Missing Missing Missing

I had a boss when I worked in advertising who used to call together the Creative Group (four two-person teams of copywriter and art director) just before he would submit a pitch or proposal to a client.

He would pin the ads and TV storyboards to the wall and ask the group, “What’s missing, missing, missing?”

(I’m not sure why he repeated the word three times. Maybe it was an ad slogan from an earlier era.)

What was interesting was there always WAS something missing. Often, a lot of somethings.

Maybe we’d forgotten a “call to action” in a TV commercial … or we’d failed to justify a claim in a print ad.

But always there was something. When we got it fixed, we’d all go, “Whew! Glad we didn’t send this stuff out the way it was.”

I perform this same drill now … for fiction or nonfiction. 

As I write this, I’m finishing a first draft of a novel. It’s still raw as hell but the basic elements are there (I think.)

Just this week I read it all over, asking myself, “What’s missing, missing, missing?”

Sure enough, there was a lot.

What I’ve found with fiction is what’s usually missing is the Deep Stuff. “What does this all mean?” “What’s the metaphor?” “What’s the theme?”

I ask myself, “What scenes am I missing?” “Am I missing an entire sequence?” “An entire act?”

One exercise that helps every time is I’ll draw a diagram of all the major characters and ask myself, “Does each character have at least one scene with every other character?” Or “Am I missing moments with three or four characters together?”

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in “Game of Thrones”

One of my favorite scenes (actually four or five together) in Game of Thrones was when Tywin Lannister, the big bad patriarch, took on thirteen-year-old Arya, one of the daughters of his arch-rival family, the Starks, as his personal servant and wine-pourer. Tywin had no idea who Arya was (he thought she was the child of a stonemason) but she knew him … and more than once had a knife in her hand, waiting for the chance to have a go.

This was a great pairing of wildly disparate characters that could easily have never even been thought of by the writers. Did somebody ask, “What’s missing, missing, missing?”

It helps!

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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34 Comments

  1. Tom S on June 5, 2024 at 2:04 am

    So helpful. I really enjoy reading your writing wednesday newsletters. So personal, so thoughtful, and so helpful so matter what creative endeavor we are all pursuing. I’m a product developer, or inventor and so much of your advice is easily applicable to my creative pursuits. I have a couple products that are close but not quite there. I will ask whats missing,missing,missing to see if i can fill the gaps. Thanks Steven!

  2. Janine on June 5, 2024 at 2:16 am

    Super helpful Steve, thanks! Sometimes, what’s missing jumps out at you straight away. You’re reminding me not to skim but to really think about what significant things might be missing.

  3. vOz on June 5, 2024 at 2:29 am

    Steven: I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the “deeper stuff”.
    Yes, to fully flesh out a story, whether character or subject a novel element can bring life to the entire matter.
    Just for fun, let’s consider an element of a story based upon a short phrase.
    EX: (I like to drink from the same cup, said the other cup.)
    I ask “What’s Missing” … “What is the Deeper Stuff” …
    Thoughts please. PEACE / vOz 😊

  4. Tolis on June 5, 2024 at 2:33 am

    Thank you very much dear Steve!

    The phrase with the three “missings” has one advantage I can tell: when someone uses it as a tool they won’t fall in the trap of forgetting it with ease, as they probably would with a common phrase such as “what’s missing”.

    It brought to my mind the “sh*t detector” tool. Detecting the errors that separate the very scene, playscript, or maybe even an enteprise, from a paradegmatic -or even just enough to work good- completion.

    Strangely, I have the experience that the point where nothing is missing is possible! I must be getting crazy.

    My best wishes to you, Diana and all creators here from all walks of Life

  5. Jackie on June 5, 2024 at 4:34 am

    And back to the beginning for another look about…

  6. Frank Gugino on June 5, 2024 at 4:57 am

    Steve,
    I’m glad you asked this “missing” question, after or as you were completing the first draft. Often those answers come to us as we’re in the zone of writing. But asking those questions and trying to figure out the answers beforehand can become an impediment to continuing the process. How many times have I stopped writing to delve into the unknown factors that I may be “missing”. It’s a game we play with ourselves. I’ll take away that from your post today. Thanks.
    Frank

  7. John E. Bishop on June 5, 2024 at 5:48 am

    Steve, your boss’s Creative Group sounds a bit like the Inklings. I think it pretty well established that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien did not miss much because of what they shared as part of the Inklings. Not some things but a lot of things are done better when they are done together.

