Geoff Herbach: 2K11

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Replace Abstractions with Concrete Detail!

Guest post by Geoff Herbach

Introduced first in 2007, debut children’s authors have formed a cooperative effort to market their books. I featured Revision Stories from the Classes of 2k8 and 2k9 and this feature returns this year with the Class of 2k11.

What’s wrong with this passage?

Bobby was such a nice boy. He would help people who needed to be helped. But something wasn’t right. Bobby felt sad everyday of his life.

It’s dead. You can’t see, feel, or smell it. It’s all tell, no show. What makes the passage that way? Abstractions!

In writing, abstractions are words that symbolize a notion. For instance, in the passage above, what does nice mean? What does helped mean? What does sad mean? Abstract is good in math (math describes reality using symbols, which are by nature abstract). Abstraction can be really cool in visual art. Check out Mondrian’s work Broadway Boogie Woogie, a series of lines and blocks of color meant to represent Midtown Manhattan. You get a different idea of Manhattan through abstraction. Abstraction does not work in writing, though!

Low-res used under Fair Use

Mondrain: Broadway Boogie Woogie, Low-res used under Fair Use

You might have had an English teacher or writing instructor ask you to “show” not “tell”. Often they’re asking you to replace your abstractions with concrete detail.

Reading should be a visceral experience. You should feel it in your guts. If I say I am nice, do you know what nice really means? No way! You can’t see it, feel it, or smell it. If I say every morning I get up at the cold crack of dawn, roll out of my warm covers so I can trek three miles to my disabled grandma’s house to help her make breakfast, do you know what nice means? Oh yeah. You can see and feel it.

Circle Abstractions. When I am revising my work, one of my steps is to go through the manuscript and circle every one of my abstractions. After I do that, I’ll think about each instance and decide if the abstraction serves the story or takes away from the reader’s ability to “see” what I mean. Almost always I’ll replace the abstraction (showing what nice means) with concrete details like getting up at the cold crack of dawn or making breakfast for my grandma.

If I replace every abstraction in that initial passage, I get this:

Every morning Bobby woke up at 5 am so he could cross the wide street in front of his house and serve Old Lady Grisham a breakfast of poached eggs and apple smoked bacon before he left for classes at Golden Prairie High. Still, even though his parents hugged and smiled at each other every time they looked at Bobby – they were so proud, each morning that spring, in first hour English, Bobby’s stomach twisted and his face reddened and he excused himself and went to the bathroom to talk himself out of crying.

Now the passage is alive. Abstractions are replaced with concrete detail that shows who your character is, where your character exists, and how your character is nice, helpful, and also sad. What an easy trick!

So, as one of your revision steps, make sure you locate where you use abstractions, and consider replacing them with concrete details!

1 Comment
  • Bettina Restrepo
    July 4, 2011

    This is a perfect teaching tool for writers. I’m bookmarking trhis for future critique clients.

    Great job Geoff!

    (Thanks for hosting Darci!)