If you’ve ever dabbled in creative writing, you’ve probably heard that you need to use specific images and show, don’t tell. I’ve been told this in classes, internet forums, books, writing groups—it’s pretty much the first advice you’re told in any writing situation. But it’s funny, because people never mention why. They say it helps us to picture things better or to see another character more concretely, and then they add, it’s counterintuitive, I know. It seems like a more general concept would be more relevant to more people, but that’s not the way it works. And after that they stop.

As a beginning writer I rebelled against this idea. Many other new writers I know have, too, asking why we would swap perfectly good abstracts that apply to everyone for these specific details that don’t. But I don’t think I would have been as obstinate if I had put together the actual reason why. Why do specific images work? Why is it so much more impactful to read about Jesus weeping than about Jesus being sad? The truth is, the answer is right under our noses. (You could say it is our noses.) The reason great writing is specific and concrete is because we are specific and concrete. We have bodies. Our writing has to have live through a body, too.

No human has ever experienced sadness in its purest, most abstract form; we experience it through our bodies, through specific places, specific times, specific actions. Abstract concepts may apply to all of us, but that doesn’t mean we really know what they mean outside of the specifics. What is the amorphous thing we call love? It’s kind words coming from a friend’s lips, money spent to get someone the exact thing they’ve wanted, skin pressed against the warmth of someone else. Yes, it’s also an emotion, but that emotion comes from chemicals in our brains, and without those chemicals we would feel nothing—so as far as we’re concerned, love doesn’t even exist without the specifics. Everything we know is known through sensing the physical world and processing that information in our physical brains. The reason great writers don’t primarily use abstracts is because truly abstract concepts are incomprehensible to us. Using them to make art is about as useful as babbling.

When you look at the advice show, don’t tell, through this lens, it begins to be clear that it’s really advice to admit you’re human and move on with it. Writing stories with concrete details is one of the most human things you can do, because you, too, were written into a specific place and time, and you feel love and hate and sadness and all these things through your human body and experience. The more you begin to think this way, the more the logic used at the beginning turns on its head. General concepts may apply to everyone in a way that specific details don’t, but the very fact that they are more general concepts means that, in fact, nobody can deeply understand them without examples. Writing in abstractions is pretending not to be human.

An interesting note on this is that the Bible (and, indeed, all of redemption history) was written with our humanity in mind. Discourse on abstracts is interspersed throughout, but never without narrative. Jesus doesn’t just tell us to be loving to our enemies; he tells us that if someone takes our coat, we should give them our tunic also. Further, most of the Bible is made up true stories of specific things happening to specific people in specific times. The flood was a concrete representation of God’s wrath on evildoers; the rainbow a tangible expression of his promises. Jesus himself was human: he had a body and knew physical pain to an extent that few others have known. Of course the Bible deals with abstracts, because ideas that are merely abstract to physical humans have great spiritual truth. But humans by nature experience everything concretely, and the Bible takes this into account by dealing with the abstract through the concrete. We know what love is because Jesus died in a human body on a physical wooden torture device. Without his sacrifice, the word love wouldn’t have the same meaning. Without concrete events in a story, abstract words just don’t have the same depth.

What it comes down to is that I wish someone had told me in the first place that using concrete imagery should not be a rule to be rebelled against, but the most intuitive and intrinsic element of writing. God made us with bodies, with senses, with chemicals in our brains; and living on earth we will never know anything different. Art is one of the most peculiarly human things we can do. So it can’t be great art if it denies what we are.

4 thoughts on “Writing by Humans

  1. This is so beautiful, and exactly what I’ve been thinking about recently! It’s a foundational concept of writing but I’ve rarely seen it put into words so well. And I love the way you tied it in to the gospel!

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  2. I had put my hand to the writing plough nearly twelve years ago and have never taken it off. Since that time, I, too, have learned much of what you, Maggie, describe in your piece. Endeavouring to replicate a noble (albeit abstract) thought in another’s mind of what already exists in our own is no easy task, especially if that thought is meant to instil a feeling of what I might term as “oughtness.” C. S. Lewis once said that telling someone they ought to feel a certain way about a thing, whether sadly or joyfully, can freeze feelings by imposing an obligation upon a conscience before it has been entirely convinced that it must do so. It’s too abstract, the conscience objects. And very often, it’s right in saying this. We must show our reader’s conscience why there are better reasons to pay attention. So, facing fully this natural reluctance, we create a story and populate it with characters, and one maybe two characters especially that our reader can closely identify with. We then further endear our character to our reader by pacing the story through imaginary dramatic but familiar events, ones that can create an aura of affinity and foster friendship straight from off the pages. Next, we turn our character into a headwind of adversity or trial. If we’ve done our job so far, we will notice our reader still cleaving to our character in desperate hopes that all will be well. It’s almost as if the reader’s own personal fate and happiness depend on what happens to this imaginary character that we’ve created. (It some respects, it very well might. Scary, eh?) And so, we reward our reader’s loyalty by granting an outcome that echoes our Lord’s promise to never leave us nor forsake us. But not without some dear cost involved. In this way, an author discovers he or she can steal past the guards of the reader’s conscience, those watchful dragons who incinerate unwanted and obligatory feelings upon first sight. In the wake of a writer’s silent and soft tread, our dear reader is left with an abstraction or “moral” that likely won’t be recognized by him or her as such till much later on. This kind of moral is sometimes carried out in just a few judicious and imperative words. More often, though, it is a subtle, indicative thing, requiring slightly more words and fulfilled through the concrete, very relatable ways our character acts and feels. Thus by the end of the tale, there is a good chance we have delivered into the hands of our reader’s heretofore sceptical and formerly unwilling conscience the very obligatory thought we have held in our own. The seed is planted. Our mission is accomplished. We wait for the increase. In retrospect, I’ve discovered that Jesus did much of His own teaching in this manner.

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