In 1955, Georges Simenon said the following to the Paris Review*.
“…Instead of writing just the story, in this chapter I tried to give a third dimension, not necessarily to the whole chapter, perhaps to a room, to a chair, to some object. It would be easier to explain in terms of painting. A commercial painter paints flat; you can put your finger through. But a painter – for example, an apple by Cezanne has weight. And it has juice, everything, with just three strokes. I tried to give to my words just the weight that a stroke of Cezanne’s gave to an apple.”
Good stuff, right? Great stuff! But listen to what he says next!
“That is why most of the time I use concrete words. I try to avoid abstract words, or poetical words, you know, like ‘crepuscule,’ for example. It is very nice, but it gives nothing. Do you understand? To avoid every stroke which does not give something to this third dimension.”
Look at how Simenon takes us from the theory to the application**. He moves from the abstract directly to the craft point. He states that concrete language will actually heighten the sensation the reader experiences. This is counter-intuitive, but it is true. Abstraction kills story. It cripples characters. It washes color off the page. It does exactly the opposite of what you think it will do.
*I am slowly reading all of the interviews in the Paris Review backlog. They are all available online. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews. I am glad I got an MFA. Reading these I feel like I’m earning my doctorate.
**He also takes a lesson from the visual arts and applies it to writing. If this jump is difficult for you it is likely because you’ve not written enough yet. For the experienced writer words take on tactical quality. They combine to build objects that stand up on the page – that can be seen and heard, tasted and touched.