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.
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.