The Hierarchy of Clarity

By now you probably know what I do: I write fiction… I write books and blog posts about writing fiction… and as a “day job,” I coach writers and their stories.  It is from beneath this last hat that I write this post… because this is what I see: writers who are not clear about what they are doing with their story ideas and concepts, if there is one… or what this even means.

And so, if you’ll permit me to rant – picture me at your writing conference, up there pacing behind a podium, shirt soaked through, sweat flying off my forehead, the guys in the next room sending word for me to turn it down… that’s how it looks – in an effort to clarify what clarity means, and why it is essential.

A great story IDEA is essential, in whatever form it arrives. Let’s be clear on that.

What you do with that idea, how you expand it into a story, is even more essential.  It is the lack of awareness of that very criteria – what constitutes greatness… what to DO with a great idea without watering it down… when to know when you’re there, or not – that is what I see being misunderstood, and mishandled, almost every day.

And it’s something I learn from each time I do.  My goal here is to share that learning with you …even if it feels like I’m drilling it to your brain with a blunt industrial tool.

Sometimes that’s what it takes.  I’ve been doing this for decades, and I still can’t get the sound of that drill out of my head.

And to be honest, it keeps me sane.  Because it’s that sound, that clarity, that propels me forward with a growing passion for storytelling.  Because it keeps hope alive.

Without clarity, hope is a crap shoot.  And the crap is winning.

This is long and chewy.  Buckle in.


A Manifesto

Relative to our stories – past, current and future – we are always in one of four places, occasionally with feet in more than one camp.  The only time you’re not is when there is no story at all, past or future, on your writing radar.

Let’s get clear on that.  It is the first thing, among several things, that you absolutely need to be clear about: where you are in the story development/writing process.

The first of those four phases is INTENTION. 

And your intention, if not clear, can kill your story before you write a word of it.

You are looking for an idea.  A starting place.  Or if you think you have it, you are somewhere between declaring it and making time for it to become a story.  A pretty safe place, unless the story won’t stop haunting you.  Nothing at all happens, other than living with that particular anxiety, until you move on.

The risk here is this: you want to write a story, any story, more than you are certain you have a great story to tell.  You believe you can make your idea great.  And so you contrive, you force the mundane in the general direction of the impatient vision of greatness. 

You walk out of the writing conference energize, pumped up, ready to being making your dream come true.  And so, that night you begin writing a story that wasn’t there that morning. 

And thus the chicken droppings seek to become chicken salad.  Be aware of the difference, be clear on the difference… success begins with the raw ingredients.

You need to be clear on the difference between an idea and a story.  Because here in this first phase, if you aren’t clear, one of two things is inevitable: you will return to square-one to find that clarity, or you will lose your way, perhaps without awareness, and very soon.  The equivalent of swimming further out to sea, with no ship in sight and no hope of landfall.

You need to be clear on whether or not you are ready to move from idea to story.  Do you know what this really means, what it involves?  The clearer you are on that, the better off you and the story will be. Writing a story is a journey, a long one, fraught with risks and traps… you better pack, you might want to be armed with knowledge, and you may benefit from either a map, a GPS or a learning curve. 

An idea sustains you for about a chapter, or five.  From there, much more is required to qualify as a story.  Where and how that transition happens in a story… this is perhaps the MOST IMPORTANT THING you need to be aware of as a writer.

Nothing wrong with setting out butt-naked on this path, without a clue… as long as you are clear on what this means.  It means you’re already swimming in the next phase.  You’re signing up for a different experience than the writer who holds the story is already clear, legitimately, in their head. 

Be clear on that, too.

The next phase is THE SEARCH FOR STORY, and this is a whopper

Be clear: the search for a story idea (the first phase we’ve just dispensed with) is a very different animal than the search for the story that grows out of that idea

For many this is the writing process itself, the creation of a draft, leading to another draft, and on it goes.  For others – myself included here, with a learning curve that brings me to this place – this phase is the exploration of story possibilities and options, heading toward the stringing together of a story sequence through a series of expositional beats, laid out over an established grid of story physics-optimizing parts, milestones and contextual missions. 

