Saturday, June 2, 2012

Week 23 - Concrete and Abstract Language

3 Jun - 9 Jun:  Every Cloud Needs a Silver Lining

Way back in Week 6,  I included an exercise about turning cloudy descriptions of a character (he was a relaxed man) into concrete images (he strolled down the street).

Roy Peter Clark defines the scale of 'solidness of detail' as the ladder of abstraction, and suggests that a writer can use this concept to add depth and meaning to action and description.

At the bottom of the ladder are concrete words: words that deal with real, tangible things.  We can see, hear, touch, smell and taste concrete words, and they place us in a situation.

At the top of the ladder, abstract words are those wishy-washy ideas that people feel or have a certain association with, e.g., death, love, freedom, and happiness.

To grasp the purpose behind and potential impacts the ladder of abstraction has on a story, Clark poses the following questions:  "Can you give me an example?" requires a concrete response; "What does it mean?" will have the writer and reader reaching for the top rungs.

So what do we do with the ladder of abstraction?  This will depend on what we are trying to achieve, I guess.  Do we want our audience to race ahead with images of action, or to think about what it means?  Chances are we want our audience to do a bit of both, in which case, it makes sense to mix the two.  Linking death, say, to a black, rushing river, or childhood to icecream and Christmas presents, give unmistakable meaning to both the concrete and abstract ideas in each case.

So, that's the theory.  Instead of going on about it, or trying to make up inspiring examples of my own, I thought I'd look through my bookcase and see if I could find out how the masters do it.  Here's what I came up with:

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens:
He had scarcely the power of understanding anything that had passed, until, after a long ramble in the quiet evening air, a burst of tears came to his relief...
They sat, listening, and afraid to speak, for hours. The untasted meal was removed.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe:
He didn't realize that there were women who thought about sexual attractiveness the way he thought about the bond market. 
It was a ten-dollar ride each morning, but what was that to the Master of the Universe?
A vague smoky abysmal uneasiness was seeping into Sherman's skull. The Bronx...

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene:
He felt the security of his age sitting there listening with a glass of gin in his hand and the rain coming down.
...the small hotel room was hot with the conflict between them.

Billy Bud, Herman Melville
It is not artistic heartlessness, but I wish I could but draw in crayons, for this woman was a most touching sight, and crayons, tracing softly melancholy lines, would best depict the mournful image of the dark-damasked Chola widow.

Okay, so that seems straightforward, not to mention effective.  Let's try some exercises.

Exercise 45. You are consumed with a) love, or b) hate.  Write a paragraph describing how you feel by linking these abstract ideas with concrete images.

Exercise 46.  Write half a dozen phrases (or more) that start at one end of the abstraction ladder and ends at the other, or a passage that travels up and then down (or vice versa) the ladder.  (Reference: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark.)

In preparation for next week, anyone reading should have a go at thinking about, or even writing down a short description of, a) a fairytale princess, and b) a member of an outlaw biker gang.


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