Recently, I finished a writing book, StoryEngineering, by Larry Brooks. This book isn’t some new fangled writing process that promises the writer a magic bullet to get the story published. There is no magic bullet. There’s only imagination, creativity, and hard work.
I found that the book informative and engaging. His examples are practical and easy to understand. Instead of taking a well-known work like War and Peace, which everyone has heard of but few have read, he takes popular works like The Da Vinci Code and Top Gun. Most people have at least seen the movies, if not read The Da Vinci Code itself. By doing this, the examples illustrated his points clearly.
Mr. Brooks covers what he calls Core Competencies like story concept, character, theme, voice, and more. Many other books cover these areas, some focusing solely on a single subject. Mr. Brooks’ information is solid, but that isn’t what I found most engaging about his book.
His explanation of story structure is where he shines. He didn’t invent it—he’s just shining a light on it to illustrate what it is and why it works. This is where his examples come into play. On his blog, he has deconstructed The Hunger Games and Side Effects. He never says that the respective authors read his book or consciously adhered the principles, only that these stories adhered to the principles.
I won’t rehash his explanation of story structure—I don’t have the space, and, in the end, I couldn’t do it justice. But, I’ll expand on one item that he revealed.
In every successful story, there is a point where the hero decides on a course of action that informs the rest of the story. Mr. Brooks calls this the First Plot Point. In The Hunt for Red October, it’s when Jack Ryan accepts going into the field to support his theory. In Iron Man 3, it’s when Tony Stark challenges The Mandarian on national T.V. to come and get him, even providing his address. In The Hunger Games, it’s when Katniss takes her sister’s place in the games.
On the negative side, Mr. Brooks ventures into salesman-mode throughout the entire book. He advocates planning instead of pantsing/organic writing/discovery writing. He advocates writing to the structure instead of “finding” the story. I agree with him and did so from the beginning. For me, the constant sell comes across as refusing to accept “yes” for an answer.
That was until I mentioned the book at my writers’ group on Saturday. A few of the members dismissed it as formulaic. I now understand why he makes such an effort to sell his point of view.
Mr. Brooks defends against the formulaic argument himself, so I won’t rehash it. I will, however, explain my perspective. I believe the human mind appreciates, accepts, and anticipates structure and patterns. It’s human nature. Our stories–our successfully stories—must adhere to certain principles and structure, so that they’re appreciated by the reader.
For example, our cars must adhere to certain rules and structure. Within these rules, you can get a Ford Pinto, a Jeep, a Porsche, or a Koenigsegg. All of these vehicles, are legal to drive on the public roads because they adhere to the rules and standards for automobiles: They have four wheels, a windshield, an engine, a transmission, and take gasoline. Yet, they’re as different as night and day.
The Porsche and Koenigsegg are speedsters with sleek lines while the Jeep is a utilitarian vehicle. The Pinto, of course, explodes when hit from behind. 🙂 If you want to drive 150 mph and look good doing it, get a Porsche or Koenigsegg. A Jeep won’t do that. If you want to haul a chord of wood, get a Jeep. A Porsche or Koenigsegg won’t/can’t do that.
Yet, in certain fundamental aspects, they’re the same. Their engineers focused their creativity within a set structure. Instead of confining or limiting them, the structure freed them.
As for the scoffing writers from my Saturday group, all I’ll say is that I’ve read your stories. One of you writes to a structure in a loose way already. The other doesn’t—at all. This person’s (I’m avoiding names and even pronouns on purpose.) last novel had a passive protagonist throughout the story and no measureable milestones. I couldn’t find a concrete story goal for the protagonist, nor could I find any milestones like First Plot Point, Midpoint, or Second Plot Point.
It’s not my place to convince anyone to change. A writer, any writer, has to want to get better. Writing is like life. If you aren’t constantly learning, then your stagnating—at best—or falling behind. If that author doesn’t want to learn or, at least, investigate the technique, then so be it—I can’t force the author.
What I know, though, is that I’m not competing with that author to get published. I’m okay with that.