Also known as story structure… the principle-driven, story physics empowered guide to “what to write, where it goes, and why.”  The more clarity you have on that, the better off you’ll be.

Yes, you can make it all up as go. But however you do it – picture a chef making up a recipe, trying this and that, a dash here, a dash there, setting the cooking temp and timer with a blindfold on – it won’t work as well as it could – as well as it should, as it needs to in a competitive professional endeavor – until it  all unfolds in a certain way, in a certain dramatic/contextual order. 

Be clear this, too.  Because if you’re not, many false, half-empty (void of story physics) destinations await.  You may be alone with your process, but we’re all stuffed into the same padded cell with the criteria for what makes a story work.

And then, however you’ve searched – drafter or planner – you actually find your story. 

One that opens the door to the power of story physics, and naturally falls into expositional alignment with a smooth application of story structure.  No forcing.  No contrivance.  No lack of drama or stakes or emotional resonance.

Somehow, somewhere, sometime, you find that story.

While this isn’t really a phase – it’s more a milestone, an Epiphany, a sudden shift from one phase to the next – it is critical to a successful storytelling effort.  And you have to be clear on what it means, on what a discovered, fully-realized story really demands, entails and offers.

Because if you aren’t clear, if you think you’re done before you’ve actually found the core story that has risen from your initial idea… or if you never really get that you’ve found the story… or if you fail to recognize an acceptable benchmark for having found a story at this level… you remain in a sort of search-for-story Twilight Zone, a vehicle floating in space with no place to land.  Sooner or later you just pull it over to the curb and hope for the best.

Failed, unpublished, unsatisfying stories come in two flavors: the unfinished (because the writer wasn’t clear on what constitutes being finished, the nature of the high bar of story excellence), and the underwhelming, even when finished.  When the idea and concept itself, while perhaps fully realized, didn’t pack a compelling punch.  A chicken dropping wearing the hat of a chicken salad. You need to be clear on what this means to the agents and editors who will judge your story, to the readers who will embrace or reject it, and to yourself.

They won’t care about your pretty sentences.  Or the setting.  Or the strong themes.  If the story doesn’t push them off their chair, you’re done.

Be clear, you can’t make a compelling story out of anything at all, even if it compels you.  What’s compelling to you is not the criteria for commercial success.  You need to play a longer game than that.

Your idea, and the concept that springs from it, need to have chops.  Teeth.  Explosive potential.  Simply executing the hell out of a vanilla, trite, been-there-read-that idea – even within genres that seem to do this all day – isn’t enough these days.  No more than anyone can walk in off the street and compete for a place in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a starting spot on the defensive line with the Jets, a role in the next Spielberg film, or a book contract. 

Oh, that… you need to be clear that what you’re doing is just that significantly competitive and challenging and compelling… and you better show up at the tryout with the real thing – a story idea with chops and promise and inherent dramatic power – to show the judges when your name is called.

When you do legitimately find your story, hopefully that story, you enter a third phase: the POLISH. 

You start to hone the story you’ve discovered and embraced and make it the best it can possibly be.  You pound on it, sharpen it, test it, twist it, make it all shiny and perfect and fresh and powerful and deep and surprising and titillating and scary and unforgettable.  

And just as important, you make it credible.  Logical.  You make it work.  Without making stuff up because you have to, without huge stretches in logic (like 14 year old heroes who out-smart the local police to find the bad guy).  Contrivance is the hallmark of the forced story.  You need to be clear on that.

What this involves is directly related to the previous phase, because how you’ve searched for your story defines what you now have before you in the way of polishing it.

And then, at some point in this process… you’re done.

The story has been WRITTEN.  Many writers never get to this point.  Oh, they think they do, but too often they mistake an abandoned search for story or a misread of the map that was supposed to bring you to this point for this phase, the final realm of the writing experience.  Sometimes without ever really realizing that it’s an illusion.

Intention… Search… Polish… Retrospect.  Relative to your story, you are in one of those four boxes, always.

Are you clear on where you are on this path?  And what is required of you in each phase of the process?   Are you clear on where the bar resides, what is looks and feels and smells like?  Will you know it when you see it?

