Illustration of the ladder of abstraction for use in writing

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the spirit of transparency, Korrina Duffy wrote this post after attending a weeklong writing workshop I teach through the Madeline Island School of Arts.

By Korrina Duffy

“The more specific, the more universal.” That’s a paradoxical truth about writing that a small group of writers struggled to understand at a recent nonfiction story craft workshop as the seminar leader — editor and story coach Jacqui Banaszynski — pointed to the bottom of a ladder she had just sketched on a large sheet of flipchart paper.

She was demonstrating what she called the “ladder of abstraction,” a concept adapted by some narrative writers from the theories of S.I. Hayakawa, a former U.S. senator and English professor. Hayakawa’s 1941 book, “Language in Action,” (later updated to “Language in Thought and Action”) was an exploration of the meaning of various levels of language, from common to rhetorical.

The ladder of abstraction, we were told, is a useful tool to consider the levels of language a writer can use in storytelling, with diction that goes from the concrete and specific at the bottom to the abstract and universal at the top. An example: At the bottom of the ladder, a story subject — whether it’s a person, place or thing — is made real through vivid description and detail. And, for some reason, the more specific those details, the more universal or relatable they become to readers. It was a new concept to me — one I was struggling to understand.

I wasn’t alone. After dinner one evening, several of my classmates and I puzzled over how this could be.

Then I thought about how I felt when I read Banaszynski’s “AIDS in the Heartland” piece in advance of the workshop. The specific details she gave about Dick Hanson, a farmer living with and dying of AIDS in the 1980s, made him feel real and even relatable, despite Dick and I having drastically different identities and experiences. In a scene from Dick’s funeral, Banaszynski described the memorabilia that represented his life included “a well-thumbed Bible,” “a grubby powerline protest T-shirt,” and “a splendid bouquet of gladiolas” that he had grown in his garden next to his farmhouse. He is at once a gay, religious, liberal political activist and a farmer with a love of fresh flowers. He is complex — a mix of contradictions, aspirations and everyday interests. Like us all.

And then it clicked for me: The more specific the details, the more that a character becomes real, and the more a character becomes real, the more that a reader can empathize with that character, and the more a reader can empathize with a character, the more universal that character’s story becomes — even a story far different from their own.

The science of empathy

As I considered all of this, I reflected on my PhD training in psychology and neuroscience and two important lessons that I learned about how empathy is evoked.

The first lesson is that empathy is built when someone is made real to us, and particularly when we come to know their heart and mind. Knowing that someone loves fresh cut flowers, particularly gladiolas, is endearing and sweet. Knowing what someone loves, hates, fears and desires allows us to connect with these universal human emotions.

The second lesson is that the more that someone is different from us, the more that we must come to see our shared humanity with them to build empathy. In the 1980s, when the country was gripped in a profound empathy gap for gay men dying of AIDS, Dick Hanson’s story is powerfully humanizing and heartbreaking, and for these reasons, I think, helped to close the gap, one reader at a time.

Specific, concrete details ground a story to, well, the ground. At the top of the ladder, the writer can help the reader see the bigger picture that only emerges when viewed from above, connecting the details of a story to their higher meaning. In her stories, Jacqui shows how this is done when she extracts the essence from the details. She writes that the statistics about the toll of AIDS:

… say nothing of the joys of a carefully tended vegetable garden and new kittens under the shed, of tender teasing and magic hugs. Of flowers that bloom brighter and birds that sing sweeter and simple pleasures grown profound against the backdrop of a terminal illness. Of the powerful bond between two people who pledged for better or worse and meant it.

This message makes Dick’s love of his partner, Bert Henningson, universal to anyone who has made a similar commitment. Top-of-the-ladder moments of a piece are often the most moving, compelling and influential because they are abstract and universal, exploring broad themes of the human experience.

The middle part of the ladder is generally explanatory, providing background and process and making connections. For example, in Jacqui’s piece, these statistics are not specific enough to be at the bottom of the ladder but not abstract enough to be at top either:

(Dick) is one of 210 Minnesotans and 36,000 Americans who have been diagnosed with AIDS since the disease was identified in 1981. More than half of those patients already have died, and doctors say it is only a matter of time for the rest. The statistics show that 80 to 90 percent of AIDS sufferers die within two years of diagnosis.

Writing is more transportive, more powerful when a writer climbs up and down the ladder throughout a piece, pulling the reader in with specific, concrete details to build empathy for a character and then zooming out with abstract language to suggest its universal message. Without being supported by the bottom of the ladder, the universal messages at the top could sound empty or clichéd. Without being elevated by the top of the ladder, the specific details at the bottom could seem unimportant, like word clutter.

So, the next time you write a story, be sure to consider moving up and down the ladder of abstraction so you build empathy for a character with telling details at the bottom, then leverage these details to reveal your message at the top.

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Korrina Duffy is an assistant professor and scientific writer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado – Anschutz Medical Campus.

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