Narrative Altitude

For over a decade, Malcolm Gladwell understood the opportunity and potential of the tipping point idea. And by the time he arrived at The New Yorker in 1996, chances are he’d explored many of its intellectual trailsGRODZINS ’57; SCHELLING ’69, ’71, ’78; GRANOVETTER ’78, ’83; MORLEY ’84; CRANE ’89.

If only in his own head, while waiting in line for take-out coffee at The Red Flame Diner on 44th Street, he’d cleared substantial tipping point terrain of his own. But his goal was not just to add an offshoot to one of his predecessors’ efforts, but instead to pull them all together and carve a freeway into what he felt was the unexplored heart of the idea.

That tipping points are not just useful as predictors of social polarization, but consciously engineered, they can serve as positive behavioral modification systems for entire communities.

That’s great, but how is he going to make a story out of that mess of theory?

How is he going to make the tipping point relevant to readers of The New Yorker in June 1996?

That is, how is he going to do his job?

Don’t forget that Gladwell’s just a newbie staff writer at perhaps the most prestigious literary magazine in the world. He’s got a one-year contract. And he’s only written three pieces, which were solid hits, but they certainly aren’t anywhere near the heavy lifting Big Idea throw-down inherent in this piece.

What Gladwell has been looking for all of these years to make his tipping point notion engaging—at a story level—is a high profile “connector” idea.  A bit of something relevant to contemporary society.  Writing about white flight ain’t that.

What phenomenon he discovers in 1996 is beautifully organic to the original piece that caught his attention back in 1984—Jefferson Morley’s “Double Reverse Discrimination” in The New Republic. It’s in fact shockingly poetic on a story level too.

The connector idea that Gladwell uses to explore his theory about the tipping point—that it can be engineered to effect positive social change—is the one credited with dropping crime in New York City off a cliff. It is George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s extension of Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s 1969 “broken window experiments” in their article Broken Windows from the March 1982 edition of yet another wonky magazine, The Atlantic.

So how does Gladwell make this crime falls because of a theory into a story?

Well, he starts his June 3, 1996 New Yorker piece, The Tipping Point, like any great novelist would. He introduces a killer beginning hook.

This in a nutshell:

New York City, which is most peoples’ minds since the late 1960s is the land of mayhem, muggings and indiscriminate murder, is not what you think it is. It is now about as dangerous as Boise, Idaho. By June 3, 1996, it ranks 136th on the FBI’s violent crime rate among major American cities.

What happened? Obviously, this is the underlying question that will drive the narrative into the middle build of the piece…and ultimately pay off with a very satisfying answer. How did a place often associated with the dark desire of the fictional character Travis Bickle in Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver for a real rain to come and wash all this scum off the streets” actually turn safe?

It’s a very good hook.

But here’s the thing. If Gladwell just flies his narrative in altitude above the city…that is he doesn’t takes us “on the ground” to a real place within the city and what it’s like there…then we won’t really care. We’ll do what we’ve done with innumerable New Yorker pieces before…we’ll skim it and forget it.

What he needs to do to keep us reading about this strange fall in crime phenomenon is to make it human. He needs to give us low altitude reporting with commentary from eyewitnesses to let us “experience” it. We need to hear from a cop in a specific neighborhood tell us what it was like before the change and what it’s like after the change.

After we get a sense of how one particular neighborhood in the big city has changed, then Gladwell can fly a little higher with a larger point of view. He can interview the New York City Police Commissioner, William J. Bratton, who will tell the reader why he thinks the change has occurred in the first place.

And then back to the low altitude, back to the Seven-Five Precinct to hear how Bratton’s big talk actually is put into practice on the street.

Gladwell finishes the beginning hook of his piece with a transition that will allow him to fly above the city entirely. After listing all of the little things that Bratton talks about being instrumental in the plummeting of New York City Crime, Gladwell suggests that it’s pretty hard to believe that stopping guys from hanging out on street corners sipping beer is responsible for a crazy decline in crime.  He does what good storytellers do to keep a reader engaged.  He states what the reader is probably thinking to themselves.

Maybe we need to think differently about this whole thing? Maybe we should consider what the academic world has been saying about social problems? Which transitions the story into the progressive complications for the Middle Build for his piece—that crime can be better understood in epidemiological terms.

The first sequence in Gladwell’s Middle Build is introducing the reader to the world of epidemics. Not the pejorative use of the word like “there’s an epidemic of Axe Deodorant wearing teenage boys on the loose,” but the actual math behind the literal definition of an epidemic.