Of course, this is the marriage of art and craft, so total clarity is never assured.  Or so it goes.

But that’s actually not true.  The criteria is clear.  The targets are there.  The tools are there.  Be clear on that.  Just as clear as you may not be on how significantly challenging it will be to get there.

So what? you’re asking.  I’ll tell you so what.

Yes, you can and will bounce back and forth between these four phases of the story experience – it’s called starting over, or revising, or realizing you aren’t done yet when you thought you had – but that’s always a good thing, it puts you back in the game. 

Realizing you aren’t clear is what leads you, ultimately, to becoming clear.  It’s thinking you’re clear, when you’re actually not, that will kill your dream.

It’s when you think you’re done writing and you’re not… it’s when you think you’re done searching and are now polishing, but in fact are finishing a story that really hasn’t yet been fully realized, that it depends on contrivance and leans into apathy… it’s when you don’t know what the criteria and benchmarks are for really being done, at a level that matches your aspiration. 

Even then, being clear on when all this is the case is a good thing.

It’s called being rejected.  Over and over.  It’s called insanity, the kind only writers know.  A dark unrealized dream as the parent of a story that never walks the path you envisioned for it.

Usually, there’s a reason waiting to be claimed.  To teach you.  To make you better next time.  Or even to jump back in at Phase Two (the search for story) and make it all right.

That’s my day job.  Finding out what isn’t clear.  To the reader, to the story, or to you.

A summary of what needs to be clear:

It’s like being clear on making a bomb, because you are clear on the principles of chemistry that makes stuff explode. These are the guys who survive bomb-making. 

Your story, to some extent, needs to be a bomb, one that explodes into the consciousness of your reader.

You can’t ever really be clear on most of the things that reside down the execution road until you are crystal clear on certain larger and higher issues the precipitate that moment of requisite story-level clarity.

Read that sentence again.  Be clear on what it means.

You have to be clear on how to climb a mountain before any notion of clarity about which route to take to the summit will serve you.  Making it up as you go… that might just kill you.

Are you, as a writer, clear about what you need to be clear about?

First… you need to be clear on the kind of story you are writing.  The genre.  The target readership.  The unique standards and expectations and criteria of that niche.  What makes something fresh when it also needs to be so familiar. You can’t invent, or reinvent, anything in this business.  Be clear on that.

Then… you need to be clear about where you are starting your story, and what you are starting with. and what this means.  One of the things it means is an awareness of what you are not yet clear about.

Maybe your start with an idea… you need to be clear that an idea needs to become a concept, and then a premise, and then a dramatic sequence.  How to achieve that clarity is an open field cluster-f**k of massive proportions, but you do get to choose.  The criteria for excellence don’t care what process you choose, they will kill your story either way if you do it wrong on a final draft. 

Be clear on that. The end-game, the criteria, is absolutely the same for story pantsers as it is for story planners.  Same structural benchmarks and milestones.  No exceptions.

And when you are clear on what you know and what you don’t know – never underestimate the value of the latter – you are engaged in the Phase Two search for story process, by any other name, in a manner that will allow you to survive it.  Because you’ll be empowered to know when you’ve found a story that works.  Not until.

And right there is where most who get lost, get lost.

Be clear on this: your draft won’t be optimized, it won’t be the absolute best story it can be, until you are clear about how the story will end, and what transpires to get to that point.  The effort to attain that clarity is the search for story

Be clear: stories that are really documentaries and diaries of the search… they ramble in quest of their core dramatic focus and spine, and then when they find it, then they head toward the finish line… those stories never work as well as stories that are rewritten, or revised, in context to full clarity on that very ending.  Successful writers who say they do it this way – the story just leads them somewhere — are confusing and/or selectively omitting elements of their own process description (or maybe they really did just stumble upon something that finally worked)… odds are almost certain that they’ve revised the first half upon realizing how the second half will unfold.  Call it a rewrite, or not… it’s the same requisite step.

You need to be clear on what you’re looking for in that search.  Certain structural contexts, sequences and transitions.  Certain story forces that suck the reader into the narrative experience.  None of this is random – these forces and dramatic paradigms are universal, generic, and always available to the writer.  Some shoot for them, others simply hope they’ll show up rather than inviting them into the narrative. 

