Concretes and Abstractions

In my last article, How to turn your creativity on like a faucet [LINK] I explored how to increase your creativity and workflow by increasing your vocabulary.  I ended the article by giving you some resources to help.  You can click here [LINK] to see those resources.

In this article, I’ll show you another way to turn on your creativity by mastering your concretes and abstractions.

Know your premises

Part of writing effectively and quickly is knowing your premises.  A premise is nothing more  than the base of an argument, theory or other project.  Within the craft of writing, your premise is the core value you wish to communicate to your audience.  You can have multiple premises within one work, but you should choose one primary so as not to overload your audience.  A wise woman once said,

“Keep the main thing the main thing.”

My wife (Not really. It was actually Stephen Covey)

                Who said that?  Oh yeah, I think it was my wife.

In Harry Potter the core premise is the power of a mothers love.  Beyond the might and magic of the series and the overarching themes of good vs evil, Harry was saved by a mothers love no less than three times.  The first was by Lily Potter as she valiantly gave her life for her son.  The next was by Molly Weasley who welcomed Harry into the family and effectively adopted him as her seventh son.  The final example was of Narcissa Malfoy, who saved Harry in the final installment for news of her son, Draco. 

But it doesn’t stop there.  Lilys’ love was transcendent and responsible for keeping Harry safe for most of the series.  At the end of the final book, Harry follows his mothers example and passes this protection on to the rest of the students at Hogwarts when he gives his life for them. 

This premise was weaved through the entire series.  Part of the reason it worked so well was that Rowling thoroughly understood her premise.  She was careful not to waver from that premise even as she explored other secondary and tertiary premises.  Some of these include government overreach, the effects of fear on our decisions, and concepts of inclusiveness and forgiveness. 

In your own writing, you need to thoroughly understand what it is that you are trying to say.  The kernel of truth you are trying to convey must be so clear to you that you could describe it without thinking.  Part of how you do this is by understanding your concretes and abstractions.

Concretes and abstractions

These two concepts work together and you can’t express your premise without them.

The abstraction is the generalized, ethereal notion you want to convey with your writing.  It may be vague and indistinct, and that’s okay.  But you should have something of a coherent thought that you wish to convey.

For example, “a mothers love can change the world” is an abstraction.  This is the thought you wish to convey.  This abstract, which you can also describe as the overarching philosophy of your work, should be sound and well grounded.  When I say that it is indistinct, I mean that you do not yet have a visual set of imagery to attach it to.  But the thoughts themselves should be coherent and linked in some logical order.

Concretes are what we call the set of imagery you attach to your abstracts.  In Harry Potter, Rowling took her abstract (that a mothers love can change the world) and personified it in Lily Potter.  Molly and Narcissa further cemented this philosophy, but it was the love Lily had for her son that saved him, Hogwarts and ultimately the entire wizarding world.  This is the concrete that Rowling attached her abstract to.

When you take your abstraction, the ethereal notion your work is based on, and combine it with your concretes, the visual imagery you use to establish it, you have a premise.  When you have these in place, writers block becomes less of a problem.  Since you have developed a bank of data you can draw from, it’s easier for you to get your characters from A to B because you can just pull the appropriate image from your data bank.

As you develop your craft, you will continue to accrue abstracts and concretes, and your writing will deepen and grow richer over time.  This is where the speed will come in.  With a rich and growing bank of abstracts and concretes to draw from, making withdrawals will become effortless for you.  But this takes time and practise. 

If you ever feel unable to express your thoughts in writing, it may come back to the fact that some part of your premise is lacking.  Go back to your abstractions and make sure they are logically coherent.  If they aren’t, fix them before proceeding.  If they are, try rethinking the concretes you use to express them.  Revisit the scene and think over every aspect of it and how they relate to other parts of the story.

Before I move on, I would like to demystify something for you.

Your premise doesn’t need to be anything as fantastic as the love of Lily Potter to be relevant.  The ancients would attach abstracts to concretes as simple as a flower.  Not to communicate any deep truth, but to explain the origin of the flower.  It’s perfectly fine to have a simple, even silly, premise as long as you have one.  In literary terms, a mothers love is just as valid as which flavor of ice cream is better.

It’s vanilla, by the way.

Do you really need a premise?

But what if you don’t have a premise?  What if you’ve already written your manuscript and you never gave any thought to one?

Such was my experience when I wrote the first draft of my YA novel, “Legends of Caldera: The Bereavers Tale.”  It was my first novel, and I didn’t give any thought to premise at all.  I just sat down and wrote.  The result was a work that was fairly directionless and meandering.

That’s not to say that you need a premise to have a popular book, mind you.  There are lots of books that gain plenty of traction with readers without one.  One such work was “Eragon” by Christopher Paolini.  It was even made into a movie without any great premise beyond classical examples of good vs evil.  Or at least it didn’t have one that I could discern.  It was an entertaining book, but I always felt as though there was something missing.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but the book seemed to be missing a certain depth.  It lacked body, like a broth in which someone had forgotten to add a Bay Leaf.  The omission of this great “something” didn’t make for a bad work, but it didn’t feel complete, either. 

I later realized what that “something” was.  It was premise.  There was no greater premise, that I could detect, and the result was a good, although generic, fantasy novel. 

I’m not dumping on Paolini, by the way.  I did enjoy the work.  And he’s written a book that’s been made into a movie, which is far more than I can say.

But if you don’t have a premise, all is not lost and it’s not a bad position to be in.  All you need to do is go over what you’ve written and take stock of what’s there.  Look at all the potential premises you have and decide which one is the strongest and most likely to carry the story.  Then go back when you do your edits and rewrite the story with that premise in mind.

That’s what I’m doing with “The Bereavers Tale.”  I’ve already combed my manuscript and settled on a premise that I think is sound.  Now, when I do rewrites, I’ll be able to direct the plot with my new premise in mind.

But what if you want to write but you can’t think of a premise?

The best way to proceed, in my opinion, is to take some time and hammer out a good premise.  Make a list of abstractions that interest you and choose the best one.  Then put careful thought into what concretes best exemplify those abstractions.  Once you have a good premise, start writing.

Or, as I discussed earlier, go without one.  It’s perfectly doable, though it will result in a product with less satisfying “body” than work with a well-grounded premise.  Just know that your work may not be considered “literary” if you go this way.  But it’s perfectly valid if you’re willing to accept that. 

Another tactic many authors prefer is to simply “pants” it.  Just start writing and edit in a good premise later.  Or don’t.  There are readers who like reading “stories about nothing.”  I’m not one of them, but they exist.  Many authors have had success with this, and it’s a perfectly good strategy.  I still think the better strategy is to have your premise hammered out before hand, but that’s just a matter of taste on my part.  The only reason I didn’t do it for “The Bereavers Tale” was due to my inexperience.

Thank you for reading and I hope I’ve given you something to think about.  For more tips and tricks, please see my other articles, or visit my YouTube channel at [YT LINK]. 

Good reading and Calamus Gladio Fortior.