What’s Your ‘Vision’ For Your Story?

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by Larry Brooks on March 29, 2013

The third question I ask on the Questionnaire given to my story coaching clients, after genre and voice, is just that.

Half of the writers presented with that question can’t answer it.  They either email me about it, asking what this means, or they answer this way: “I don’t know what you mean by vision.”

Half.  I kid you not.

To that I say… OMG.

This is like a chef admitting they don’t have any idea what is going to happen to the food they prepare.

I have to be careful here.  I don’t want to insult, talk down to or discourage writers who don’t understand the question.  It’s unthinkable and scary, but that’s just me, the crusty old writing teacher dude.  Not understanding the question is different than – darker than – not having an answer relative to your story.

Because it actually is an answer.

Imagine this:

A newly graduated business major, summa cum laude, goes for an interview as a management trainee.  One of the first questions asked is, “what’s your vision for your career?”  And the newly graduated business major answers, “huh?  What do you mean by that?”

Or worse, answers “do you have a vision for your career” with, “well, not really.”

End of interview, either way.

You’re about to get married.  You and your beloved seek out a counselor for some pre-marital advice.   A good thing.  The counselor asks – and she absolutely would ask – “so what’s your vision for your life together?”  And your betrothed answers, “uh… I don’t understand the question.”

Which translates to, “nothing special.”  I have nothing special in mind.  Three hots and a cot.   I don’t have a vision for our life together.

You’ve bought a vacant lot in a nice neighborhood with the intention of building a house on it.  One day a neighbor shows up and asks, “new house, eh?”  You nod.  Then he asks, “so what’s your vision for it?”

And you say, “I don’t know what that means.”

Which translates to: I have no blueprint.  I have idea what this house will look like, how many floors it was have, whether it will be brick or logs, what those kooky building codes have to do with anything, whether you’re going to live it or flip it or plant your mother-in-law in it, it hasn’t even entered my head whether or not my house will fit into this neighborhood, I’m just gonna hammer some sh*t together and see what happens.

Will the house get built?  Maybe.   But not without the approval of the plan by the community association, which in this case isn’t happening.

If they are to be great, if they are to work at all, we must write our stories in context to something solid.  And a vision is one of those solid foundations.

Beginning a novel is like working on a business plan. 

Entrepreneurs seek funding, writers seek publication and readership.  Both require strategy.  And the strategy, when it works, includes a vision for the outcome.

Without a vision, nobody is going to invest in you.  Without a vision, you’ll be out of business in a month.

To not know what this means, instinctively, is a very bad sign.  It means, basically, that you’re not ready for this.

You could argue that a vision might emerge during the process.  A concept, yes, definitely.   But how how can something emerge when the opening paradigm is that the writer not even understanding what a vision even IS, or what it means to the process?  That’s like saying to an athlete who wants to enter the Olympic Games, “just start practicing, maybe somewhere along the line it’ll dawn on you which sport you want to compete in.”

Modeling Vision

Here’s an example of what a vision for a new novel or screenplay looks like:

“I see this story reading like a Baldacci novel, deeply rooted in today’s politics , with rich characters and high stakes, entertaining as hell because it’s scary as hell.  I see this, best case, being published by a Big Six house and getting some cache, leading me to a subsequent contract and ultimately a career in this business.”

Just by saying that you’ve signed up to abide by certain criteria for your story.  A good thing.

Here’s what not having a vision says:

“I don’t really know or care what happens to my novel.  I don’t really know or care who will like this, or why they might.  I don’t really know what this story will turn out to be, in which niche it will play, or why a publisher will ever be interested in it.  I’m writing this in a vacuum.  For me it’s a literary experiment, a table for one, I don’t care about the outcome.”

All the wrong things.

The Correlation of Vision-less Storytelling

I’ve evaluated nearly 300 story concepts and architectural plans in the past year.  Of the nearly half who said they didn’t understand the question about vision, the stories that followed were broken in all of them.

All of them.

Not because they were bad ideas leading to bad concepts.  But because the path toward an outcome was muddy, compromised, created in ignorance of, or apathy toward, the criteria that a positive outcome demands that you meet.

One of the smartest and best prose-wielders I’ve come across in this program was the most guilty of vision-void writing.  Her answer was the classic “I don’t know what you mean by this” response, in this case imbued with a certain sub-text of being above it somehow.

The story that followed violated nearly every applicable principle in the storytelling book (including mine).

She was trying to invent her own Olympic sport.  Which just never works.  We can invent a unique voice and approach within the arena of a given niche/genre/sport, but when you try to play basketball with a hockey puck wearing a figure skating tu-tu, the seats will be empty except for the guy shooting a Youtube video.

The thing was, when I called her on it, when I said that without a vision there was no reasonable destination, that the outcome was not rosy, that she really shouldn’t try to invent a new literary form, she said she didn’t care, this was the story she wanted to tell and the way she wanted to tell it.

We all get to choose.

And – here is the worst part – she expects it to be great.

But… IMO it will sit there, for all eternity, without a publisher… until she finally hatches a vision for a reasonable outcome, even if ambitious, and for the nature of the story that could lead to such an outcome.  And that vision will substantially change both the story and her approach to it.

That’s why we need a vision for our stories.  If you envision a bestseller, the odds are orders of magnitude better that you’ll actually write one.

A viable vision will put her back on the path to success.  Because that path has signage and precedent to guide us.

Without vision we are blind and alone.  And the abyss awaits.

What’s your vision for your story?

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