I’m excited to share a new video with you today! It’s all about a fascinating writing concept that I discovered while reading Jack Hart’s book Storycraft. It will help you make your fiction and nonfiction writing more memorable and meaningful to your readers.
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I first came across this writing tool while reading Jack Hart’s book Storycraft. Hart was a managing editor at the Oregonian, the pacific northwest’s largest newspaper. He also helped guide several Pulitzer prize-winning articles to publication.
In this book, he shares everything that he learned during his career as a journalist. While the book is aimed at people who are writing nonfiction, I have also found the tips that he shares to be universal no matter what kind of writing you are working on.
Basically, the ladder of abstraction is a diagram that helps you to visualize how far away you are from the action of a story that you are telling. I looked this term up online and discovered that it was first popularized by S. I. Hayakawa in his book Language in Action. Essentially, the ladder of abstraction demonstrates how language progresses from concrete and detailed to more and more abstract.
In his book, Hart examines how we can apply this to stories. So, to understand this ladder of abstraction, let’s see it in action.
The Ladder of Abstraction in Action
Hart gives us the example of a magazine article that an author is writing about a person called McDougal who is a river rafter on the Illinois River in Oregon.
You can see a diagram of the ladder of abstraction for this magazine article in my YouTube video. Or you can make one yourself. Imagine in your head or draw on a piece of paper a ladder with multiple rungs.
At the bottom of the ladder, on the first few rungs, is the concrete and detailed specific storytelling. Jack Hart calls this the scenic narrative because this would be all the times in your piece when you are describing scenes.
On the first rung, you can write the name McDougal. That’s the main character of the story. When you’re on this bottom rung of the ladder, you’re putting your reader into a scene where they’re almost experiencing it as if they were there in person. They feel like they’re in the raft with McDougal, seeing the waves crashing around them.
But, as the author writes, he might expand who he is describing in his magazine article. So on the next rung write “McDougal’s party”. These are the other river rafters who are with McDougal. Then perhaps the author wants to explain a little bit more about the people who are river rafting on the Illinois River. This rung would be called “Illinois River Rafters”.
Eventually, he might move up the ladder to discuss all different kinds of people on the river (Illinois River Runners), and then maybe he wants to make his magazine article even broader and give us more detail about all river runners and their sport, not just those on the Illinois River (All River Runners).
Gradually, he moves up the ladder even further to talk about all outdoor adventurers, and then he’s telling us about lessons that McDougal is learning on the Illinois River, and he’s applying these lessons to all human beings. As he reaches this part of his narrative, his concepts become more abstract. He’s no longer narrating a story so Hart calls the rungs at the top of the ladder “summary narrative”. If you think of the adage “show, don’t tell,” then on a simplistic level, with scenic narrative, you’re usually showing, but with summary narrative, you’re telling.
At this point, maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, this is really interesting. So maybe when you’re writing fiction, you’re more concerned with the bottom rungs of the ladder, and you’re going to stay in that scenic narrative, but if you are writing a more technical article or blog post or a scientific article, for example, you would be at the top of the ladder where it’s more abstract.”
But this is where Hart makes a fascinating point. He writes,
“You gain comprehensiveness as you climb the ladder but you lose the ability to form concrete images. But you’ve traded specificity for something that also has value. If you can generalize about a larger class, you have knowledge that you can apply in a variety of situations so greater meaning resides on the ladder’s upper rungs. Good writing constantly ascends and descends the ladder of abstraction.”
That last line is thought-provoking. Essentially, Hart is saying that no matter what kind of writing you’re working on, you really do want to include both scenic narrative and summary narrative.
Let’s look first at why including both types of narrative makes nonfiction writing powerful.
How to Use the Ladder of Abstraction for Nonfiction
As you ascend the ladder of abstraction, you are able to appeal to a wider audience. For instance, with the author who is writing the magazine story about Mcdougal, if they expand their article to talk about all outdoor adventurers, they are able to appeal to a wider audience.
Let’s say that you pick up the article to read, but you’re not a river rafter. However, you might enjoy outdoor activities, and maybe the author is applying lessons that McDougal learned to something that would apply to you as well. If the author is even able to expand that further and talk about universal lessons that anybody could learn from McDougal’s adventures, then you would also be interested in reading that piece even if you weren’t necessarily interested in river rafting.
Additionally, when you’re writing nonfiction, it’s also important not to stay at the top of the ladder and only talk about your concepts with abstract language. For example, if you’re writing a technical piece, your language can become very dry. Your reader might either fall asleep or have trouble understanding your concepts without any practical applications.
So you want to move down the ladder of abstraction and give them a concrete example, a story, so that they’re able to wrap their head around what you are talking about. Check out this blog post that I wrote that shares how you can introduce stories into your nonfiction writing.
Now let’s look at how you can apply the ladder of abstraction to your writing if you’re working on fiction.
How to Use the Ladder of Abstraction for Fiction
When I first came across this diagram in the book, I was ruminating over how it would apply to fiction, and the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities came to mind.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
We can see that this opening to A Tale of Two Cities is very abstract. That would definitely be at the top of the ladder of abstraction. In fact, many of the classics, the books that we consider to be very well written, often run up and down the ladder of abstraction.
Charles Dickens doesn’t open his book with a scene, but with a philosophical statement. This is similar to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen that opens with the line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Another example is Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov where part of the book is a philosophical treatise.
One of the reasons why these books are considered to be classics is because they run up and down the ladder of abstraction. They give us compelling stories with wonderfully written characters, but they also incorporate philosophical questions and problems that are universal to humans no matter what age they’re living in.
So, even though we’re not living during the French Revolution (the setting of A Tale of Two Cities), Dickens includes struggles and themes that are universal to readers no matter who they are.
Now, in many of these books, like in The Brothers Karamazov, a character will philosophize for pages and pages. If you’re writing fiction, you probably don’t want to do that, but you can bring in those abstract concepts with a line of dialogue or by giving us a glimpse into a character’s thoughts.
There’s an excellent example of this in the film adaption of The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien. Sam and Frodo are feeling overwhelmed by their adventure, and Sam turns to Frodo and says,
“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why.”
I love this quote because it encapsulates why the ladder of abstraction is so important. When we are able to incorporate those universal themes and struggles and apply them to our readers and give them a message to take away from our story, those are the stories that our readers are going to remember, the ones that are going to stay with them.
There’s a wonderful line from Marion Roach’s book The Memoir Project where she writes,
“Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder…You have to give readers a reason for this thing to live on in our hearts and minds.”
I hope the ladder of abstraction helps you with your writing. You can use it to remind yourself to move up and down the ladder whenever you’re working on a piece of writing.
If you’re writing nonfiction, you can consider how to make your piece apply to a wider audience. Or you can try to move down the ladder of abstraction to introduce a story that will allow your readers to better understand the concepts you’re presenting and to make your piece more interesting to read.
And if you’re writing fiction, you can ask yourself, “How can I put in a line of dialogue or some other lines that will elevate the story to have a deeper meaning for my readers?”