Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing

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.

Story Engineering by Larry BrooksWhat 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:

  • concept
  • character
  • theme
  • 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.

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