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.
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.
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.