Concrete versus abstract description (tip 30) Reply

Concrete description is sensory description; it is the stuff we can touch, see, smell, hear, and taste. Abstract descriptions have no weight or texture. They are ideas, conditions, qualities, abstractions that float around in the ether. When and how should writers use these different types of description?


Video transcript follows below:

I’ve been doing a wee spot of baking – smells delicious. In writing terms, a cake is concrete – some of mine taste like concrete. We say a cake is concrete because it’s something that can be experienced by the senses. We can touch a cake, smell it, see it. So when Marcel Proust’s narrator eats a madeleine, that’s an example of concrete detail.

So concrete description is sensory description; it is the stuff we can touch, see, smell, hear, and taste. The other type of description is abstract description. Abstract descriptions have no weight or texture. They are ideas, conditions, qualities, abstractions that float around in the ether.

If I write that ‘Love is beautiful. It is a perfect union of souls’ – that’s abstract description. We can’t touch the perfect union of souls or smell love.

Abstract descriptions have their place, but one of the most common writing problems I encounter is that inexperienced authors use too much abstraction. The vast majority of your description should be concrete. Consider this from Tim O’Brien:

They carried M-14s and CAR-15s and Swedish Ks and grease guns and captured AK-47s and Chi-Coms and RPGs and Simonov carbines and black market Uzis and .38 caliber Smith & Wesson handguns and 66 mm LAWs and shotguns and silencers and blackjacks and bayonets and C-4 plastic explosives. (…) They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades (…). Taking turns they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed thirty pounds with its battery.

That’s all concrete description. You can get an AK47 and sniff it and see it and poke it up your bum. When O’Brien adds ‘They shared the weight of memory. They carried the sky.’ It’s the icing on the cake. It’s an abstract description – memory isn’t something with weight like an AK47 is – but it works because it’s surrounded by masses of concrete description.

So abstract description should be like the icing on the cake. A little bit is sometimes nice. What nobody wants is a cake that’s got more icing than actual cake. This cake, with lots of concrete description and a little bit of abstract description? I can handle that. But this cake, with a lot of abstract description and just a wee bit of concrete description? That cake makes me sick.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your baking.

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