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Become a Better Writer: Abstractions

Updated on April 6, 2010

Use Your Imagination - Oh, yes you have!

Some aspiring writers complain that they haven't a grain of imagination, so how could they possibly write fiction? My answer is that you don't need to worry about not having any imagination, naturally you already do, all you have to do is look around you, close your eyes, then start using your imagination.

No matter how great your technique may be otherwise, the quality of your writing is unlikely to exceed the sophistication of your thinking. I like simple ideas, but what I enjoy far more is when these are “taken to the next level” through the sophisticated use of abstractions.

When using abstractions, simply take what is foremost on your mind, then use your imagination as follows:

  • Fact A: Billy has a red car.
  • Abstraction A1: What would he have done without it? (Idea for an episode about angst);
  • Abstraction A2: How does he go to work when it breaks down? (Idea for a chapter about a day filled with hassle on public transportation, maybe a firing hanging over his head, financial woes);
  • Abstraction A3: Are the ladies attracted to his red car?

  • Fact B: Jackie had a nervous breakdown, she is in the hospitable right now.
  • Abstraction B1: Can we take this diagnosis for granted (idea for a plot about an evil mother-in-law trying to get Jackie out of the way);
  • Abstraction B2: What kind of hospital? Like one filled with spider webs, dark corridors, and echoes from metal doors being shut far down the endless hallways? (Idea for a thriller).

  • Fact C: Tommy voted for the Republicans, but he will go with the Democrats next time.
  • Abstraction C1: The Republicans and Democrats are merging together to form one party, democracy giving way to a form of authoritarianism (Idea for a political thriller);
  • Abstraction C2: Why is he doing this, does some politician have him in his pocket? (Idea for a political thriller).

These are merely a few examples of how abstractions can lead to deepen your plot, developing new ideas as you go. Great writers are often more abstract in their thinking than may be readily apparent in their writing; this is because much of the good stuff is written “between the lines” and in subtle nuances throughout the book. A great novel, for example, may have a main plot, sub-plots, and a sophisticated frame consisting of multiple abstraction layers.


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