Big ‘A’ Little ‘a’: Writing Between the Concrete and Abstract

14 comments

Fiction’s currency is specifics: specific characters, specific places, specific descriptions, specific actions, specific events. Of course, writing addresses big ideas — some would say the biggest ideas. So, how do we get there through an examination of the small? Devising a decoding process that takes the reader from the story’s collection of concretes to its universal themes is one of writing's true paradoxes. And as most paradoxes go, the majority of writers who struggle with this quandary fall victim to it.

The beginning of a story is the crossroads where people and spaces meet. It’s a specific point on a grid of infinite possibilities, and given the unparalleled access and roaming room available, something must demarcate your story's unique position on that grid. In order for a “story” to begin, a pattern of sameness has to be implied and then an anomalous agent breaks — or at least threatens to break — that pattern. Think about it. Someone plays the lottery every day of his/her life and then, one day, hits the jackpot. A lifelong millionaire, suddenly, loses everything he/she owns in a business deal. An ostensibly happily married couple, unexpectedly, finds their relationship threatened by infidelity. There’s an earthquake. A murder. Someone is born, or someone dies. Fiction occurs when the particular penetrates the general, when the specific occurs within the abstract, when the bizarre interrupts the familiar.

This is why writers are told to be as specific as possible. You can’t crack that grid of sameness as long as your story keeps skirting around an outer-belt of abstracts. Instead, you should write from the concrete out, showing us why this story is different from all others while using the specific to explore those big universal themes the work is tacitly orbiting.

But how do you ensure those small, specific occurrences remain original while addressing a larger, thematic picture? This is a process I refer to as “big A, little a,” a sort of ad hoc mental cue I made for myself to make sure the specific actions I was placing in the story (“little a”) were in line with the larger take-away action (“big A”) of the work. Consider these examples.

Little a Big A
A retired man loses his wife of fifty years to cancer. Grief
A boy from a Chinese village meets a girl while on a fishing trip. Love
A man finds a key that opens a safe to a million dollars, but discovers he must try an almost infinite number of locks to find it. Fate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Readers like feeling they’ve discovered something. It’s for this reason the “big A” (i.e., the theme) of the work should be directly addressed as little as possible, and instead should be something the reader is compelled to accept upon reflection. Think of it like a donut: the “big A” is the central negative space that gives the donut its trademark characteristic, while the “little a’s” are the collection of tenable, defining matter that give the item its shape. A story’s grand elements should exist like a ghost, something perhaps tangentially acknowledged but otherwise a silent concept the story revolves around. Taken together, a bunch of “little a” actions should lead the reader to accept the larger, grander theme orbiting the work.

Here’s a funny thing about how the human mind works: anytime we encounter the abstract, we tend to search for concrete examples in which we can better envision it, and anytime we encounter the concrete, we have a tendency to abstract it. That’s precisely why writers are taught to be specific: when you describe something in general terms the reader has to search for objects and events in which those qualities can be manifested, but when you’re specific we’ll “feel” those universal ideas being exemplified in the story. Consider the following:

Little a Big A
The wind felt like a frozen coin against his teeth. It’s cold.
Sitting on the bench and weeping in his hands, he appeared like a statue. He’s sad.
A cerise blotch grew from the heel of her socks. She's bleeding.

Here’s where things get really interesting. Writers can get a lot of mileage out of the “big A, little a” dichotomy by having descriptive passages exemplify the larger, overarching theme of the work. After a specific description has been made, the writer can then “zoom out” to the abstract to pose an aphorism or make a statement of general import that further qualifies the specific claim just made.

Little a: Big A translation:
The wind felt like a frozen coin against his teeth. Winters are cruel, unforgiving seasons.
 A story about isolation.
Sitting on the bench and weeping in his hands, he appeared like a statue. Watching him, the spectacle reminded her of the timeless certainty of grief.
 A story about grief.
A cerise blotch grew from the heel of her socks. Her movements implied a restless resilience A story about the indomitable nature of the human spirit.


The ability to move back and forth between the specific and abstract is one of the writer’s greatest tools, and mastering this craft will go miles in terms of helping shape the reader’s identification with the material. Ultimately however, you’ll always want to exercise extreme caution anytime you place those “big” ideas on the page, lest your writing come across as heavy-handed, and the reader feels they’ve caught you putting literary rabbits in the hat before the trick is pulled off.

