Quotes for Writers
Today’s thought is primarily for novelists:
A scene will not be vivid if the writer gives too few details to stir and guide the reader’s imagination; neither will it be vivid if the language the writer uses is abstract instead of concrete. If the writer says “creatures” instead of “snakes,” … if instead of the desert’s sand and rocks he speaks of the snakes’ “inhospitable abode,” the reader will hardly know what picture to conjure up on his mental screen. These two faults, insufficient detail and abstraction where what is needed is concrete detail, are common—in fact all but universal—in amateur writing.
Another is the failure to run straight at the image; that is, the needless filtering of the image through some observing consiousness. The amateur writes: “Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.” Compare: “She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.” (The improvement can of course be further improved. The phrase “two snakes were fighting” is more abstract than, say, “two snakes whipped and lashed, striking at each other”; and verbs with auxiliaries [“were fighting”] are never as sharp in focus as verbs withouout auxiliaries, since the former indicate indefinite time, whereas the latter [e.g., “fought”] suggest a given instant.) Generally speaking—though no laws are absolute in fiction—vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as “she noticed” and “she saw” be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, Vintage Books Edition, 1991. p. 98