  8. Stephen S. Power on June 5, 2024 at 6:02 am

    Fantastic advice I’ll be using from now on.

  9. Steve Fiano on June 5, 2024 at 6:49 am

    I am in a song writing cohort that asks us to write four songs – one every two weeks over the next eight weeks. I am thinking “fast and loose” for this effort, but “What’s missing, missing, missing ?” will also be by my side.

    • Kathy on June 5, 2024 at 11:18 am

      Those nebulous things that connect us? Honesty , branches extending after a heartbreak or a loss? Isn’t songwriting just so tricky?

  10. Chad Allen on June 5, 2024 at 6:50 am

    Thank you, Steven, for this thoughtful tip!

  11. Mark Ryan on June 5, 2024 at 7:16 am

    Great advise for anyone who puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboards.

  12. Richard Ritenbaugh on June 5, 2024 at 7:57 am

    I’m nearing the end of a novella, and this step will be implemented!

    Maybe he used “missing” three times as a subconscious nod to the common symbolism of the number three as “wholeness” or “completeness.” The campaign wasn’t whole or complete until its creators discovered what was missing and included it. Just a thought.

    Thanks!

  13. Kathy on June 5, 2024 at 8:16 am

    I think the things I write here are better for a private journal. I worry when I share things that are too personal. And yet, that’s all I know. Me.

    What you wrote, Steven, feels like such a gift but a bit of a curse.

    I had finished several paintings from a series of paintings while my husband, was still alive. Denny was always so brave to ask me, “What was missing, missing, missing?”

    I just never wanted to hear that. In my stubbornness, they were finished and the best I could do. I knew that was not true then and more painfully, I know it now. What was true, was that the paintings didn’t say much.

    Ohh…those conversations! They are so LOUD now.

    How could I improve them? What was missing was a narrative, a dialog, a reason, a boldness. They pretty much said nothing. How brave was my precious Denny to tell me that.

    I go kicking and screaming into art. I am not brave. I am not bold.
    So, what is missing are those things. The bravery it takes to ask those questions of paintings, sculptures, narratives. of work I’ve felt was finished and complete.

    To accept incomplete visions says nothing to Denny’s memory. I know I owe him that step beyond and I owe that to myself.

    I confess though, my deepest fear is that I’m not talented enough. What is missing… is sacrifice. It’s so hard to find that now that Denny is missing. My confidant, my lover, my brave man. I’m not sure I can do this on my own. It’s a quandary of the heart. It’s a missing breath. I have to figure this out somehow. What is missing, missing, missing…. is Denny.

    🍃🌸🍃

    • Kathy on June 5, 2024 at 11:10 am

      Me again. It’s a few hours later.

      I’ve been working on one of the paintings mentioned above. I remembered a silly effort of mine, years ago, in my attempt to make my art different, to say something. I decided to put my cut hairs with the colors.. You know, my DNA, spread in each brushstroke. .

      It took forever to get that hair off.

      🍃🌸🍃

    • Peter Brockwell on June 5, 2024 at 11:47 am

      Kathy,
      Thank you so much for sharing with us!
      Hugs.
      Much appreciated!
      Peter

    • Peter Brockwell on June 5, 2024 at 11:48 am

      And Kathy, if your painting is half as good as your writings here, then it must be pretty darn insightful and beautiful!

      Peter

      • Kathy on June 5, 2024 at 4:41 pm

        Peter, how kind of you. Thank you for seeing me. Do you know that story, “When Horton Hears a Who”? I think we are all calling out that precious phrase, “We’re here!”

