Write More Vivid Stories With This One Method

Crowd throwing coloured

Photo: John Thomas

Writing involves descriptions. You can’t just drop characters in a formless room and have them, say, swinging swords at each other without interacting with their environment.

That said, you can’t just wax lyrical about the surroundings and forget that you have a story to tell. Personally, I fall into the white-room category, often choosing to err on the side of too little description.

No matter what you choose, though, you should know that there’s a way to instantly spice up your writing, and that’s the use of concrete language. This concept is fairly new to me, and it’s changed the way I look at descriptions, so perhaps it could help you as well.

But what is concrete language, you ask? Well, most descriptions tend to fall on a spectrum of concrete to abstract. On the concrete end of the scale, you have sentences that put your reader right into the thick of the action. Move towards abstract, however, and you’ll end up painting a very vague picture for your audience.

I realise that the previous paragraph might seem a little abstract, so let’s dive in deeper into the world of concreteness.

Set in stone

Do you recall that deep breath you take every time you plunge yourself into cold water? Or that yucky sensation whenever you re-wear your wet clothes after your skin dries off? Those are some pretty specific scenarios that’ll likely conjure up the same feelings in most readers’ heads.

Now think about a dog. Or a tall building. It’s likely that the dog your mind differs pretty significantly from the one in mine. I could be thinking about a cuddly, fluffy Cocker Spaniel, while you could be imagining a Dobermann with drool to go along with its snarl. Was your tall building located in Dubai or Shanghai? Or did you just think about that thirty-storey office building around your neighbourhood?

That’s the difference between concrete and abstract language. It’s a totally different beast from show versus tell. Instead, you’re simply writing in a more specific way, one that leaves little else to interpretation.

It’s hard to imagine a speeding car when all you have to describe it is ‘a hundred miles per hour’. It becomes much more concrete when you mention seeing the driver’s daughter’s silhouette in the backseat, her pigtails rocking violently from side to side as her dad weaves in and out of traffic.

Is it making sense yet? Now let’s add another layer on top of it.

Concrete wall with triangular shapes

Who says concrete has to be boring? Photo: Drew Beamer

Feeling it

Describing a setting beautifully is one thing. Inviting your readers to be a part of it is another. Of course, many writers—myself included—tend to favour visual descriptions, because that’s how things typically look (heh) like in our minds.

We often forget that there are four other senses, ones that are generally neglected in writing. But when you couple concrete language with your other sensory inputs, you get an unlimited combination of possibilities to bring your stories to life.

So instead of writing how someone smells nice, perhaps she could smell like shea butter, just like your character’s ex used to. Or maybe instead of a headache, you could describe the pain as an invisible hand pinching the base of your brain, letting go only in brief moments to rest its fingers.

The best part is that you can find inspiration everywhere you look. Observe closely enough and you’ll find people swaying their hands when they walk as if they were swatting flies off their butt, or a gust of wind blowing a woman’s curls in a way that reminds you of a real-life Medusa.

Getting a feel for it? Let’s keep going and discover the best ways to weave these details into your stories.

Eat your vegetables

Brandon Sanderson put it aptly when he shared this anecdote of how he hid spinach in sausages just so he could get his children to eat their vegetables.

This is what I do to my dog too. I hide her medicine and vitamins in her spam, but she doesn’t know that. All she knows is her intense desire to lap up anything resembling food. I could spend an entire hour trying to shove a pill down her throat and she’d just spit it out again. Give her the same pill sandwiched between a couple of meat slabs? Gone within seconds.

That’s how you should treat your readers as well. They don’t need to know that you spent more than twice the amount of time on worldbuilding than on writing, but they would benefit from knowing more about said universe. They just don’t know it yet. How you can achieve this is by slotting in bits of information in between the juicy action.

My favourite example of this can be found in Terry Pratchett’s Men At Arms. In one chapter, two humans visit a dwarf’s home to conduct an investigation. This entire scene is just about how they try to navigate the low roofs and dwarf customs, most of which involve not touching another dwarf’s tools.

Pratchett could’ve set aside an entire chapter on dwarf lore and architecture, but instead he did it by showing the humans knocking their heads on ceilings and incurring the dwarves’ wrath by touching their tools. Now that’s an interesting way to exposit.

Vivid Veges - Dan Cristian Padure

Nutrients. Not what your readers want, but it’s what they need. Photo: Dan-Cristian Pădureț

Pros and cons

Of course, there’s a tradeoff between concrete and abstract language. There always is, for most writing techniques. For this case, the most obvious downside are the additional words, so it’s impractical to base your entire story on concrete description without breaking the 100,000-word mark.

For instance, saying a room’s pitch black is much more economical than trying to ground the reader with descriptions such as ‘he couldn’t see his own hands stretched out in front of him’, even though the second example adds more tangibility to the scene.

Secondly, there’s the matter of pacing. You risk sensory overload by describing everything concretely. It’s like wearing stripes with checks. It’s the designer’s equivalent of making everything pop.

