Let’s talk Mission Statements.
The term has become a cliche, one that’s hard to take seriously. But I’m here to try to redeem the idea because good writing almost always has a mission statement, even if that isn’t immediately obvious.
Stripping away most of the baggage from the word, a mission statement is a driving goal, a thing to focus on when in doubt. It doesn’t have to be the only purpose, but it is an important purpose. Generally, I think it’s important that when I write I have a mission statement in mind.
Not always, and not always at the beginning of a story. It doesn’t have to be there right away, but that goal should show up eventually and it almost always ends up affecting my rewrites and editing process. Once I know what a story is trying to accomplish, I know where to focus my energies, and storytelling is all about focus.
When learning to write, it’s easy to find yourself distracted by all those things that don’t matter. Not because those things might matter in another story, but what if they don’t matter in yours? A pet peeve of mine is when a story explains something that doesn’t need explaining, describes something that doesn’t need describing, or otherwise wastes time on elements or ideas that just aren’t that important for that particular story. The problem is that there isn’t a universal rule on this stuff.
Everything you focus on is a choice. If a writer spends a paragraph describing a hotel room, then that hotel room should be important enough to be described. And that description should pay off in some way. If it does neither of these things, then why are we wasting time describing what could be a generic hotel room?
Importance is defined by the mission statement of the scene. Let’s break down a couple of examples:
Our protagonist is a down on their luck loser at their lowest point. The hotel room description focuses on all the elements that highlight that. The crappy, peeling wallpaper, the torn curtains, a stained broken bed. The crappier the description, the more we understand how low our protagonist is.
Our protagonist is an action hero, and the hotel room is where they’re about to have a fight. The description focuses on the geography of the room, probably pointing out one or two important objects that might come into play in the scuffle. We’re less concerned with atmosphere than layout. Is the room small and cramped, meaning we’re getting grapples and wrestling, or spacious enough that roundhouse kicks can be employed? The description will prime us for what to expect.
Our protagonist is meeting a romantic interest there for a secret rendezvous. The room description can tell us everything about this moment. Is it a seedy room, giving the meeting an illicit feel? Is it fancy and well-kept, giving us a romantic feel. Is the bed heart-shaped? Is there a mirror on the ceiling? Or is it the most basic uninteresting room? Every narrative choice tells us something.
The mistake a lot of beginning writers make is writing descriptions just because they think they should. If our characters enter a room, we get a description of that room that tells us every detail about it without giving us anything important. Everyone has their own style and choices, but I’m something of a sparse writer. I don’t like wasting time on things that don’t matter. I am not the writer that will give you three pages of description of a sunny day. There is nothing wrong with doing that though. Many great stories focus on minutia and paint vivid pictures. But they do so with purpose.
But all the above is still only a basic idea of a mission statement. The Mission Statement of a story is larger than that. The way I can best summarize it is by asking what is the one thing I want the reader to get from this chapter, scene, novel. You can even do it with a single sentence now and then. Ultimately, what does this element do that either changes or enhances or otherwise affects my reader’s perspective of the story? Usually it’s about a change, although sometimes it can just be a fun moment.
Let’s try some practical examples. Here are some quick takes on our hotel room exercise:
He had to put his shoulder into the sticking door to get it open. Its rusty hinges creaked, and he was surprised they didn’t break off. The smell hit him. Musty and dusty and something else he’d rather not identify. The small TV sat on a roller cart chained to the radiator. He tossed his duffle bag on the bed, sat beside it on the stained blankets. He twirled his wedding band on his finger. But he didn’t take it off. Not yet.
The emphasis here is of squalor and unpleasantness. Every detail highlights a character who is not happy, not in a place he wants to be, and ultimately, struggling with something to do with his marriage.
Also note how we don’t have to stop the narrative to explain any of that. It’s okay to have unanswered questions. It’s vital. By leaving space for the reader, you create engagement.
Now let’s take the same basic hotel room and put a positive spin on it:
He had to put his shoulder into the sticking door to get it open. Its rusty hinges creaked, but they sounded almost welcoming. The smell hit him. Musty and dusty and something else he’d rather not identify. The house had always smelled of whatever sterile pre-packaged scented candle she’d fancied. This place smelled awful, but it was an honest awful. He tossed his duffle bag on the bed, sat beside it on the stained blankets. Smiling, he twirled his wedding band, pulled it off his finger, tossed it on the bedside table.
The room is still crappy, but the narrative makes it welcoming by contrasting it to the home he left. The juxtaposition of the sterile home he left and this new “honest” place tells us how he feels about his old home. The smile, the removal of the wedding band, its casual throw tells us that this is a person who wants to be here and leave the past behind.
One more example. This time, the emphasis is on our protagonist’s pure exhaustion.
He put his shoulder into the sticking door. Its rusty hinges creaked. The place stank. He shuffled to the bed, dropped his bag on it, dropped himself beside it. He wrapped himself in the threadbare sheet and put his head on the flat pillow. And then he let the sound of the screaming couple next door lull him gently to sleep.
This is simpler than either previous example because it’s all about a character who is mentally and physically spent. There’s not much description because our protagonist doesn’t care about most of it. We don’t waste time with extraneous details. We just notice a few small things to get a feel of the room, and then our character goes to sleep.
I hope these illustrate what I’m talking about when I say Mission Statements define the narrative. Some elements remain the same throughout. Others are dropped or changed. The point is that in each case, the description of the room and the actions of our protagonist are shaped by the goals. And those goals can vary wildly.
When writing a story, it isn’t essential that you always know the Mission Statement from the start. Often, giving yourself permission to just write to see what happens is good and necessary. Not every story I’ve ever written has had a strong starting point. But by the end, I’ve always discovered a defining goal that runs through the story, and that’s where editing and rewrites come in.
There’s more to it than this, and I could go on. But let’s just leave it at that for the moment.
FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT, WRITING THE GOOD WRITE,