What do you say when you don’t know the name of something? You go searching for something to call it. We all do it. But why? Because objects and things need names.
We can thank our beloved Shakespeare for giving us this highly recognizable, oft-quoted phrase regarding names:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Names are Important
Names are important. Not only the names of people (as Romeo Montague was quick to admit), but also the names of places and things. Perhaps you’re familiar with the life story of Helen Keller who at the age of 18 months became deaf and blind. When her teacher Annie Sullivan arrived on the scene, Helen was about seven years old. Annie helped Helen understand that objects have names. As Annie spelled the names into her hand it unlocked a whole new world of learning for Helen.
Ladder of Abstraction
One of the first workshops I attended as a budding writer emphasized the importance of writing in concrete terms as opposed to abstract terms. In other words, attaching the correct name to something.
Now you’re probably thinking, Well duh, but (embarrassed to admit) this was a fresh, new revelation to me. While I knew it was important to be descriptive, I had not, until that workshop, grasped the importance of clearly naming people, places and things to enhance my writing.
I vividly remember the instructor explaining the ladder of abstraction. In fact, he emphasized that abstraction is the enemy of clarity. His ladder that he put up on the overhead projector (yes girls and boys it really was that long ago!) went something like this:
- Tea rose
- Long-stemmed tea rose
- Blushing pink, long-stemmed tea rose
The ladder takes the reader from bland, blurry abstract to visually stimulating, concrete description.
A similar ladder was just as memorable:
- Poodle puppy
- Apricot poodle puppy
The Curious Author Wants to Know
It gives a certain sense of satisfaction to know the name of something. A forest is not just a forest to a novelist; a flower garden is not just filled with flowers. The curious author wants to know precisely what trees are growing in that forest; and precisely which flowers grace the garden.
This doesn’t mean that the narrative is filled with lists, nor does it mean that every dog must be identified as to breed, nor flowers in their Latin names, nor clouds labeled with their meteorological description. That’s not the point at all.
The point is to be wholly dissatisfied whenever you find a vague, abstract noun in your story. Be quick to ask yourself how you can transform it into a concrete and descriptive picture that sparks recognition in the reader’s mind’s eye.
For years I’ve jotted down the clever – sometimes funny – names of shops and restaurants. Who can ever forget the humorous name of the restaurant in Billie Lett’s book, Honk and Holler Opening Soon? That’s what I’m talking about. It’s never just a restaurant, just a shop, just a town, and so on – you get the point.
The more you research words and study ways to move through the ladder of abstraction, the greater your appreciation for our language. In doing so, you’ll sharpen your awareness of the many possibilities for word usage. You’ll become ever more alert to the process of making wise choices as you write. (Thingamajig just won’t make the grade.) 😉
To the addicted novelist, this is never work, but always the enjoyable experience of discovery.
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