Still, a sensible question may arise from all this talk about “big” and “small” qualities: if fiction is ultimately interested in the big stuff, why get hung up on specifics at all? Why not go the other way and move from the big to the small? Well, some stories do exactly that. Journalism, particularly, is known for doing the opposite of what’s being prescribed here: it often opens by announcing the existence of a newsworthy occurrence or trend, and then hones in on how that trend may affect a particular demographic or segment of its readership. It should be mentioned that fiction writing — good fiction writing, anyway — avoids prescription or instruction, be it moral, financial, scientific or ideological. The only facts fiction owes its readers are those pertaining to its characters and chosen theme, and fiction writing that operates from the pulpit of an agenda — from the general to the specific, in other words — almost always reads as heavy-handed, amateurish and grossly disengaging. The reason for this is simple: after a while, the reader realizes the story is serving as merely a pretext for something else — the philosophical or ideological tenets of the person writing the story, or an excuse to dazzle readers with well-written sentences, or a grudge against an ex-girlfriend, whatever — and the reader gets the feeling that the story is merely an afterthought. Read the fictional works of Jean-Paul Sartre — or anything by Ayn Rand — and you’ll get what I’m saying. Great minds don’t necessarily guarantee great writers.

Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

Philip Hopkins's picture
Philip Hopkins from Knoxville, Tennessee October 10, 2012 - 1:52pm

Woops. I think you meant "tenets" in the last paragraph. Other than that, nice column.

JonGingerich's picture
JonGingerich from New York City is reading Tenth of December by George Saunders. October 10, 2012 - 1:57pm

Yes, and I botched the formatting a bit trying to make those columns. Thanks for catching.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 10, 2012 - 2:01pm

This advice assumes the "Big A" is something which is not new to the reader, doesn't it? 

Should a new idea not be delivered via fiction?

If a reader recognizes grief in a story, it is partially due to the fact they have already experienced grief.

If they haven't experienced something, they won't be likely pick it up unless the writing forces them to, or they do a lot of work (more than is required to merely read a story front-to-back.)

Nevermind Sartre and Rand --- were Jesus and Aesop (assuming they existed) good storytellers?

JonGingerich's picture
JonGingerich from New York City is reading Tenth of December by George Saunders. October 10, 2012 - 2:45pm

This advice assumes the "Big A" is something which is not new to the reader, doesn't it?

Not necessarily, but it’s a point worth discussing. The idea is that fiction ultimately compels its reader to examine some larger conceit outside the work — something germane to the myriad complexities of human behavior or existence. So yes, to take the rhetorical bait here, these are questions based on universal concepts — and I don't think there's a work of literature out there that poses an ineffable question. In other words, these are questions the reader could have very well arrived at irrespective of the book in his/her hands.

However, just because the story presumes that concepts like love/grief/hatred/freedom are concepts the reader will understand, it doesn’t mean the reader is necessarily an expert in love/grief/hatred/freedom, or that they cannot be compelled to see these universal concepts in a different light, in a new way, under a different scope, with a different voice. I’m not sure if there are exhaustible universal qualities out there (not a philosophy professor), but I do know there are infinite ways of expressing, discussing and framing those timeless questions. Just because the writer is broaching a conversation regarding a topic you can comprehend, it doesn’t mean nothing new is being said about that issue, or that nothing can be added to that conversation.

And Jesus, to my knowledge, didn't write fiction; Aesop, of course, wrote aphorisms and parables. The idea here is that fiction writing usually (note: usually, not always) works best by examining the big ideas by beginning from the small. Other forums of storytelling (journalism, parable, etc) are often very successful at doing the very opposite, because ultimately the communicative goals of these medium are vastly different. So, it's horses for courses — until the day comes when we unearth a Jesus-penned thriller.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 10, 2012 - 2:53pm

just because the story presumes that concepts like love/grief/hatred/freedom are concepts the reader will understand, it doesn’t mean the reader is necessarily an expert in love/grief/hatred/freedom

Nor should the reader presume the fiction-writer to be expert. Nor should the writer presume to be an expert. Nor should the writer believe expertise is always necessary for effective expression.