Are you clear on what those are?

You need to be clear on what to do with these elements once you identify them.  Clear about how to unspool a concept once you’ve empowered it with the requisite juice.  Nothing kills a concept quicker than a writer who tries to turn it into something else mid-stream… because “that’s what came to me as I wrote.”  That results in one of the most dreaded of story killers: EPISODIC exposition.  You need to be clear on what that means.

Yeah, story shifts do happen as you search for the core story, the optimal focus.  And when it does, you need to be clear on what to do then.  Simply pressing forward into a new context of episodic scenes… that’s not it.

You need to be clear about what to strive for in your story.  On the level of story physics you have in play – the compelling nature of your premise, or not… the level of dramatic tension in play, relative to a dramatic question that has been posed, or not… the nature of the story’s pacing… the degree to which the reader will become emotionally involved, or not, because they relate to and empathize with your hero and the journey you’ve put before them and that hero… the vividness of the vicarious experience you’re delivering to the reader, or not.

Because you see, it isn’t as simple as “I have an idea, so I’ll start writing and see where it goes.”  That’s just a start.  Just a process, among other available processes. You need to be clear on that.  You have options.  You have targets that will save your butt.  You need to clear on how much else is involved, and that it won’t just land serendipitously in your lap mid-draft.  You have to conjure it up from a basis of contextual awareness of what an effective story needs to be.

Clarity is required. 

If you don’t seek it out, nurture it…  if you don’t apply it… it will find you.  Long after you’ve finished the story and lived the consequences that lack of clarity almost always bestows.

That is, if you’re lucky.  Some people never know what blocked their path, long after the dream has died.


I can help you in two ways.

First, this site covers almost everything you need to be aware of when planning and writing a story.  As do my two writing books: “Story Engineering” (2011), and the upcoming “Story Physics” (June 2013), both from Writers Digest books.

Second, I can look at and evaluate your story, in several forms.  I don’t need to read the whole thing to see if there are vulnerabilities in your idea, concept, structure or vision, which means you can get there for pennies on the traditional story coaching dollar.  Or I can read your whole draft, which is a lot of pennies, but at least you’ll know. 

In either case, if you let it in, if you go deep, you’ll be clear.  And that’s everything when it comes to giving your story its best shot.


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18 Responses to The Hierarchy of Clarity

  1. Olga Oliver

    Larry, dear, dear Larry. I could almost tear up with the apparent serendipity of your Hierarchy of Clarity winging my way at this particular time. Why? Filling out Your Questionnaire on Story Coaching has absolutely whack, whack, whacked me into knowing that I don’t know what I’m trying to write. The story is a befuddled mess and thoughts of burning the whole mess float around overhead, but something like a little grinning gray donkey sits there amid the burning thoughts. He doesn’t say anything, he just grins. So your sentence “Realizing you aren’t clear is what leads you, ultimately, to becoming clear” is taped to my computer. So, if I’m aware that I’m not clear, I’m in a hopeful space. There is hope. And that space is scary. Scary? So, working with scary is much better than “not knowing” my story is not clear. So, scary or not, I’m off again to finding my story. The donkey grins and shows his teeth.

  2. Donna

    First of all, I can’t wait to use, ‘And thus the chicken droppings seek to become chicken salad,’ in a conversation. I’ll be sure to give you the credit.

    Secondly, these are some of the truest words I have ever read. I am fairly new to writing. I have not finished my wip. This (your blog) is why. My idea and concept has not fully developed into a story. It has some great parts. Some character development, some emotional resonance, some conflict, but not enough bones are there to flesh it all out.

    How did this blog help me? It showed me that I am not failing at my attempt to write this story. I am where I need to be, but where I better not stay.

  3. Julianne

    You must’ve been exhausted after you wrote this post, Larry. Exhausted from pouring yourself into words for us, which I know you did, I can feel it, I get it, and that’s what sets you apart and above the others. You actually do care and want your readers to learn and succeed, rather than just throwing down a shallow post to make your quota for the week. Thank you.

