NSWC Lesson #2: The Ladder of Specificity

The workshop I participated in at NSWC was about building compelling characters. The focus was on characterization in scene. We did several exercises to explore our main character. One I found especially useful, practically and conceptually, was “the ladder of specificity (or abstraction)” when deciding what details to include in scenes.

First, we discussed why we write stories. Some writers just aim to entertain, but most of us in the workshop agreed that we wanted to speak about some larger Truth or to comment on the human condition. We wanted to get at big, abstract ideas.

Description of details don’t help build character unless they are significant. Stories fail because the details aren’t specific in a meaningful way.

As a group we did an exercise where we started with a middle of the ladder word: food. We started listing increasingly abstract ways to talk about food—calories, nourishment, sustenance, energy, need, and matter. Then we picked a specific type of food—a taco, and then further described it in detail and how those details could be integrated into a scene in a way that furthers characterization and works with the plot to add tension to the scene.

The trick with writing is to move up and down the ladder, using details to move up the rungs to the abstract. A story must be anchored in the concrete if it is to speak to the greater truth.

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