Tackling a Planet – Sized Topic
Earth Day. Earth Week. Earth Month. It’s time to celebrate all that exists around us. But, how do you do that in words? When you’re interested writing about in the entire earth, where do you even start?
As writers, we are often given the advice to narrow our focus; yet, at the same time, we are expected to provide a grand, universal truth. That feels so contradictory. How do can we provide specific details to bring a planet sized-topic to life?
Reading Jack Hart’s Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, I stumbled across the concept of the Ladder of Abstraction and have found this an excellent way to visualize writing.
Imagine a ladder where each rung represents a different level of abstraction. Let’s apply this concept to a tree. On the lowest rung we would have: the sycamore tree in my backyard. The would be a bit more abstract: all sycamore trees, and the next would be trees. Higher rungs could be plants, living things, everything. Thus, climbing the rungs, we move from the concrete to the abstract.
The lowest rungs of the ladder put you in a scene; the highest rungs of the ladder provide you with perspective. Imagine yourself standing on the first rung; you are as close as you can be to the ground without actually being there. You can see the details of the dirt. Then imagine standing on the top rungs; you have a view that lets you comprehend how those details fit into the larger picture. As Hart notes, “Emotion originates on the ladder’s lowest rungs.” He goes on to explain, “… greater meaning resides on the ladder’s upper rungs.”
In order to bring out both emotion and meaning, writers can move up and down this ladder strategically to provide both concrete details (yielding personal connections) and generalizations (yielding universal truths) for their readers. Most writers struggle with providing those concrete details. Here’s a fun way to practice working your way down to the bottom rung to generate dozens of specific details.
Select an item from nature that will fit in your hand. Something with a variety in textures (like a stick covered in lichen, an interesting stone or a large flower) works well. Position your non-dominant hand in front of you, holding the item. Position your paper and dominant hand behind you, where you can’t see them.
Pretend an ant is crawling on your item. Your job will be to trace (on paper) the ant’s path as it explores the item. I know this sounds odd, but it works, so try it.
Begin by putting your pencil down in the middle of your paper; after that, do not look at your paper. You will be creating a wandering scribble — not a drawing of the item. Resist the temptation to look at your paper! As you watch your imaginary ant explore, trace his trail on the paper, basically creating a map of his route. Keep your ant going. Keep your dominant hand tracing. Make your ant go around the corner, over the edge, into the hole.
For a minimum of five minutes (set a timer if you need it), keep tracing your ant’s journey. If he retraces his steps, that’s fine. If you need to turn your item over, that’s fine. If he goes in a hole where you can’t see, make it up. When you think you’re done, keep going. Keep him exploring! Keep mapping his path.
Getting the Details Down
When you’re done, you may look at your drawing. Then, look at your item and retrace the trip. Along the way, describe his experiences aloud, jotting every detail down. Think of the texture under the ant’s feet, the shapes he encounters, the amount of light, the shade of color, the springiness of the surface, what each area reminds him of, etc.. The goal here is to overflow your page with details.
If your ant was a good explore, you should have quite a list. Sure, these descriptions are from an ant’s perspective, but they are concrete details. Unless you first record details with this level of specificity, you won’t have enough fodder for the bottom rung of the ladder.
Selecting the Specific
Now, let’s take this exercise a bit further. We won’t try to find a universal truth here (although you might try that too), but instead practice with a simpler task, creating mood. Skim your list for descriptors that convey a common mood. In my list, several feel kind of ominous. Using a highlighter, crayon or symbol, mark the details that match the mood. I’ve chosen yellow for ominous ones. Next, search your list for a different mood and mark that with a different color. Can you find a third?
Put that in Writing
Your final challenge is to use the selected descriptors to convey that mood in a sentence or short paragraph. I started with my green descriptors and tried to convey playfulness. Then I used the descriptors flagged with yellow to create a more ominous sentence, and finally the ones marked in red to convey a comforting mood.
When tackling a planet – sized topic, specific details matter. They carry the reader down to the bottom rung on the Ladder of Abstraction. Immersed in a scene filled with specificity, readers feel grounded, emotionally connected, and ready to move up the rungs and discover a universal truth.
Heather L. Montgomery loves to climb ladders — abstract and otherwise. See how she applies these writing techniques in Who Gives a Poop? The Surprising Science Behind Scat (Bloomsbury, September 2020). Pre-orders available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781547603473.