The drive to Alberta and back gave me a chance to finish reading Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks. I requested the book for review with my novel in mind, hoping I’d gain a few tips that would help me in revising Dream of Peace. With each chapter, I thought about how I could apply what I was learning to my novel—and find I’m excited now to start the rewriting process.
This book was provided for review courtesy of Booksneeze. This post contains affiliate links; as an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
What Is Story Engineering?
As the title indicates, Brooks compares writing a story to engineering. He suggests that, just as engineers and architects design blueprints before building a skyscraper, so writers should also have a blueprint before beginning a novel (or screenplay or short story).
No one would go dig a few holes in the ground and start pouring concrete just to see what sort of building appeared. Thus it’s ludicrous for writers to start out on a novel and “just see where it goes.”
Brooks argues that most attempts at doing this result in a mess, or that instead of doing some story planning and then writing their novel, some writers use multiple drafts as a form of story planning.
Brooks is pretty blunt (even arrogant) throughout Story Engineering. He presents his six core competencies as the six things that will get a writer published; ignore these and end up in the slush pile. Even writers who claim to write by the seat of their pants follow his six core competencies; they simply do it instinctively.
Brooks uses examples from bestselling novels and blockbuster movies to illustrate what he’s explaining, with The DaVinci Code forming his core example. I’d argue that most of The DaVinci Code’s success came from its controversy (a great marketing tool), but I can agree with Brooks that Dan Brown was a master of storytelling technique (even if he made up most of his “facts”).
6 Core Competencies
The six core competencies in Story Engineering that every writer needs to understand are:
- story structure
- scene execution, and
- writing voice
Within those competencies, Brooks talks about other things I’ve already seen discussed, such as character arc, plot points, backstory, interior vs. exterior conflict, etc. However, Brooks pulls all these together into the bigger picture of how they work together to create a great story. He applies screenplay techniques (First Plot Point, Second Plot Point) to novels, showing how pacing affects the reader and makes or breaks the story.
Why Structure Matters
The most powerful part of Story Engineering for me was the section on structure (one of the largest sections in the book). This was where I really started thinking about Dream of Peace and seeing some of the problems I’ll have to overcome in rewriting.
I also understood Brooks’ comments about how some writers grasp these concepts instinctively. While I had a hard time deciding what the plots points in Dream of Peace were, as soon as I thought about its sequel (which was the fourth or fifth novel I wrote), I knew exactly what the plot points were. Somewhere between writing Dream of Peace and its sequel, I got a better grasp of plot.
Applying These Competencies to Stories
At a friend’s birthday slumber party when I was fifteen or sixteen (one of the only slumber parties I ever attended), we watched Tarzan. From the first scenes of the movie, I was hooked. I cheered. I laughed. I probably even cried. And the other girls at the slumber party laughed at me for my naive reactions to a movie they had all seen before.
Recently, I rented Tarzan to watch again with my husband. I found myself smiling broadly when Jane tells Tarzan, “Put me down!” and then immediately screams, “Pick me up!” I laughed when Tantor gave Turk what-for and charged to rescue Tarzan. And I found myself not caring, this time, what my reactions were to the movie. It’s still a good story (maybe even better than the book) with good music.
As I thought about my reactions to this movie, I realized that this is what writers want. We want our readers to react to the stories that we pen. We want to make them laugh and cry, groan and cheer, shout and chew their fingernails. If they don’t, then we’ve failed as writers to move our readers.
Brooks says in Story Engineering, “Empathy is the great empowerer of stories—the more empathy the reader feels, the more he will invest himself in the reading experience. And when that happens, the story can’t help but be successful. It’s precisely how some stories with seemingly unspectacular plots end up being legendary success stories.”
So the next time I find myself cheering or crying over a movie, I won’t hide it. I’ll just try to figure out how the writer made me react that way so that I can do that with my own stories.
My Thoughts on Story Engineering
Story Engineering comes with several checklists to help the writer apply the six core competencies to their own writing. I think I’ll leave this book by my computer, as I’m sure I’ll be flipping through it as I start rewriting.
While Brooks’ know-it-all attitude at times bothered me, he clearly demonstrated his own skill with words in brilliant analogies and quick twists of phrase. Story Engineering gives me a clear idea of some areas to improve in my writing—and the tools with which to do that.
“You can write like Shakespeare in love and have the imagination of Tim Burton on crack, but if your stories aren’t built on solid and accepted structure—which means, you don’t get to invent your own structural paradigm—you’ll be wallpapering your padded cell with rejection slips.” ~ Larry Brooks
Story Engineering made it onto my Best Books of 2011 list.
