(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“One rule that you need both as a human being and as a fiction writer is: Concretize your abstractions. . . . Project in ultimate action what any abstraction means.” Ayn Rand

“As a novelist, the major part of my task is to make everything, even an ultimate concern, as solid, as concrete, as specific, as possible.” Flannery O’Connor

“When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality.” Flannery O’Connor

“The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible. He has only a short space to do it in and he can’t do it by statement. He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete—so that his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.” Flannery O’Connor

“The accuracy and freshness of the writer’s eye is of tremendous importance. But one can learn it if one hasn’t got it. Usually. One can recognize that the abstract is seldom as effective as the concrete. ‘She was distressed’ is not as good as, even, ‘She looked away.’” John Gardner

“To make it [an abstraction] real you must project what it means to observe [it]. Not only: How does it feel? but: How do you know it in other people? A writer has to project his abstractions in specific concretes. That he knows something inwardly is not enough: he has to make the reader know it; and the reader can grasp it only from the outside, by some physical means.” Ayn Rand

“Concretize to yourself: If a man and a woman are in love, how do they act? what do they say? what do they seek? why do they seek it? That is the concrete reality, for which ‘love’ is merely a wide abstraction.” Ayn Rand

“All our language, all our thought and opinion, all our deeply felt symbolism, Burke reminds us, comes from the world of things, the world of bumping atoms, thoughtless squirrels and trucks, so that before we can get to the great idea True, an emotionally charged symbolic construct for which innumerable women and men have died, we must first stare thoughtfully and long at a tree, Old English treow, which gave use the word true (treow), the ‘deeply rooted’ idea.” John Gardner

“One way to have words come to you easily—words which express the exact shade of meaning that you want—is to know clearly the concretes that belong under your abstractions. For instance, the word table is an abstraction; it stands for any table you have ever seen or will see. If you try to project what you mean by ‘table’ you can easily visualize any number of concrete examples. But in regard to abstractions like individualism, freedom, or rationality, most people are unable to name a single concrete. Even knowing one or two is not enough. In order to be completely free with words, you must know countless concretes under your abstractions.” Ayn Rand

“Young writers often make the following mistake: if they want a strong, independent, rational hero, they state in narrative that ‘he is strong, independent, and rational’—or they have other characters pay him these compliments in discussion. ‘Strong,’ ‘independent,’ and ‘rational’ are abstractions. In order to leave your reader with those abstractions, you have to provide concretes that will make him conclude: ‘This man is strong, because he did X; independent, because he defied Y; rational, because he thought Z.’” Ayn Rand

“Every premise that you store . . . in this manner—namely, thoroughly understood, thoroughly integrated to the concretes it represents—becomes part of your writing capital.” Ayn Rand

“If you have nothing but ‘floating abstractions . . . (by that I mean abstractions which you do not connect to concretes)—you will sit and stare at a blank sheet of paper.” Ayn Rand

“Every chapter and paragraph of Atlas Shrugged is set up on the same principle: What abstraction do I want to convey—and what concretes will convey it?” Ayn Rand

“To objectify values is to make them real by presenting them in concrete form. For instance, to say ‘I think courage is good’ is not to objectify a value. To present a man who acts bravely, is.” Ayn Rand

“When you master the relationship of abstractions to concretes, you will know how to translate an abstract theme into action, and how to attach an abstract meaning to an action idea. If you start with a philosophical abstraction, you will be able to translate it into conflict, a climax, and a plot. Or if you get a plot idea which at first glance has no philosophical meaning, you will be able to discover the meaning and develop the idea into a serious story.” Ayn Rand

“Hugo’s assignment here is to convey the priest’s intense passion and conflict. He conveys it by means of concretes—the priest does not merely say: ‘I suffered and I thought of you,’ he gives concretes—and the concretes are not irrelevant details; they underscore the essence of the priest’s feelings. . . . For instance: ‘I tried to use all my remedies, the cloister, the altar, the work, the books.’ The priest does not say, ‘I tried to fight it,’ which would have been a generalization; he states the particular remedies he tried.” Ayn Rand

“‘Do you know, young girl, what I always saw thenceforth between the book and me? You, your shadow.’ This a typically Romantic touch. Had he said, ‘I kept seeing your picture in my mind,’ that would not have been as strong as, ‘between the book and me.’ One can almost see the girl dancing across a prayer book; the image is extremely colorful, and convincing, because it is specific. It gives one a sense of how he experienced his emotion—of how his concentration was broken by her image—which one would not get from a generality like ‘I constantly thought of you and nothing helped.’” Ayn Rand

“The world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of texture of existence, of case histories and of everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that makes actual the mystery of our position on earth.” Flannery O’Connor

“Because they are so precisely rooted in a recognizable real world the fantasy works.” Salman Rushdie [about magic realism]

“The truth is that the written word loses its power if it departs too far, or rather if it stays away too long, from the ordinary world where two and two make four.” George Orwell

“There must be movement as well as some weight, something for the breeze to lift.” Virginia Woolf