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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Larry April 5, 2013 at 7:43 pm

@Mary — what Kerry said. All of it. Including the wrist slap for throwing the first punch, then “feeling attacked” yourself. Then ducking out of the room. Wow.

Not being capable of attaching context to the language (what the word “vision” means… and it ISN’T theme, by the way)… sounds like you have some 101 work to do, on several counts. Larry — the “airy-fairy” guy who asked the question.

mary April 6, 2013 at 9:05 am

Larry, I am just dropping back in to apologize again. Until your response, I really didn’t realize how my initial response could have been interpreted. I am truly sorry I was so rude to you. That I didn’t mean to be – doesn’t matter. I was. And I’m sorry.

Of course, I know I have a lot to learn. I fully expect to continue learning all the rest of my life, if not longer. But, as to staying in the conversation further, I do think we have a profound difference of opinion that won’t be bridged by further conversation. I believe, with all my heart, that everyone in the world has a story to tell and an absolute right to tell it. To publish it? Maybe not. But everyone has a right to tell their own story.

Also, I’m a pantser. I think pantsers (those who discover their story by writing it) and plotters (those who plan out stories in advance) have equally valid methods of working. I don’t think you can say that pantsers have to become plotters in order to write. That’s what I heard you saying. It’s very likely that I just didn’t understand you.

Again, I’m sorry.

Larry April 6, 2013 at 11:29 am

@Mary — thanks for the apology. Appreciated.

You said: “I believe, with all my heart, that everyone in the world has a story to tell and an absolute right to tell it. To publish it? Maybe not. But everyone has a right to tell their own story.”

I have never, in my life, indicated a contrary opinion on that count. Indeed, everything I do here supports that. Wondering why you say this here? Maybe you’re weilding subtle implication unknowingly, or maybe your in full command of it here. Can’t tell.

You said: “I do think we have a profound difference of opinion that won’t be bridged by further conversation.”

Sounds like stubborn closed-mindedness to me, because you haven’t presented a case for a contrary opinion. When a beginner hears advice from a seasoned professional (me or anyone else, who doesn’t say they “know everything” but know enough to see a limiting belief when they get it thrown at them), that beginner should LISTEN. Not be stubborn. Hubris is earned, never a starting block.

You said: ” I don’t think you can say that pantsers have to become plotters in order to write.”

I’ve probably stated a hundred times, here and in my books, that this is true, that pantsing CAN work. You’re seeing, through a defensive lens, what you want to see here, because it challenges your paradigms. Everything I write about CAN be applied by organic writers. Everything. Whether you pants or plan, the principles apply. Pantsing is not a free pass, or an end-run, around the criteria for effective storytelling. It’s just a chosen process. Both need a vision for the story, sooner or later (if that’s the opinion you’ll never budge on , then sadly your road will be long and rough)… the pantser uses drafting to “find” that vision. That’s all. That’s the only difference.

You’re right when you say you didn’t fully understand me. Bad on me if I’m not clear. I seem to be clear to 10,000 readers each day, many of whom a) are pantsers, and b) write to share their liberated understanding. Not pantsers turned into planners, but pantsers turned into enlightened storytellers who understand the joys AND the limitations of their chosen process.

I hope, soon, you will join them. The longer one clings to outdated paradigms, defensive stances, closed-mindedness and can’t-be-wrong points of view, the longer that will take. There are a lot of really good sources for mentoring out there, maybe you should compare what they’re saying to what I’m saying. You won’t find it to be much different (it is what it is), but you may like their approach better. Many do. Like Jack Nicholson said in “A Few Good Men,” maybe “you can’t handle the truth.”

I should celebrate the thousands of readers who DO get it, rather than sweat the one or two that don’t. But that’s just me. Thanks again for the apology, it’s a good start. I wish you well, and I worry that your dream will be stalled until you let go of some things. Larry

Robert Jones April 6, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Mary,

I sincerely hope you stick around do some further reading, ask some questions, share your opinion. I’ve known a lot of people who find it difficult when a meathod, or percieved rule, challenge their personal system of working. I also know a lot of people who confuse rules with a lot of work, or that the learning takes the fun factor out of anything.

Sometimes this can be true when looking at it in terms of what most think of in terms of conventional, or grade school learning, those notions fostered during a time when learning interfered with the fun of just being a kid.

So it doesn’t take a Sherlock to deduce there hasn’t been a great deal of formal, or creative training in your experience. That’s okay. It’s never too late to do anything you put your mind to as far as I’m concerned.

But learning a craft isn’t quite the same thing as studying to be an accountant, or most other types of trade. For example, a person can very well teach themselves to draw. But only an experienced artist can show them the proper tools to polish their work to a professional level, or teach the principles of perspective drawing.

That’s what the fundamentals of any of the arts are by definition: principles. We can call them rules, but most rules in the arts are littered with a great many opinions. However, learning the basic principles deepens your understanding, as well as helping to hone your craft. Craft might also be considered to have a blueprint, or recipe, as in building, or cooking…which are also creative and artistic endeavors.

Lots of folks need further explanations as to certain things we may not grasp. Learning the lingo is also part of understanding, looking as if we know what the heck we are talking about, becoming proficient, professional.

So again, I hope you’ll stick around and ask some good questions while broadening your own art.

Robert

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