Ladder of Abstraction

Storycraft: A Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart guides to writing compelling non fiction stories. Hart focuses on narrative non fiction, as that’s his specialty from a career in journalism, but the book will help improve any type of writing.

There are themes that transcend a specific medium and affect people on a deep, emotional level. We call these stories.

Hart takes you through the basic idea of a story, the themes that resonate with humanity, the structure of a narrative, what a plot entails, how to write about your characters so that your readers can relate, and much more. Over the course of the book he teaches you everything you should know about the art of narrative nonfiction.

While there are countless lessons from this great book, today’s post focuses on a specific idea from the Point of View chapter.

In this chapter, he first summarizes the different points of view, from first person to second person to third person. He mentions that third person is best for narrative nonfiction as third person gives the writer the most tools to tell his story.

However, there’s a part at the end of the chapter that provides a new insight. It’s called the Ladder of Abstraction.

What is the Ladder of Abstraction?

When the distance is great, when you step way back from the action, you write in summary narrative. When you shrink the distance, you shift into scenic narrative.  The distinction is absolutely critical in any medium. If you don’t get it, you can’t write narrative.

Picture a ladder.

Ladder of Abstraction

Like this One…

There are several rungs on the ladder. Each rung on the ladder represents a different level of perspective or abstraction. When you write, you can ZOOM IN or OUT from the scene by going DOWN or UP the rungs on the Ladder of Abstraction.

At the LOWEST level of the Ladder of Abstraction is the Scenic or Dramatic Narrative. You find this in thrilling fiction. Stephen King constantly writes Scenic Narrative. At this level you are focusing on an individual and a specific moment:

Jane sat in a lounge chair by the pool in the waning hours of the evening. The Sun sat halfway down the treeline surrounded by the blue, cloudless sky. Jane peered out from behind her sunglasses at the brown object bouncing around in the grass. “Is that another rabbit?” she thought.

As you move up the Ladder of Abstraction you go from the individual, concrete scene in the above scenario, to a small group, then to a larger group that may signify something, and eventually you reach the top rung, the most abstract level. This level comprises all of humanity.

Hart writes, “you gain comprehensiveness as you move up the ladder, but you lose concrete images.”

At the top rung of the Ladder of Abstraction resides the Summary or Historical Narrative. Think of this layer as the home of the Omniscient Narrator:

As twilight engulfed the landscape, both the animals and people retreated to their shelter in order to survive the night. This scene repeats itself daily on the Great Plains, as it did during the time of the Natives hundreds of years prior.

Hart writes that journalists have a problem becoming storytellers.

Many journalists have learned to write in the middle layer of the Ladder of Abstraction. Sticking to one layer of the Ladder of Abstraction creates stilted prose.

Do you want to write more compelling stories?

Then consider using the Ladder of Abstraction. Compelling storytellers oscillate between the lower and higher rungs of the Ladder of Abstraction, creating more drama and meaning.

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