    • vOz on June 5, 2024 at 11:21 pm

      Kathy, Kathy, Kathy, Dear Kathy: Not so hard on yourself.

      When you look into a mirror you see an image of mortality not reality.
      The mirror only reflects what is shown.
      The eye can only bring the mirrors image into our minds eye.
      And from there we sense the reality of mortality.

      As Steven said: “Resistance is a Universal Law”; Resistance is a (Mirror). Yes, you were partially correct when you said you lacked bravery. But it wasn’t “bravery” you lacked; it was “pride” that blinded and stopped you from admitting the truth you now feel you must reveal. But be proud< you gave your best; you created form out of emptiness. You’re a creator. We can always improve, but first we must do… 😊

      As an artist, a painting or any work of art is rarely if ever complete, we just stop. At times we return but, in the end, we’re never satisfied, we just keep going. We’re perfectionists and that is the curse you speak of.

      Lastly your sweet Denny understood you and recognized the ‘talent” you possess. He was bold and courageous to tell you what your ego refused to hear. That is Love. Ego (resistance).

      And now with the passage of time, as seasons of life pass before us. We discover insights only time and experience can reveal. To see what we were unable to grasp in times before.

      Keep painting, keep seeking, keep loving… You must. You’re an Artist…

      Peace / vOz 😊

      PS: If you’re interested I’ve written and recorded a song with video you might identify with: “Deep in the Woods” / Alternate Title “The Artist & The Brush”. You can view and listen to it on my YouTube channel “Songshine Creative”

  14. Maureen Anderson on June 5, 2024 at 8:51 am

    It’s the advice often given to journalists, to end an interview with some variation of: “Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think is important to talk about?”

    People almost always answer with (1) a more concise summary of what they’ve already said, which is that sound bite you’re after, or (2) the most important thing they wanted to say but somehow never got around to.

    It’s gracious. And magic!

  15. Sam Luna on June 5, 2024 at 9:24 am

    I call these my “bridge” scenes. Usually necessary around mid-Act 2, because my Big Scene or Climax in Act 3 hasn’t been earned yet. I’m re-reading the draft and all of a sudden my car goes straight off the cliff. I need to build a bridge.

  16. Peter Brockwell on June 5, 2024 at 10:27 am

    I’ve been expanding Steve’s points, and realise just how much is missing from my writing project, and every past project, and yet I’m gaining incredibly helpful notions of what else, and how to give it shape.

    What a simple question to ask, but how generative of useful (nervous, slightly depressed shaking of head) answers. Ah, how great ignorance was when it was blissful…

    Thank you Steve, this is deceptive gold dust. Rather than a mere ‘missing, missing, missing,’ I’m looking more [n x missing, where n tends to a very large number ].

    And thank you the Muse(s) for asking Steve to pass this insight on to us!
    Peter

  17. Fernando Bérdi on June 5, 2024 at 1:29 pm

    Boa dica.
    São os filtros necessários.
    Grato

  18. Barbara on June 5, 2024 at 3:37 pm

    As always, spot on message at the perfect time. Many thanks.

  19. Tolis on June 6, 2024 at 3:11 am

    P.S. I write in the passenger seat of my car, Toyota Yaris, the last couple of years. And I was just reminded of you writing in the van, I hadn’t connencted the two dots. No matter what happens in the end, I am so proud that my road parallels some times in such ways with a man’s road who achieved what I’d dream to achieve. Hurray!

    No matter what the end will be

    • Tolis on June 6, 2024 at 3:15 am

      (and if it was my previous car, a Toyota Corolla from around 1989 without A.C., oh how heroic would that be! Melting in the sun of Greece. But it died a couple of years before me finding peace in the car)

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  24. Shelley on June 10, 2024 at 8:55 pm

    I just caught up on this blog and wanted to thank you for highlighting such an essential step in the writing/drafting process. I’ve saved this one and will print it out so I can pin it to my noticeboard above my desk.

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  26. anil on June 13, 2024 at 12:17 pm

    Reflecting on each character’s interactions is like examining the bio page passport of my story, ensuring all vital connections are made.

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