I decided earlier this year, after stalling out on yet another story, to start treating writing more like a job - in other words, to take a more disciplined approach and to go less by whim. To that end, I took Story Engineering by Larry Brooks out from the library and read it, taking copious notes the whole time.
I'm not going to lie, the book was a slog. I don't read how-to books or even any stripe of non-fiction more than once in a blue moon, so it is a testament to my intention to take writing seriously that I made it through this book, armed with new tools to put to use in writing.
Despite the fact that Brooks mentions voice in his book as being a Core Competency, it is the worst part of this book.
To be fair, there are long stretches where he just talks about the subject matter and his passion for storytelling comes through in a genuine way. But it almost feels like those are the times when he's not paying attention.
On the flip side, the rest of the book, he's... is it macho? Is it condescending? It's probably some combination of the two, but it put me off every time I encountered it, and it made me glad for the notes I was taking, ensuring that I would not have to read the source material again.
What I got from the book is a set of tools - an exercise for each of the core competencies (minus Voice) that can help me lay out a story and take a lot of the frustration and uncertainty out of the process.
Brooks talks about the six core competencies in his book - four structural elements and two required skills.
The four elements are:
- Story Structure
The two skills are:
Concept is a high-level description of the story. It's phased as a "What if" question. So, something like, "What if we learned a meteor was headed to Earth to wipe out our population?" could serve as the concept for Deep Impact or Armageddon. You should be able to write your story as an answer to your conceptual question.
-- The concept section felt a little basic -- talking about it only because it felt like he should rather than because he felt he had anything to offer on the subject --
Brooks takes the notion of a three-dimensional character and runs with it, defining for us what these three dimensions are:
- Surface Detail and Quirks
- Backstory/Inner Demons
- Change & Response to Conflict
In defining these dimensions, he also talks about the traditional character arc in four stages (and how those stages fit into Story Structure). The four stages of a character arc are:
- Orphan -- this is the character in setup mode, before the story has its way with them.
- Wanderer -- After the setup, the character reacts to the first plot point -- every thing is a reaction in this phase
- Warrior -- The character starts to overcome inner demons and becomes proactive
- Martyr -- The character becomes the catalyst for the story's resolution
-- I've struggled with the concept of characterization, how much was revealing character, and how much was changing it. This section cleared up my questions nicely. --
Brooks says that theme can be as simple as having a strong character or or as complex as something that drives your entire story. He talks about exploratory theme where the writer plumbs the depths of a theme without really stating a conclusion. He also talks about theme as propaganda -- the writer takes a position and defends it. There is also a section on thematic intent -- if you hold the intention in your mind while you write, it will show in your narrative.
-- I kind of felt like Brooks was out of his depth here. He sort of contradicted himself and talked in circles. For whatever reason, that didn't bother me. It was almost endearing to see him flail. --
This was the section where it felt like Brooks was his most confident. Which is good because I felt like this was one of the areas where I needed the most help. Basically, Brooks breaks down stories into milestones and goes from there.
The milestones are:
- Opening Hook: setup - Why do we care about the character? What are the stakes?
- First Plot Point - The story gets its hooks into the character and his direction and conflict are set.
- Midpoint Milestone - When the main character goes from reactive to proactive - gets something or overcomes something that gets him on his way.
- Second Plot Point - The final piece that gets the character ready for the final conflict. Anything new after this should be well foreshadowed.
- Resolution - Final conflict where the character is the catalyst for the resolution.
There are also pinch points between the plot points and the midpoint milestone that shed light on the antagonist.
-- This section is, far and away, the longest of the book. It is the best thought-out, and the best laid-out. If I were the buying kind rather than the library type, this section (along with the character and scene sections) would have been worth the price of the book alone. Brooks shines in this section, dissecting stories and showing us their guts. Applying what he's showing us, however, is a different kettle of fish.
Brooks talks about the missions of scenes, their exposition, their characterization, ad their purpose. He talks about setting up a scene minimally and arriving as late as possible into the scene to give maximum impact. What's most important to me, though, is that he talks about sequencing the scenes before writing them so that if something is missing or something doesn't fit, it can be added or cut with a minimum of impact on the narrative. I know this level of detailed planning sets some people's teeth on edge, but it seems like a good way to avoid rewrites.
Rewrites, to me, are the biggest impediment to writing. I understand that there is a lot of emphasis on the process of drafting -- rightly so -- and I know that my own editing abilities are, as far as they've been tested, poor. When I see a structural problem with my story -- not something that is a polishing thing but something that requires I go back to a point and rewrite everything from there -- I generally know what it would take to fix it, but there's so much mileage between here and there that I just leave it and look at a new story that has less resistance.
Finishing stories is a lot easier if you don't give up, and I want to see if plotting out the scenes can give me that.
Brooks has voice as one of his core competencies and I agree with that decision. But he says to go for a more neutral voice because that is safer. He does this in a voice that is grating and dismissive. I'm pretty sure that's irony, right there. I don't agree with his "be safe, sell more books" philosophy. I think that a skilled writer can subtly create a story that is more engaging with a little effort than someone who's playing it safe. I think, however, story structure and character and scene execution are important to consider in advance because when you know where you're going, you can concentrate on voice.
I do agree with Brooks's assertion that voice is learned or earned, and I think that it's easier (and probably better) to tell a story naturally, in a style that doesn't seem forced, but I think that a story can be very successful in a particular style -- I'm thinking in particular of Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King.
I want to say that Story Engineering is a book that can be an invaluable resource to anyone who is looking to write fiction but who has had struggles. The unfortunate thing is that there is too much other stuff -- other stuff being useless metaphors that don't illuminate anything, an effort to project an image that doesn't fit at all with trying to teach something, and a never-ending sales pitch to an audience who is already reading the book.
If you're serious about a desire to write stories, and if you have patience, this might be the book for you, because it has a lot of good information.
There are a lot of good things this book provides that I didn't go into detail about. There are a number of checklists at the end of the sections to validate your planning, there are depths -- in particular about the timing of story structure to help with pacing, and about characters and motivation -- that I didn't have time to explore in this already very long post. I'm not going to copy and paste the checklists because, even if it is legal, which I'm not sure it is, it isn't fair to Brooks who has very evidently put a lot of effort into his book.