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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Writing Prompts: Concrete Imagery

It's concrete, okay?
License free images aren't easy to find, you know.
One of the first lessons a starting creative writer needs to learn--and often one of the lessons they still struggle with after years--is the power of concrete imagery over abstractions.  Read any fiction from someone starting out, and there will be a lot of words dedicated to telling the reader how they should feel.  It's a tough habit to break because most people who want to be writers are all artsy and stuff and have the huge feelings that they can't keep inside them.  Unfortunately in most cases (and almost all unearned cases) it is preferable to create a vivid moment in a reader's mind and let them decide how they feel about it.  The less a sentence is grounded in our minds the more we just skim over abstractions.  

Consider this handful of sentences that I read a lot of clones of during my time in the writing program: "I suddenly confronted a profound sense of loss. My father was dead. I felt like someone had emptied me out and left me hollow."

This writer is probably describing a memory of some kind--maybe the actual loss of their father. While it affected them profoundly and they can remember the moment in vivid detail, the reader is being told how to feel.  The reader doesn't have access to all those memories to fill in the blanks. Unless we have recently lost a father, this probably isn't going to resonate with us very much even though the writer is really letting lose from the heart.

Now how would a few concrete details punch this up?  "I realized I would never again watch him spend ten minutes trimming his bushy mustache with his little silver scissors or bury my nose in the crook of his neck to catch a whiff of Brut aftershave as we hugged.  My father was dead.  I felt like someone had taken a melon baller to my guts and scooped me out, one memory at a time."

Is it literary?  No. But you can see it, smell it, and feel it a lot more.  You might not even know what Brut aftershave smells like (I don't) but it almost doesn't matter.  A few concrete details go a long way.

A more developed idea of concrete imagery is here.

Prompts--Don't forget to have fun:

Concrete sensory details are a writer's friends.  Go to your kitchen, and find some kind of food you like to eat.  Describe it.  Use sensory description as opposed to clinical description.  We don't care how much your food weighs in ounces. If you want to describe it, do so in terms of heft or comparison.  Food is probably the easiest place to practice this since advertisers do this all the time. If you think you're too fly to do food, try describing a pet or another person.  Steer away from abstractions ("James is a small cat") and clinical descriptions ("James weighs six pounds") for sensory descriptions ("James can fit, curled up, in a pair of cupped hands.")

Imagine the last highly emotional event you undertook, or if that is too traumatic, pick something else.  The point is that you should choose a highly emotional event that you have strong memories of.  Now describe it using only sensory details. Don't add any of your emotional filter to the description.  Make it clear how you felt based only on sensory details. ("I kept reminding myself not to smile like an idiot" as opposed to "I was blissfully ecstatic.")

You've probably heard that adverbs and adjectives are not a creative writer's friend, but did you know that not all adjectives are created equal as well?  Sensory adjectives are wonderful but qualitative adjectives can tell your reader how to feel about something.  ("She had an arrogant look.")  See how the value judgement is built right in?  You usually don't want to describe someone this way.  (Unless you're trying to characterize the voice that is describing her by showing the filter through which they see the world.)  Try tackling this with more sensory and concrete details instead of abstract ones.  ("She always blinked while she shifted her eyes, so one got the impression they never actually moved, and she tilted her head back when she talked to people.  She sighed a lot and kept her lips pursed in a permanent tight moue.")  Again, I'm not writing Shakespeare here, but do you see how she comes through without the writer having to tell the reader what to think of her?  Describe a person you know who has a lot of character.  Use as many abstract words as you want at first.  Now go back and underline every word you think is a value judgement and replace it with a description of actual sensory detail.

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