So where exactly do you draw the line? Nobody can say. That’s where your own judgement as a writer comes in. This is a creative craft after all. So it’s up to you to determine where you want to your reader to stop and smell the roses, so to speak, and where you want to be brief.

So there we have it, a quick primer on vivid writing. I hope this opens your mind up the way it did mine. Now you have your concrete, so go ahead and build your story.

56 thoughts on “Write More Vivid Stories With This One Method

  1. Pingback: Write Vivid Descriptions With This One Method — Stuart Danker – I Write Stuff – Walking the Life

  2. This is something I definitely needed for today! Abstract and concrete decisions have been a balancing act for me, so being able to affirm it again is enough to get me going on a slow day like this. Thank you for this, Stuart!

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts! To be honest, I never even knew the difference between these two until about last year. So what better way to pay this forward than by sharing it to others?

      Here’s to finding your balance in your writing!

  3. “you spent more than twice the amount of time on worldbuilding than on writing”. Hahaha. That’s so true. You spend more time on specific locations.

    • I think it’s much easier to imagine what comes next rather than how your world works, which is why the latter takes longer.

      Though sometimes the author doesn’t leave those parts out, often choosing to barrage the reader with an entire history of their world, and that’s what kills me as a reader, lol. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. Hi Stuart,
    I do struggle with how concrete my blog writing should be, so thank you for validating my indecisiveness. Even looking back on my first few posts, I could see my writing style was a different kind of story telling style, so to speak. I guess it’s just a work in progress. Thanks again for this great post!

    • I think we’re all works in progress. I myself struggle with vague descriptions most times, and being concrete requires a certain mastery of the language.

      That’s exactly why I felt like sharing this, so that we all can start thinking about this and grow our craft together. Thanks so much for stopping by, Deb!

    • Oh yeah, I hate writing descriptions because I don’t like reading them either. I’ve been told that I don’t do it enough by editors too, so I guess I should start upping my description game, lol. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Certainly an area I need to work on. I’m so not descriptive enough cos I am just so bad at ‘painting a picture’ (both metaphorically & actually!). My best recourse now is to ‘poach’ concrete descriptive language from everywhere I can find. Hopefully, some of it will be internalised for me some day by osmosis! Haha!! Thanks again Stuart. Always grateful for your writing tips!

    • That’s my plan too! I do it one word at a time. Every time I see a word used differently, it goes into my literary journal. But I don’t do a very good job at keeping just one literary journal though. Might need to review that, lol. Thanks for stopping by, Kelvin!

  6. Didn’t know you had a dog. *Awkward silence* But it’s cool.
    Very good post. I love your posts on story-writing. Craft Better Stories with These 7 Values (was it called that?) also caught my eye. Thanks!

    • Aww, I’m really honoured that you’d remember a story from the past, especially in the blogosphere where information just comes zooming at you non-stop.

      p.s. just a heads up, your URL in your profile is missing a ‘b’, and when I click on your profile, it redirects me to a page error. Might not wanna lose out on dat traffic!

      • Thanks, Stuart! I’m really honored that you’re honored. (Meh, my pun and word-twisting skills don’t go much farther than that.)
        Oh damn, I should fix it. You know, I hate manual stuff. It should automatically link my profile with my blog. Anyway, great catch. I’ll fix it.
        Anyway, thanks once again for the post and the reply!

  7. I had the same thought the other day! My background in creative writing, especially poetry, comes out in my copywriting because I use imagery and concrete language. Glad I’m no the only one :)

    • I’m so jealous of the fact that you’ve found a way to marry them both. I write for a living, and have never managed to employ my fiction skills into my advertising day-to-day, lol. Thanks for sharing!

      • I just recently landed a client who I am helping self publish her poetry book! Typically though it’s mostly just content or copywriting so I don’t get to meld them together as often as I wish

  8. thanks for this tip, and I do notice this being used by writers while I am reading a book.

    and while I think I understand the difference between concrete and abstract, in my mind, they are the reverse of how you describe them.

    For example, this example you used:

    For instance, saying a room’s pitch black is much more economical than trying to ground the reader with descriptions such as ‘he couldn’t see his own hands stretched out in front of him’, even though the second example adds more tangibility to the scene.

    I would have guessed that saying the room is pitch black is concrete, it’s short and to the point, while I would consider the part about not being able to see your hand as more abstract…

    • Ooo, great perspective. I guess there are always different ways to look at the same thing.

      For instance, Neil Gaiman once described a sun that was so yellow-red like a boil, and that felt much more concrete to me than if he were to describe it as just yellow and red.

      Love extra perspectives, as it helps me understand the topic more. Thanks for sharing, Jim!

  9. I’ve been guilty so long of neglecting the other sense when it came to writing descriptions, but I recently became more conscious of it and my writing has become much stronger.

  10. Stuart! You’ve done it again. Such great information and description. I love your blog. I love the idea of hiding it amongst the mass of the meal and not being too obvious. Very important. I find that it’s imperative to bring in the senses especially when you want to illicit an emotional response. You did this really well with the speeding car. Who cars about a reckless driver but you absolutely care when there’s an innocent little girl in the back….
    Great post.