  4. Larry, just want to say thanks for the excellent content you share on your blog. I think your site is the best resource for writers I’ve found. Thanks again, and great post! (almost a book in itself!)

  5. Robert Jones

    Larry, all I can say is I feel your pain…and that of those writers attempting to find their own clarity. I understand where both sides are coming from. My own story, like Olga mentioned above, has a LOT of ideas. But has it found it’s optimal path to what you’re summing up as “clarity?”

    I’ve read quite a few writers posting about their stories on various sites in their attempts to find gold. And I think my own situation might actually help a few to clarify exactly where they are going astray.

    My recent plotting has been in the form of a trilogy. I wanted more than just a vague notion of where the other parts were going before I wrote the first one. So when I say I have a lot of ideas, it’s probably an understatement. And yet, this is what I’ve been reading in terms of many writers who believe they found their story–which may be true–but it’s usually too broad, vague, or simply not refined enough. So the idea may be there, but it hasn’t been streamlined.

    I’m a planner, and in listing all my scenes, I’ve done what most writers are told to do in their first drafts…overwrite, allow every aspect of the story, every potential scene to spill out on paper. However, in refining, we have to zoom in on the most important aspect of that story, the emotional heart of it all. Or maybe I should say, its MISSION, for, if every scene has its mission to accomplish, then their overall goal is the broader mission of the plot as a whole.

    What I’ve seen in my own story as I zoomed in with my magnifying lens, is that mission and emotional seat must go hand in hand. In following the two lines, where they intersected was the heart of my story. It was (is) always about the journey of the protagonist and antagonist, which are always on a collision course. It begins as a contest, the villain attempting to cut the hero off, back him down, disgrace him before his peers, force him into defeat. How the two characters react is the emotional heart, what they do becomes the various stages of their mission. As it escalates, it becomes clear that one has to sink for the other to rise. And if both are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal…

    What I personally learned in zooming in on this basic level is that anything that doesn’t flesh out these characters and move them forward towards that inevitable conclusion is extraneous. I think most writer (even many who have published successfully) believe suspense is created by zig-zagging all over the place in an attempt to create multiple layers, or throw the reader off track by keeping them off balance. I also discovered I really short changed my villain in terms of emotional impact. A lot of villains get short shrift as characters simply because we see them doing bad deeds, but do we really understand why they do what they do? Or is simply enough to see their acts of cheating and cruelty?

    Personally, I grow weary of cardboard villains with smoking guns in hand. They shortchange both the emotional heart, the final impact/collision, as well as the hero, who like Joseph K. in Kafka’s novel never really understands the amorphous evil trying to destroy him. Unless that’s your intention from the beginning. In which case the cardboard guy with the smoking gun is still out of place.

    Does that mean some re-plotting is ahead? Certainly. It’s also a good argument for plotting beforehand. If I wrote all the scenes out and attempted to examine them from the viewpoint of a huge manuscript, again, I’m an observer from a very broad angle. Having scenes listed as bullets over a handful of pages gave me a bird’s eye view, but not from so high up that the lines of clarity blurred.

    Sorry if I seem to be babbling on a bit long. But this post really hit home for me currently.

    And so it will be a while longer before Larry gets my questionnaire :)

  6. Mihla

    When I was 13, I lugged my father’s old Royal out to an army surplus tent pitched in the backyard and typed out my first novel. Now, 54 years later, I have folders (both physical and digital) full of chicken droppings, but no chicken salad. I’ve clipped articles, attended conferences, taken classes, and read blogs, all in pursuit of the magic formula for creating a brilliant novel. Finally, you come along and make it CLEAR: I have the ideas and the skill, but not the stories. In retrospect, I should have understood this since my plot momentum seemed to consistently sputter to a halt after only a few chapters. You have now given me hope I will actually see at least one of my novels in print before I enter a retirement home. Thank you.

  7. You’ve hit it for 6. (Cricket reference – I’ve been in Australia a long time.)

    I’m holding off on the final planning stages of number 8 because I still don’t have absolute clarity of the story. Almost, but not quite yet. I need to massage it a bit more. Beat it up and see if it survives.

