My lecturer always used to tell me that a piece of prose is like a cake. The concrete details are the sponge and all the abstract stuff is the icing. If you use only sponge, it will be a little boring, if you use only icing, it’ll be totally unbearable. Of course, different people are going to have different preferences, but I find this is a good guideline to follow.
What do we mean by concrete and abstract?
Concrete details are the things which have a real life and very clear meaning. For example, “Her hair was long and black”. There’s not really very many ways to interpret that phrase – it means what it says and that’s what makes it concrete.
Abstract details, on the other hand, usually come in the form of metaphors, similes, personification etc. Much like the cake analogy I used at the beginning of this article. They are more vague and take the readers interpretation to make sense of them. For example, “Her hair was a waterfall of onyx dust”. It takes a little of the readers own imagination to turn this phrase into a concrete image, but it has more emotion and personal perspective behind it than a concrete description.
Why not use all abstract?
So if abstract details often tell us more about the narrator or character’s perspective, why not use them all the time, for everything? There are a few answers to that, but I think it’s best demonstrated in an example;
Chunks of once-living grain run from the claustrophobic depths of their cardboard prison. In agony, they crack and split against the cold china, their impending doom heralded by the looming trickle of death. The white typhoon engulfs them.
To start with, what just happened there? Without any concrete details to give us some context, it’s easy to get lost in abstract detail. We need to be brought back to reality now and then and reminded of what is actually happening in the scene.
Another danger is that too much abstract can make a piece of writing seem contrived and artificial. It doesn’t flow well because it’s not a natural way for a story to be told and your reader will notice this. If you are struggling to dig around in your head for a sixth metaphor for soup, it’s likely your have exhausted all the good ones.
Why not use all concrete?
If there are so many dangers in using abstract details, why not just stick to concrete and avoid seeming pretentious all together? It can certainly tempting and, I must admit, I’m not always comfortable using abstract details in my work. But using only concrete details can damage the flow of a piece just as much.
The cereal fell out of the box and into the bowl. Then I poured some milk on it.
In this alternative example, it’s very clear what is going on, but it’s also not particularly interesting. There’s no real point of interest to boost our imaginations and give a little life to the scene. We are also missing the character’s own perspective as everything here is given as an absolute fact.
Here is an example that uses a good balance;
The cereal poured from the box and clattered against the bottom of the bowl. The milk followed in a cascade that smothered the grains.
Here we have some subtle hyperbole in “clattered”. Obviously, the cereal would make more of a soft tinkling than a clatter, but using a slightly exaggerated word is a good way to draw attention to the impact of the sound on the character without confusing the reader. Obviously, most people know what pouring cereal sounds like, so they won’t be confused by the exaggeration.
We also have a metaphor in “cascade” and some personification in “smothered”. The violent connotations here give a slight sense of unease to the scene without going far enough for it to sound silly.
Hopefully, this gives you an idea of a good balance to aim for. But don’t be afraid to experiment with your sponge-to-icing ratio! Different genres require different styles so you may find that a few tweaks will make it work better for you.