Creative writing classes often instruct their fledgling authors to “be concrete.” But fleshing out your narratives could be hurting your stories.
“Show, don’t tell” is a phrase every author should know. Showing means being concrete—developing a narrative by describing events from which readers can infer general conclusions. Rather than telling that a character is sad, we might show their emotions through facial expressions or body language. Concreteness is emphasized in creative writing courses, how-to books, and forums as a contemporary sign of “quality” story building. However, it might not be helping as much as we think it is.
In 2021, Marta M. Maslej, Victor Kuperman, and Raymond A. Mar looked into the impact that concreteness—immersive, detailed writing—and other surface-level features had on popular engagement with short stories. In their article “The Textual Features of Fiction That Appeal to Readers: Emotion and Abstractness,” the researchers, like most authors, hypothesized that concreteness would be positively correlated with good reviews.
In their first study, the researchers constructed a corpus—comprising 172 short stories from an online fiction platform—that was designed to highlight concreteness, emotional valence, and other common textual features. (The stories each met a required word count and had achieved at least 40 readers apiece.) The data produced by the corpus analysis was then compared to the ratings already available online for each short story.
In contrast to the researchers’ hypothesis, concreteness was inversely related to positive reviews; that is, stories featuring a more concrete narrative were less liked by readers than stories featuring more abstract language. While the researchers were unsure of the criteria that the uncontrolled online audiences used to rate each work of fiction, the relationship between the ratings and the concreteness was clear: readers appreciated the smoother narrative flow of generalized language.
In the article’s second study, concreteness also seemed to negatively impact the reception of short character sketches. The researchers asked one group of participants to compose several character biographies, which were then used to construct another corpus. A second group reviewed the sketches according to interest and likability. Test readers rated characters whose biographies were less concrete as more interesting. The researchers theorized that these results may have stemmed from the more emotional—and therefore more pleasurable—nature of abstract language.
These two studies reviewed short stories and character sketches, and the results may require further research to be applied to longer works. Even so, the rule “show, don’t tell” may not be as authoritative as many seasoned authors and teachers believe it to be. While concreteness can certainly increase the immersive nature of a story and draw readers into a scene, too much of it might undermine the narrative flow.
Instead of lauding “show, don’t tell” as the ultimate method to writing fiction, we might want to consider balancing concreteness with abstract storytelling. Although immersing readers in a scene’s concrete details can still be effective, in the end, fiction’s true magic comes from imagination.
To learn what other textual features make fiction appealing, read the full article:
Maslej, Marta M., Raymond A. Mar, and Victor Kuperman. 2016. “The Textual Features of Fiction That Appeal to Readers: Emotion and Abstractness.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 15 no. 2: 272–83. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000282
—Lauren Jones, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY HANS BRAXMEIE
Find more research
Read Birte A. Thissen, Winfried Menninghaus, and Wolff Schlotz’s (2021) article to learn about the psychological appeal of fiction: “The Pleasures of Reading Fiction Explained by Flow, Presence, Identification, Suspense, and Cognitive Involvement.” Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 15 no. 4: 710–24. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000367.
Consider how concrete language might impact international readers by reading “Does Using Plain English Help or Hinder International Audiences?” by Auburn Wilcox.