    You continue to add value to my writing, Larry. You should be getting a cut. (Note: that was not an official offer.)

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  9. @ Larry: I’m officially exhausted from READING this post. Had to do it in bits and pieces in order to digest everything you tossed into the sauce–er, minus any chicken droppings.

    @ Robert J: Thanks for your comment, too. Found a few gems to take from there too.

    And like those who commented before me here and on other posts I’m certain, thanks, Larry, for all the wisdom you impart. Working my way through STORY ENGINEERING now and already looking forward to its successor.

    Enjoy your day!

  10. Larry, I was tickled to see you describe yourself much as I’ve pictured you: animated, pacing in front of a group, though I see hands gesturing wildly rather than sweat flying ;-) . Perhaps one day, I’ll see you in person. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to soak up your wisdom right here (and spread the word to others!). You continue to provide us with essential points on that map you advised we pack for the ride. Thank you, thank, thank you.

  11. Took me a while to get to & thru this. And I need to read it again to be clear on everything you said, but once again you’ve challenged me to take a closer, more thorough look at my stories to find their concepts & themes rather than just write a nice story.

  12. A very inspiring post, Larry! The more I read your words, the more I am impress and in admiration. This post reminds me of an idea I had when I was like 13 but I never wrote a story from it until now (I’m 17) because, indeed, story and idea are different! At least I’m clear about that. For the rest, I will come back to this post, since it’s going to help me a lot in clarifying many things.
    Thank you for lighting the torch on every aspiring writer’s path!

  13. @Daphnée — first of all, what a beautiful name, especially when you see it written… and I like your website, very cool. Just wanted to say, it’s so awesome that you’re “getting it” at 17, what a great head start. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing great things from you. Thanks for writing, let me know how I can help. Larry

  14. Sara Davies

    That is so important. I wish I’d heard of story structure 20 or 30 years ago. The way I found out about it was through the process of writing 70,000 words and then realizing I couldn’t organize the material, because there was no way to step back and see the thing as a whole. At that point, having recognized All By Myself that a lack of a coherent structure was killing me, I finally knew enough to ask the right question. I thought: There must be a known method. People write books all the time. I sense there is an underlying structure in books and movies, I just can’t see it. Am I going to have to deconstruct, page by page, everything I’ve ever read, or is there a faster way?

    I was an art major in college. When you paint, you can see the entire image at a glance. You always know what you have on any given day. You see what needs fixing because it’s right in front of you. You see your progress and evaluate as you go along. With writing, the subjective experience unfolds over time, and has to be delivered over time. How do you master time?

    By luck or accident, I got a few suggestions about where to look, including here. I am actually kind of irritated that the information exists in the world and no one bothered to mention it. Presumably at least some of them, who wrote published books, knew about it, but I never got that memo. There are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of writing books, none of which address “structure,” which seems stupid to me since clearly it is the most important thing to know about, (and also explains why cringe-worthy wordsmiths can get published.) Seriously, I had never even heard of story structure. Never. Not even once. I have heard about the importance of “outlining” but no one explained how to do it, at least not in a way that didn’t seem arbitrary and formulaic. And when I say “formula” I mean cookie-recipe details like: give the hero a crummy car and make him a great guy. I don’t mean structure. I want to be clear about that because when writers complain about formula, maybe they don’t mean what you think they mean – ? Just sayin’.

    As an aside, I believe poetry is the most difficult written medium known to humanity. I do not agree that it is in any way, shape, or form a haven for failed novelists. It is only for the hardest of the hardcore, the world class athletes of the written word. Ten to one the only poetry that gets read was written by a Pulitzer winner. I would not even think about trying to write poetry, let alone seriously attempt it.

    For so unbelievably, embarrassingly, and hideously long, I have struggled to imagine what would happen in my story and make a list of the events, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Now I know why. And I’d really like to finish this stupid project before I die. I’m not even talking about publishing. I’m talking about getting one novel done correctly, getting one story to work the way it should. It’s still daunting, but having a road map makes it seem possible.

    So, yes. Daphnee is on an excellent schedule, and I wish her godspeed.


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