This is yet another shift in narrative altitude for the piece…one that Gladwell mastered back in his science beat days at The Washington Post. This altitude is “the easy to understand hypothetical scenario that explains a complex idea in a very simple way” vantage point. In this case, Gladwell walks us through an outbreak of Canadian flu brought to Manhattan at Christmas time. You’ll notice that he didn’t choose to base his hypothetical germ fest  in London or Zurich. No, he’s keeping the reader still thinking about New York City even though it’s a made up scenario.

He finishes up the ground level hypothetical flu contagion with the epidemiologist’s definition of the “tipping point.” It is a specific number—“the point at which an ordinary and stable phenomenon—a low-level flu outbreak—can turn into a public-health crisis.”

Even though he’s been noodling the idea for years, this is the first time Gladwell writes publicly about the “tipping point.”

Wasn’t it a brilliant decision to define it so specifically?

What I mean by that is Gladwell could have spoken of tipping points as sort of amorphous moments in time when something goes from unpopular to popular—like he’ll do in his book in a few years when he describes sales of Hush Puppies shoes.

But instead, he chose to define a tipping point with a very definitive number…in the case of his hypothetical outbreak of flu, it’s the number 50. Is there anything more convincing and solid than a number? When someone answers a question with a number, we can’t help but think of it as a fact. We think differently about someone who clearly says “I’m 52 years old” versus someone who says “How old do you think I am?”  One is telling the truth and the other one is just playing games. Right?

So associating “tipping point” with a number is a way for Gladwell to subconsciously say to the reader that tipping points aren’t “theories” or some intellectual bullshit game playing.  They’re facts. So in other words, pay attention!

And then Gladwell progressively complicates his story further. He escalates the stakes of tipping points from a hypothetical bunch of New Yorkers getting an inconvenient flu at Christmas time, to the very real deaths of forty thousand people in the United States contracting and dying of AIDS every year.

The narrative altitude has risen even higher. We’re not just having some intellectual fun looking at what may or may not have caused crime to drop in New York City or how a flu gets spread, we’re grappling with thousands of lives. We’re above the city now, looking at the state of global public health.

There is no way to go higher in narrative altitude than that. Is there? We’re dealing with the global material world—life and death stuff. That’s got to be the ceiling, right?

Well, like a narrative nonfiction answer to Emeril Lagesse, in the very next beat in his piece, Gladwell kicks it up yet another notch.

He takes the narrative altitude above the city and the state and enters the heavens to explain that the way we think the world works can often be wildly incorrect. The world is not always linear. It’s often a geometric progression where big efforts have little effects and little efforts have big effects (the controlling idea of his first piece for The New Yorker, “Blowup.”).

Sometimes big efforts have small effects—like moving ten tons of dirt on a perfectly level field. And sometimes small efforts—like shoveling ten pounds of dirt beneath a precipice—can have huge effects, an avalanche. Simple to understand with the right analogy, but try and remember that when you’ve worked for a week and a half on a post that no one reads…

Just as quickly as his transitions from the upper reaches of public health to the heavens, Gladwell brings his narrative altitude back to the ground. He explains the concept of non-linearity by examining the risks to an unborn child of a pregnant women having a single glass of wine, which amount to negligible.

And then he uses his own life experience as interstitial tissue to lighten the narrative and bring the idea of hitting a threshold home.  He remembers life as a child pounding on a bottle of ketchup and quotes his British father at the dinner table:

Tomato ketchup in a bottle—

None will come and then the lot’ll.

From a fictional Xmas Flu to AIDS to Geometric Progression to a Pregnant woman having a glass of wine to a kid pounding ketchup… The narrative altitude, like moving up and down small dips and then medium bumps and then large free falls on a roller coaster—keeps the readers minds engaged. Not knowing what will happen next even though they know where their final destination will be is what keeps a reader reading.

After the ketchup, Gladwell transitions into the Ending Payoff of his piece with a technique I adore. He anticipates a reader’s confusion and addresses it directly with a rhetorical question—“What does this have to do with the murder rate in Brooklyn?”

Now that we’re used to the different levels of narrative altitude, Gladwell will put all of the pieces together for us in a way that will explain exactly why the crime rate in New York City declined so rapidly from 1994 to 1996.

With the fluent storytelling in evidence from his Beginning Hook through his Middle Build of this piece, the reader now trusts that Gladwell knows this stuff cold.  They’ll take him now at his word.

So now Gladwell can act as expert and maintain a comfortable omniscient altitude. That is, he doesn’t have to do as many stunt pilot maneuvers to keep the reader glued to the page. He’s reached the ending payoff so now it’s time to lay his argument out in as clear and engaging way as possible, without going off on hypotheticals or tangents.  He’s reached the punch line. He just has to deliver it clearly and quickly to close.