But (on course, like a good horse) your reply's second paragraph is what I'm talking about: you say you don't know the full scope of questions which are out there, and you say so immediately after saying these ideas can be arrived at regardless of the book or story. What can be arrived at? We don't know.

There is a difference between a new spin and a new question.

So, if one is to use a story to introduce you to a question (even if it is only new-to-you and not new-to-the-history-of-human-thought,) they must do more than hint, yes?

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 10, 2012 - 3:13pm

[I'll take this moment to point out I enjoy these columns.]

JonGingerich's picture
JonGingerich from New York City is reading Tenth of December by George Saunders. October 10, 2012 - 3:35pm

Nor should the reader presume the fiction-writer to be expert. Nor should the writer presume to be an expert. Nor should the writer believe expertise is always necessary for effective expression.

I'd argue that if the reader doesn't feel the writer has offered an authoritative voice on what's being discussed — my previous word choice of "expert" sounds clinical and was a bad one —  he/she has no reason to continue reading the book.

But (on course, like a good horse) your reply's second paragraph is what I'm talking about: you say you don't know the full scope of questions which are out there, and you say so immediately after saying these ideas can be arrived at regardless of the book or story. What can be arrived at? We don't know.

I think you're confusing something here. There are infinitely many questions, but simply by virtue of our ability to understand what is being asked, they would be questions containing concepts we can comprehend. I don't possess a list of comprehendible concepts, but I know that if you ask me *any* question that is meant to be understood, I will understand that question by dint of the fact that it is comprised of understandable (re: universal) concepts.

So, you can write the newest, most original, craziest, ground-breaking story out there ... but I would argue that if I am able to understand it, it is because your work inevitably petitions bigger, universal ideas that can be absorbed and digested by other minds. Language can certainly pose new questions, but given we are able to communicate them at all, is depressing proof that we pose those questions in generals.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 10, 2012 - 6:18pm

if I am able to understand it, it is because your work inevitably petitions bigger, universal ideas that can be absorbed and digested by other minds.

So long as this "petitioning" includes not only the intentions of the writer but also "actions" of the ideas and the reader, then this interplay between the specific and universal might be accidental or circumstantial.

That is to say: a guy can write a story about a and it will refer to A even though he doesn't mean for it to. Which (unless I totally stroked out) is the point of the column, with the additional advice that writers, when writing, should be aware of the big A.

My digression doesn't argue with this. My main beef was with the final paragraph which segues roughly into a polemic against stories which explicitly relate their ideas, which preach or instruct, etc., and has little to do with craft, but rather points to examples of the undesirable results of such efforts. That's why I asked if you think "new" ideas should not be delivered via fiction. You're saying such work simply isn't good storytelling, right?

Sartre was offered a Nobel. (Not everybody will give a hoot.) Let's be honest and say that, even supposing his fiction features a "story" merely because it kind of has to, there can be merits found in a work of fiction besides its "storiness."

CStodd's picture
CStodd from NY is reading Annie Prouxl's Fine Just the Way It Is October 10, 2012 - 9:20pm

Terrific article. Looking to put some little a into my big a and vice versa...thanks

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago October 11, 2012 - 5:27am

I really enjoyed this article and the subsequent debate.  Your articles and essays are always an education.

Thanks

Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons February 8, 2013 - 7:38pm

Great column. Helpful to me. I think the best stories can be enjoyed on their little A level for some readers, but pack the more rewarding punch when the Big A is there to make it mean more, to make it more valuable. 

DestiniKari's picture
DestiniKari September 6, 2014 - 1:28am

For three years, from 1942-1945, the Pal mach men trains and marine SIGNS femei.Platfrom Pal mach training and bring in refugees from Europe, in spite of the israel birthright Mandate. The new residence is designed for beginners, Holocaust survivors.

zeewebsol's picture
zeewebsol May 6, 2015 - 4:40am

A reliable informative post that you have shared and appreciate your work for sharing the information. Got some entertaining information and would like to provide it a try. Applaud your work and keep sharing your information http://zeewebsol.com

zeewebsol's picture
zeewebsol May 6, 2015 - 4:41am

Great job i am really ;ike it http://halfuphalfdownhairstyles.com/