A “writer” to me is someone who makes a living off their craft, so no, I’m not a writer. I’m just interested in what makes a “good” story, i.e., are there any features common to every story? If you believe the market research firms in Hollywood, there are certain beats you have to hit in every movie to keep a steady audience. But I regard that view as merely a business strategy, a bare minimum for profit given certain demographics, and not something that is very helpful to creators.
Yes I suppose the hero’s arc could be distinguished from the story structure. Aristotle states that character is subordinate to plot in his Poetics. But it’s not clear to me what a plot actually is apart from the arc of the protagonist. Doesn’t it just make good sense for the two to coincide or map onto each other somehow? I think about this primarily in terms of screenwriting where they use a fairly rigid three-act structure, but it’s almost always designed around a protagonist. It seems to me that most stories in any media have three or four “acts” or primary divisions/sections, and this I think does go back to oral tradition and thus roughly to biology.
Hecky – long time no see. I didn’t know you were a writer. I had to rescue your comment from the spam bin; maybe Blogger doesn’t like long-windedness?
I’ve seen variations on Harmon’s structure. I think my first-year university English prof called it the journey through the valley of the shadow of death. I would say, however, that according to Brooks’ definition, what you outlined is a character arc, not your story structure.
I actually do believe that “story” is hardwired into every person, as you say. There’s a reason that we all love books and movies, and that books and movies can touch us in such a deep way. To me, this is because God is the great storyteller, who put in each of us this desire. John Eldredge and Brent Curtis speak of it beautifully in The Sacred Romance, as they show how throughout history, God has been spinning a story for us, His beloved creation, trying to draw us back to Him. All stories are simply a smaller reflection of His grand story. Even the structure that you outlined could be applied to God’s work to redeem humanity – Jesus entering earth to pay a heavy price to return to earth having accomplished His goal.
These elements are necessary but by no means sufficient to tell a good (i.e., successful) story. These days it’s all in the artfulness of your variation on the basic structure. The simplest breakdown of basic story structure I’ve seen is from Dan Harmon’s old posts on the Channel 101 forum. Working from Campbell’s model of the monomyth, he boiled it down to eight steps:
Imagine a circle with crosshairs: the odd steps are the points where the lines intersect the curve, and the even steps are the negative space between those points. This produces a rough rhythmic clockwise map for plot points alternating between specific events and aftermath. Harmon even fleshes it out a little more concretely:
1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
2. But they want something.
3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
4. Adapt to it,
5. Get what they wanted,
6. Pay a heavy price for it,
7. Then return to their familiar situation,
8. Having changed.
Of course the devil is in the details and the quality of your story will depend on how well you can vary the balance of each step. But each step must be present or your “story” will just sound like a sequence of events. It’s the circular rhythm of leaving home and coming back different that allows the old monkey parts of our brains to distinguish stories (which compel us) from random sequences (which bore us).
The structure is part of prehistoric human oral biology and permeates all the mythic traditions: it’s the basic arc of the hero. You will probably resist it because you have an irrational aversion to evolution and biology. But the survival value of this structure is hard to deny. This is the kind of structure that would tend to bind communities together and to aid in the transmission of information between generations, beyond the scope of individual memory. It’s the story of a person who leaves the tribal home in search of something useful to it, finds the desired object, but pays a price to return with it and affect change. This is the basic template for every protagonist. It works because it’s hardwired in to the psychology of every person. It reinforces identification with others in the community, it prepares young people for the dangers which lie outside the tribe, it tells of someone who ventured out to meet those dangers, and of the price he paid to do so as well as the powers (often magical) he was able to bring back to effect change. Usually the change is overcoming death in some way. Death is probably as close as you can come to identifying the basic theme of every story.
Many will reject this structure for the same reasons people reject Freud and psychoanalysis as pseudo-science: its weakness is its purported universal validity. There’s no reason to suppose that this pattern reflects the basic necessary ingredients of a story any more than there is to suppose that something unfalsifiable can explain anything else. But the function of stories is not to explain anything. Partly it may be to help individuals understand, but principally the function of stories is to bind a community together. This simply happened to be the form which emerged as the most common way of doing so, and it affected the offspring of every descendant of those communities from the mists of prehistory down to modern Hollywood.
This book sounds like something that should be added to every writers library. Thanks for the synopsis Bonnie!
This is a fabulous book. Along with Anatomy of Story by John Truby, I count it as as must-read. I agree that the sections on structure are particularly invaluable – to writers at all stages of learning.