule, your writing should always include far more concrete language than abstract. I'll let ShadowedAcolyte explain:
"Broadly, concrete language is more powerful and evocative than abstract language. . . .because readers have an easier time connecting to concrete imagery: when you say something like 'my thoughts were clouded' the reader doesn't know precisely which kind of confusion you're talking about, but everyone can easily access the pain of a stubbed toe."
Let's take another example, this time we'll use poetry. This comes from a piece I wrote several years ago:
"...they rub velvet across your skin
and you, weak and vulnerable,
so easily led astray
want it. want more. want
to feel the monsters' mint breath
curling like smoke in your throat
to fill you and leave you
Can you recognize the abstract language use in the second stanza? It sandwiches a fairly concrete phrase with "monsters' mint breath/curling like smoke", but "want" is an idea. It has no concrete context. What does "want" mean to you? What does it mean to me? How do we come to understand it concretely? It starts by defining what the abstraction means. In the context of this poem, "want" can be either a physical desire or a mental one (sometimes both, but that's for a different discussion). So we have to start by deciding which it is. Considering that velvet (in the previous stanza) and mint breath are both physical, concrete descriptions, I'm going to lean toward the want being a physical desire. Perhaps it is a sexual feeling? If that's the case, how can we concretely describe a sexual want? By exploring what it physically looks like. Some ideas that come to mind include: blushing/flushed skin, deeper breathing, dilated pupils, goosebumps, tingles/shivers, relaxation and/or contraction of muscles. With these thoughts in mind, let's try to revise "want" out of the poem entirely.
...they rub velvet across your skin
and you, weak and vulnerable,
so easily led astray
lay flushed beneath the monsters'
mint breath, inhale it like smoke
and let it curl in your throat
as your flesh erupts in shivers.
As you can see, the application of concrete language dramatically changed the way the poem reads. We went from an undefined "want" to a very specific and visceral physical reaction, one that the reader can clearly imagine. We have traded an idea for an image. That is the power of concrete language.
3. Why Abstract Language is Discouraged
Some people may ask what's so bad about presenting an idea and letting the reader imagine it for themselves? To some extent, all authors must do this. You cannot give every concrete detail about a character or room or setting, it would be very boring work - both for you and your reader - if you did. I'll let SRSmith give an example of finding the balance between your imagination and that of your audience:
"When I'm writing flash fiction, I'm very aware of how little space I have to devote to describing a scene, or a character, so I lean heavily on familiar concrete descriptions that will evoke a particular familiarity in the reader, letting them fill in the details I don't have space to write with their own experiences and memories. I'm essentially seeding the reader with concrete images in order to prompt them to imagine everything I'm not showing them, without letting on that I'm having them do all the work.
If the protagonist is set upon by a youth in jeans and a leather jacket, hair slicked back with a rakish grin, that's all I need to show, as everyone has a picture of at least one person that fills in the gaps that remain between those points. They'll also get a much clearer picture of the character as aggregated from their own memory than they would if I spent a page describing him or her. Ironically, the more I show, the less they see."
Now consider if instead of those few concrete details about his antagonist, SRSmith had merely said that the protagonist was "attacked by a young man". I can conjure up the images of about a dozen young men instantly with that description (most of them people I work with, ). The scene loses power and integrity because now it can be interpreted in too many different ways. Abstract language usually has a weakening effect on your writing, whether in poetry or prose. This is because ideas are up to personal interpretation while physical facts are much less so. I think that SilverInkblot puts it most bluntly (and I adore her for it):
"You may think you’re being universal [when using abstract language], that using general terms like sadness or love or pain accurately conveys your meaning to the widest array of people possible, but you’re wrong. . . .Your definition of sadness is not my definition of sadness. I do not love who or what you love, not with the same intensity."
Basically, abstract language doesn't tell your reader what you or your character feels. It only tells us what we already feel. We're well aware of our own feelings, so use concrete language to tell us about yours.
Now that you have a firm grasp on what concrete language is and why it is necessary for good writing, it is time to put that knowledge into practice. I present you with two challenges which you may share the results of in the comments if you so choose.
Challenge 1: Find a poem or short piece of prose in your own gallery. Read it through looking for abstract language use. Keywords to look for are love, sadness, fear, want, god, destiny, etc. Anything that is an idea without concrete context. Question yourself on what it means, then expand your idea into a concrete image. If you would like, share the original and revised work in a comment here.
Challenge 2: Find a piece of writing someone has asked for critique on and look for abstract language use in their work. Give them advice on how you might interpret their abstract idea in a concrete manner. You can check out the galleries of ProjectComment and theWrittenRevolution for people who most definitely are looking for feedback. If you're so inclined, share a link to your critique or comment here. Remember, critique is constructive. Be kind, be courteous, be humble.
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