Yesterday I discussed my strategy (for lack of a better word) at the kickoff of NaNoWriMo and how ill-prepared I was to write a novel. I was following in the footsteps of King and Bradbury. Silly girl, so out of your league. I had written a novel by the seat of my pants before. Surely, I could do it again. Nope, it wasn’t going to happen, certainly not in the time frame allotted.
Maybe King and Bradbury didn’t need to plan their stories, but somewhere in those brilliant minds I believe there was a plan, just not documented. For us less talented people, we need guidance, a model and that is just what Larry Brooks provides in his book Story Engineering. I created a model in Excel based on what I learned from the book. I merged it with my timeline, so it’s a little too intricate to share in this post, but I searched the web for a summarized version and found one here.
As you can see, there are certain milestones that should occur at predefined (but not rigidly set) points in the story to increase the dramatic tension and keep the reader engaged. The book goes into a deeper level of detail. If you read it and follow the model you won’t be at a loss about what to write and when. The model provides the structure to set the right pacing and tension for your story. If you deploy one of these milestones too early or too late, you risk losing the reader.
Are you still not sure you need a model? I didn’t think I did either until I hit that wall. Here is what Brooks has to say on the subject of organic writing:
“Many writers just sit down and write without a recipe. A story may or may not emerge, and that lucky writer may or may not be cognizant of the presence of the various structural elements and storytelling presence—the recipe—required.”
“While organic writers are often loath to admit it, the very drafting process they advocate is nothing other than a process of searching for and blueprinting their story, one iteration at a time, until they arrive at a solid sequential structure for it.”
“King’s approach—known as organic writing or, in some circles, pantsing (for seat-of-the-pants storytelling)—may actually work for some, but that’s only if a) you know what you’re doing to the extent that you don’t need to plan out your story; b) you somehow stumble upon the proper structural sequence and intuitively meet all the criteria for the various essential components; and c) you’re willing to complete the inevitable rewrites that come with writing without a story plan.”
“Those published writers who, like King, just start writing their stories from an initial idea do so using an informed sensibility about, and working knowledge of, story architecture. And yet, this is the default approach for nearly every new writer and a startling percentage of established ones, published and non published alike.”
Brooks provided many analogies in his book to emphasize this point. Here are a few:
“Consider a chef preparing a gourmet dish as an apt analogy for writing a story. First, the chef acquires all the ingredients called for in the recipe. There are basic principles to follow (eggs Benedict, for example, doesn’t fly without eggs, ham, an English muffin, and hollandaise sauce); still, there is room for the chef to play with the recipe to make it his own creation.”
“Just as an engineer relies on an architecturally sound blueprint to build a structure that will bear weight and resist the elements—a vision and a plan based on proven physics and structural dynamics—writers can benefit from approaching the craft of storytelling armed with a keen command of the literary equivalent. It’s unthinkable that an engineer and an architect would meet at the construction site one day and just start digging holes and pouring concrete.
Writing is no different. We build our stories on a foundation of structurally sound principles. But from there we depend on something less definable and teachable to elevate our work. To raise it to something that publishers will buy and readers will consume and embrace.”
Human Body Analogy
“Human beings bring only a handful of facial features to the blueprint of how we look—two eyes, two eyebrows, a nose, a mouth, a pair of cheekbones, and two ears, all pasted onto a somewhat ovular-to-round face. That particular blueprint doesn’t often vary much, either. Interestingly enough, this is about the same number of essential storytelling parts and milestones that each and every story needs to showcase in order to be successful.
Now, consider this: With only these eleven variables to work with, ask yourself how often you see two people who look exactly alike. Where we humans are concerned, the miracle of originality resides in the Creator, who applies an engineering-driven process—eleven variables—to an artistic outcome.”
There are seven billion people on the planet. How often do you see two people who look exactly alike? Yet we all have the same basic structure underneath. His model provides the basic structure of every successful story without limiting the writer’s creativity. Brooks tells us “with some isolated and therefore irrelevant, exceptions, every published novel or produced screenplay delivers on each of the Six Core Competencies described in this model, at least to some degree. Even if the author doesn’t recognize it, or happened to back into them after multiple drafts. And even then, the really successful ones take them to a level of integration that defies definition. That become artful.”
So what are the six core competencies?
- Concept-The idea that evolves into a platform for a story.
- Character-Every story needs a hero. We don’t need to like him, but we do need to root for him.
- Theme-What your story is illuminating about life.
- Structure-What happens and in what order.
- Scene Execution-A story is a series of scenes with connective tissue and guidelines to make them work.
- Writing Voice-The suit of clothes that delivers the story to the reader.
The list only touches the surface of what is covered in the book. Maybe, like me, you had a basic understanding of the core competencies. I’ve read dozens of books on the craft of writing, but this is the first one that provided clarity on how it all worked together. This book will take your understanding of the writing process, story structure, and hopefully your writing, to a higher level.
To learn more about the competencies and how to deploy them properly in your novel, you will need to read the book.