So he walks the reader through the academic work that supports his conclusions. We get:

  • A bit about Thomas Schelling’s work on white flight,
  • George Galster at the Urban Institute in Washington backing up Schelling,
  • David Rowe at the University of Arizona on teen sexual behavior tipping points
  • Jonathan Crane at the University of Illinois,
  • Mark L. Rosenberg at the Centers for Disease Control
  • Range Hutson and his paper “The Epidemic of Gang-Related Homocides in Los Angeles Country from 1979 through 1994.”

And at last we reach the payoff…which is Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo’s “broken window” experiments.

Zimbardo parked tow cars in two neighborhoods—one in Palo Alto and one in a comparable neighborhood in the Bronx in New York. For the car in New York, he took off the license plates and popped the hood of the trunk. A day later, it was stripped to the bone.

The Palo Alto car was untouched until Zimbardo smashed one of the windows. In a couple of hours that car was destroyed too.

Gladwell draws this conclusion:

“Zimbardo’s point was that disorder invites even more disorder—that a small deviation from the norm can set into motion a cascade of vandalism and criminality. The broken window was the tipping point.”

He concludes the piece with the report that William Bratton reverse engineered Zimbardo’s work—he cracked down on graffiti and turnstile jumpers when he was head of the New York City Transit police and when he became Police Commissioner extended those “quality of life” crime crack downs.

All of those little efforts made New York City tip from a dangerous concrete jungle into a town as threatening as Boise, Idaho.


13 comments on “Narrative Altitude

  1. Fascinating reading as always, Shawn! I continue to look forward to each and every post!

    Question: Does a Big Idea book need to be equally balanced between its academic, how-to and narrative non-fiction pieces? Can it skew more heavily toward narrative non-fiction and still be a Big Idea book?

    I think what I’m trying to figure out is if a memoir could ever be a Big Idea book.

    I’m wondering about this because Gladwell placed himself inside the Tipping Point story successfully but only in small bits. I’m not sure other Big Ideas books have done this.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks so much for all that you do for us!

    1. Joel D Canfield says:

      My gut tells me that a great memoir could be a Big Idea book.

      There are some folks whose life, or approach to life, is inherently and universally instructive. A great editor could shape it around a Big Idea, just as MG shaped his book around tipping points.

      1. David Ward says:

        thanks for this, joel. shawn’s post was as wonderful as ever, but, your willingness to share your gut feeling was of tremendous value to me.

          1. Joel D Canfield says:

            I find all this stuff fascinating as well. Delighted when I can contribute.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    There is so much going on in this book! My admiration for Gladwell grows with each post as you deconstruct his work layer by layer. As always, thanks – looking forward to Thursday!

  3. jim calocci says:

    the broken window was the tipping point
    all these little efforts made NEW YORK TIP
    from a dangerous urban jungle to a town as dangerous as BOISE , IDAHO

    thanks for providing us the VOICE OF GLADWELL AND COYNE

  4. Tina Goodman says:

    We don’t have a lot of broken windows in Boise, and it is pretty safe for a small city. One warning: do not go under the bridge by the public library when the moon is full.
    It is true, I am 52.

  5. “Simple to understand with the right analogy, but try and remember that when you’ve worked for a week and a half on a post that no one reads…” <—haha! I'll definitely try to keep that in mind.

    This series keeps getting more interesting, can't wait for what's to come!

    1. David Ward says:

      it does keep getting more and more interesting, doesn’t it? this man is really giving a lot to this project. lucky us.

  6. Patricia Wilson says:

    Shawn, all I can say is WOW! I was as engaged in your non-fiction narrative as I would have been in a fast-moving thriller. BRAVO!

  7. Larry says:

    Shawn, a bit of serendipity here. In addition to great analysis-cum-advice about Big Idea nonfiction (which I’ll take to heart), you’ve also answered a question I’ve had for many years.

    I’ve wondered how Frederick Forsyth maintains suspense in _The Day Of The Jackal_. We know from the moment that the Jackal accepts his assignment to assassinate De Gaul that he must fail, since we know that De Gaul was never assassinated. How does Forsyth (and Zinneman & Ross in the film adaptation) keep us on the edge of our seats?

    And as I was reading a completely unrelated post about a New Yorker article, the answer was given to me: “Not knowing what will happen next even though they know where their final destination will be is what keeps a reader reading.”

    Thanks, Shawn.

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