  11. I’m terrible at this. My stories are always disembodied heads talking to each other. And we don’t even know what the heads look like either. Maybe just disembodied voices in the void, conversing about their feelings. I’ll have to try to think more about these details. Now that you’ve brought it up, I’ll be more conscious when I read books, too.

    • I’m terrible with anything description. I once went through an entire novel without describing a couple of main characters, which I didn’t notice until my editor brought it up.

      Maybe this is just me reminding myself about the things I should do, lol. Thanks for stopping by as always, Hetty!

    • Right? I mean, we all have our own things to balance, from our voice to how much we want to write for an audience (versus, say, ourselves).

      Writing isn’t something we do to learn like a school skill. It’s something we do to learn about ourselves. Thanks so much for your thought-provoking comment!

  12. I really loved this post, I’m glad you explained it in easier terms (I used to categorize these 2 kinds as “direct” and “the one who keeps the options open for their own interpretation”). I personally think I’m concrete as a writer and I struggle with sensory overload issues as well with my writing. In the end, it all works with the help of more practice as there’s always room for improvement. Thanks for the post!

    • Yeah, in the end, we all have to practice to improve our own craft, which is a pretty tall order for someone like me who’s a huge procrastinator.

      It’s so awesome that you’re naturally concrete! I tend to be wishy-washy with words, and have often been told that in my feature writing.

      Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by again!

  13. Wow, you really covered the bases of concrete writing here! It does take up more words, but often it can be worth it. As a reader, I hate it when I run into a character who is described as “beautiful,” “handsome,” or “good-looking” without any further details. Even with pop culture influencing our concept of ideal looks, there is still a lot of room for subjectivity in what we find attractive about another person. And it helps to build the characters of both the observer and the observed to know why that person is perceived as beautiful/handsome/good-looking.

    • Yes! I must admit, even as someone who’s written for a living for quite a while, I only learned about concrete language just recently.

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Always great to read additional input from writers all across the world.

  14. I’m halfway through a first edit of my current novel manuscript and this is thought about ‘concrete writing’ is where my mind is living. “Have I described the village clearly enough? Is there too much description which detracts from what the characters are doing? Where have I used senses other than sight to ground the reader in the story?”

    As you say, the answer to these questions differ from scene to scene depending on the context. Thank you for the reminder to pay attention to my writing, and to put the effort in to make it the best it can be. 😊

    • Aw yeah, where we find the balance really differs from person to person, and that’s where the challenge lies, isn’t it?

      Thanks so much for sharing your process, and I wish you all the best with your WIP!

      • Thank you! Any writing requires consistent effort, and it helps that I’m really enjoying this effort. Finding the best way to tell the story we are telling does take time, and many readings, and the help of other readers!

        Your previous comment about procrastination inspired a blog post which I am to publish today. I hope you won’t mind that I included the quote and a link through to your website. :)

  15. That was such an interesting post! I have been trying to find ways to expand my vocabulary and apply it as well to blogging and this technique will certainly help – even though your target audience is not necessarily bloggers! Thanks for sharing 😊

    • Aww, thanks so much for taking the time to read and leaving your kind words, Juliette! Yep, it definitely works on writing in general, no matter your audience. Thanks again!

  16. Some excellent tips there. I’ll definitely be looking to utilize them in future writing. As a relative newcomer to writing I’ve learnt so much from people like Jacob at Proseopiate, and now from you. I take my hat off to guys like you who give their tips and advice just for the love of writing.

  17. Somewhere ages ago I came across an exercise in a writing book that suggested approaching the description of a place by focusing on what makes it different from every other version of that place (I.e. what about this kitchen is different or makes it clearly *this* kitchen vs any other generic kitchen?).

    It was a wonderful exercise and I find I still do it whenever I’m stuck waiting in a doctor’s office or (pre-pandemic) visiting a friend’s living room. It kind of helps to shear off the shared-traits of all “living rooms” (walls, floors, couches) and turns the attention to specifics of what ID’s this space as unique. It’s something I still try to keep in mind when writing descriptions of a space.

    • Omg that’s such a wonderful technique, so I really thank you for sharing this! I’ve heard of writers taking one trait and focusing on the trait for that place, but reframing it as a feature that sets it apart from other places does make things so much clearer. Great stuff!

  18. Pingback: Interaction Styles (16 Personalities) and Writing Properties – the Granny From the Planet Of Vibes

  19. Very informative, Stuart. Nicely done! I learned several things and it gave me some ideas to think about.

    I took a Creative Writing webinar recently. One of the exercises was to describe chocolate without using words like chocolate, chocolatey, etc. It was harder than I thought it would be, but a good exercise.

    • Heya Jason! Haven’t seen you in a while! Ooo, that’s a pretty awesome drill! One more important drill I think is pretty awesome is writing an entire scene using only dialogue, trying to differentiate your characters using only voice. That’s pretty tough too, and I learned that from Brandon Sanderson. Great to see you here again!

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s