Shunning Abstraction

As a writer, I try to evoke as much as I can with every sentence. Since fiction is my main suit, I’ll use that genre here to explore the process of evocation. To show how it works, I think it helps to start out with a sentence that hardly evokes anything and then see how alterations can bring it up to a level where the reader really sees and, I hope, feels something.

“She was sad.” It doesn’t get much less evocative than that, does it? The sentence is completely abstract. This is one of the first things I learned as a writing student: abstractions evoke little or nothing.She” could be anyone, “was” states only that something happened in the past, and “sad” is about as general and (in my opinion) bland a word as you can get. The sentence lacks imagery, character, and originality, all of which I feel are necessary for my writing to evoke anything meaningful.

Names evoke more than pronouns, so let’s name the she “Dorothy.” Now we have “Dorothy was sad.” At this point we get the feeling it’s a specific person, but we don’t get much else. If Dorothy really was sad, how would she say it? Would she say “I’m sad”? She might, but maybe she would just as soon say something much more interesting. We could say “Dorothy felt like she’d been hit by a truck.” While home to a number of other problems, the comparison is now certainly much less abstract. We have a specific image that the writer clearly intends to evoke extreme pain, and I think pain is usually what people are trying to get at when they say sad.

But we’ve all heard some version of this metaphor before (you can substitute “train,” “bus,” or other common vehicles as you like), and, more importantly, the cliché doesn’t reveal anything about who Dorothy is or how she thinks. It’s in-your-face and over-the-top. While melodrama might in theory be a characteristic of Dorothy’s thinking, I think it more likely that it’s just the writer’s desire to get a rise out of the reader that gives extreme comparisons such as this one their allure. So let’s get away from the writer’s instincts and get to Dorothy’s. How does she express her sadness in a way that reveals her uniqueness as a person, and which evokes the life she has to have lived to get to this point?

Well, let’s say she lives in a city, and would probably base her comparisons on her experiences growing up there. Say she lives in a cheap apartment with her parents, and their backyard is small and cramped, and the fence around it needs to be repaired. Her parents could be blue-collar workers who haven’t had time lately to do everything that needs to be done, so an extra slat or two for the fence have been just lying in the yard waiting to be used. And maybe Dorothy is sulking on her back steps this very moment, and using what she sees in front of her to express the way she feels.

“Dorothy felt like one of those pickets her dad left in the yard for patching the fence.” The sentence may be five times longer than it was before, but the advancement in evocation is more than worth it. Now we get the sense that Dorothy feels not simply pain, but also neglect; she feels forgotten and of little importance. In addition, the sentence places her in a larger picture both in terms of family and of setting. Its function has moved beyond simply describing the character’s feelings, and now begins the work of grounding her in a fictional reality. A crucial result of this is the questions evoked by it; the sentence begs for another. “They had turned gray and warped when it rained, and she thought he might throw them out before he ever got to using them.” Suddenly the reader is brought into the story, and the sentences are moving, leading inevitably from one to the next.

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2 Comments

  1. Flikkun said,

    January 6, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Dude..I need to take lessons from you..I am totally going to have to remember this post.

    This blog of yours should help me with my writing a lot. >.>

  2. Elise C. Dunham said,

    April 7, 2010 at 6:11 am

    Hey, I need to read this more often! I saw a way to edit your first example even further. The pickets had grayed and warped. You don’t need the part about the rain because most peeps know that weather tends to do it’s damage in just that manner. Am I right? I like the examples you give and I can learn so much from this. In the case of drafts, sometimes I rewrite the story or piece several times even b/f I begin to edit the writing itself. I suppose that would be another way of freeing the story within. Sometimes I actually think out the story by writing it out. Also I take the time to be sure I am true to the continuity I am writing from if it is fan fiction or any fiction. I’ve read stories that feature a particular city. Most of them are true to the city or mention that they’ve invented a certain place nearby. It’s annoying to read something about, say, Boston that is incorrect. Most can get away with it but for readers who pay attention to that stuff, well, it reduces credibility.


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