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