Embracing Abstraction

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call6writers, we all too often hear the phrase “Show, don’t tell.” This is true for academic and creative writers alike, since it is always more powerful to show the reader how or why something occurs rather than telling him or her that it occurs. This is also true when talking about how events make a character feel. In academic writing, the danger of abstraction rests in the assumption that readers will trust you enough to go on your word. For creative writing, however, the danger of abstraction rests in the high likelihood of audience disengagement—by not showing, the reader emotionally disengages.


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In the Summer 2012 edition of The Writer’s Chronicle, David Jauss writes “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Abstraction?: Modes of Conveying Emotion” wherein he discussesthe history of abstraction and its role in writing He bases the article on Ezra Pound’s imperative “Go in fear of abstractions” and discusses ineffective and effective forms of abstraction, providing helpful examples of both. Jauss elucidates the reasons why we ought to go in fear of using abstractions in our literary endeavors. He warns: “Be afraid. Be very afraid” (64).

There are two misuses of abstractions: the sensory bypass and the gloss. Sensory bypasses are shortcuts to conveying emotion, so rather than painting a portrait of fear by describing what a character is physically experiencing, we commit a sensory bypass by using the word “fear” to term the emotion, an act that (you guessed it) bypasses the senses. Rather than saying, “She was afraid,” it would be more effective to show the fear in some tangible way, like describing the physical response that fear incites (“To avoid the big van parked next to the driver’s side of her car, she approached from the passenger side and quickly locked her doors”). The danger of the sensory bypass is that they skip over the emotional response and move us to a mental response. Rather than bringing to life the emotion in a way that inspires empathy, bypass abstractions fall flat and usher in countless associations to the word itself, thus forcing the audience to interpret the word and its role in context. This is too much to expect from readers.

The second misuse of abstraction, the gloss, offers vivid descriptions of body language to bring the emotion to life, but then fails by interpreting that descriptive language for the reader. Therefore, glosses flop because they are a jolt to our system, bringing us right out of the world the writer was trying to create. Aside from potentially insulting our intelligence, the gloss misses the sensory experience and brings us right back to abstraction. The gloss can also be incredibly cliché (“he shook in his boots because it was so cold”). Unlike the sensory bypass, the gloss requires too little work, robbing readers of the opportunity to interpret and imagine what we will.

So what can we do to avoid misusing abstraction? Default to body language and then get creative from there. Keep in mind that 65% to 90% of all communication is expressed in body language.[i] So this is our solution

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—use body language to make the emotion sensory. Rather than supplying a generic representation of grief, for example, effective abstraction offers an individual response to and a portrayal of grief (“The father put his head into his hands and wept”).

Another way to use body language effectively is to combine it with abstraction; together, they work in tandem to offer a more vibrant depiction of the emotion. And don’t be afraid to get creative by combining metaphor, body language, and/or abstraction to particularize the moment.

Conjoined abstractions are another option. Jauss offers the following examples: “Rage comforted me” and “Hope tormented me.” These are conjoined abstractions because they don’t bring forth the expected response of rage or hope (75). This form offers another way to mix and match techniques, assuring us again that the possibilities for abstraction are endless.

There are, however, a few other precautions Jauss would like us to keep in mind. First, take care when using metaphors in abstraction, as overdoing it could “swamp the emotion rather than buoy it up” (76). Second, keep in mind that different cultures have different ways of interpreting body language, which can marshal in unintended meanings. Third, remember how easily body language becomes “cartoonishly exaggerated, like the gestures of bad actors in silent films” (77). So keep these three precautions in mind as you venture forth.

What I hope we all do is use this artillery of knowledge and face our fear of abstraction. It is a literary device that, when used correctly, can bring a moment to life in a way that resonates profoundly with your readers. Reading Jauss’s article left me feeling unafraid of abstractions. In fact, it encouraged me to test out some of his recommendations for using them, and even inspired me to prove Pound wrong.

by April Anderson


[i] From Albert M. Kataaz and Virginia T. Kataaz’s “Introduction” to Foundations of Nonverbal Communication: Readings, Exercises, and Commentary (xv).

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