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A few days ago I wrote a review of the Poetry class I recently finished, and may have complained mentioned how it was my least favourite thus far on my journey to literary greatness. However, as my next class begins on character building, I am starting to feel quite grateful I slogged through the pain of poetry because all that focus on using imagery to convey emotion, setting, and character, is about to pay off BIG TIME…I hope.

When I say “studying poetry” by the way, I don’t mean the rhythm and metre part of it, though that skill is definitely worth exploring in its own right (which I might do another time). No, I’m referring to the use of concrete vs. abstract imagery. Don’t laugh, but it was a tough concept for me to get though my wee brain, and I was frustrated the first few assignments. It becomes easier though, if you can pay close attention your descriptive choices as you’re writing and revising. Just ask yourself if you’ve used:

Concrete images, which are sensory, i.e., those you can see, taste, smell, see, hear or touch?


Abstract images, which are everything else, i.e., concepts such as love, dreams, happiness, anger, immortality, etc.?

Perhaps my definitions are too simplistic, fair enough, but I’m comfortable saying: Showing requires concrete images and Telling uses abstract ones. More or less. There are tons of examples of this on the net such as, Mary was angry vs. Mary stomped her feet, clenched her fists and screamed, so I won’t bombard you with more apart from sharing one typical of how I erred in many of my poems:

In the draft I used, “Strolling past the still frozen heralds of early spring” and in the revision I changed it to, “Strolling past the pussy willows, yellow crocus and moss./Frost clinging to the edge of leaves,/as they dangled above beds of crystalline earth.”

I’m happy that even though the poem sucked, it was an important AH HA! moment for me that can now be used as a pretty good example of the stunning clarity difference between concrete and abstract. I could feel the eye rolls and mental “WTF? is a frozen herald??” when my fellow workshoppers tried to review with kindness. But, the revision received much better feedback. It’s stronger than the draft because it leaves no doubt as to what I was imagining when I wrote it.

“Abstract and Concrete” might also be said to mean “Ambiguous and Specific”. In one poem I used the description “lies are clever creatures” to show how lies can be like a smart, silent predator laying in wait for an honest person to make a mistake. I thought it was a rather good simile until the instructor asked what kind of creatures they were specifically? Clever and creature can mean different things to different people. Did I mean clever as in “what a cute precocious child” clever, or “Wile E. Coyote taking over the world” clever? When I say creatures, do I mean actual animals that exists, or made up, figurative ones? In other words, what I should have used is a specific animal image to convey clever, such as: “lies are like foxes lurking”. See how the two differ? The way I first wrote it requires you to think about what my idea of clever creature is and looks like, while the second brings a clear picture to mind.

This kind of clarity is what immerses readers in your scene and reduces the risk they’ll end up skimming due to vague walls of text. The bonus is, taking these rules and applying them to character scenes can make the task of identifying the abstractions and reworking them much easier. I don’t worry about it until the revision stage though, or I’d never get anything completed. Instead, I let the abstractions, often signalled by the use of adjectives and adverbs, serve as place holders making it easy to find them when I’m ready to revise.

During my coursework, I came across some stellar references on imagery. Here are a couple of my favourites:

Concrete vs. Abstract Words PDF

A Thing with Feathers: Concrete and Abstract

Link to examples at poets.org

Finally, I’ll end this rambling with a recommendation all writers devote some time to studying, practicing, and workshopping poetry. It’s hard work, painful as hell sometimes, especially if you’re not good at it (like me), but don’t fear trying and failing because I can’t think of any medium better suited to teaching us how to paint a scene with words. In a poem, every word must count and every image must be clear, even if it’s being used to represent something figuratively…especially then. Of course, it goes without saying that sometimes abstractions are necessary and even preferable, but in general, writers find being “concrete” the hardest because it requires more effort, and therein lay the challenge of mastering it.