Examing Shifting Mars’ Sands through the Lens of Story Engineering


After reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, I decided to see how my novel, Shifting Mars’ Sands, hit the milestones that Mr. Brooks laid out.
Let me state from the start: I didn’t plan this novel with Mr. Brooks’ milestones in mind. I outlined, wrote, changed the outline, and wrote more. My gut (perhaps a better name is my instinct honed as a consumer of stories) told me at various points to switch viewpoints, show the bad guys, up the tension, etc.
Since 2009, I’ve rewritten scenes, dropped scenes, and, in a couple of cases, dropped entire chapters. I also added a character (John Bunderbon), added scenes (mostly for Bunderbon), and rearranged scenes.. Through it all, the core of my story remains, even after rewriting most of the scenes, sometimes several times, sometimes changing viewpoint characters. My original protagonist character arc remains, and, in fact, has been strengthened.
These past years (going on four) have been a learning experience. The first was getting a refresher course (or a crash course on grammar). Then working with a writers’ group on the novel. At the same time, I used various resources on the Internet as well as books like Mr. Brooks’ to become a better writer.
So, I wonder: does my book conform to the story structure that Mr. Brooks lays out? Do I have all the milestone and are they where they should be?
The milestone are:
·         Opening Hook – 1st 10-20 pages to get the readers invested in the story
·         First Plot Point – point where protagonist decides a course of action that causes the rest of the story to unfold; point of no return
·         Pinch Point 1 – reminder of antagonist’s goals and actions
·         Mid Point – introduction of new information, goal, or obstacle for the protagonist to overcome
·         Pinch Point 2 – reminder of antagonist’s goals and actions
·         Second Plot Point – all information presented, so protagonist can solve his story problem; no new information or characters can be introduced after this point
There is so much more to each of these milestones that I can’t/won’t go into here. Seriously, buy the book if you’re interested in writing fiction.
My novel, Shifting Mars’ Sands, stacks up like this.
Opening Hook: In the first chapter I show the main antagonistic force Peter Konklin of Peter Konklin Interplanetary discussing ways to bring MarsVantage (his competition on Mars) to heel, including causing an accident that “leaving bodies on the floor.” Further, I show Frank Brentford of MarsVantage speaking with a friend on Earth who is warning him that Interplanetary is making a move. Frank decides now is the time to go after the energy-producing crystals, Marsium121, to gain a degree on independence from Earth.
Here are the stakes of the story. Gretchen, my protagonist, will have to navigate the clash of these forces to accomplish her story goal, which is to decipher the symbols on a cave door, so MarsVantage can access the Marsium121.
First Plot Point: Gretchen meets with Frank and Chuck, the CEO of MarsVantage, and explains that while she is excited to do the work, she won’t lie during an inquiry if Interplanetary challenges MarsVantage’s claim to the Marsium121. If they can’t live with that, then she’ll return to Earth. She stays, and the story that unfolds is directly caused by that decision.
This point occurs 24.9% into the story. Optimally, it should be between 20-25% into the story. Amazingly, I’m on-course.
Pinch Point 1: Heather and Nancy (both Interplanetary employees) discuss MarVantage’s delay in sending the expedition to the cave where the Marsium121 is located. Nancy orders that the Marsium121 needs to be acquired for Interplanetary “by any means necessary,” which, of course, means that dead bodies are an acceptable price.
This occurs at 42% into the story. Optimally, it should be at 37%. I’m a touch late. However, I do have a lot of antagonist activities that remind the reader as to what their goals are and how they’re going about them.
Mid Point: In the cave, after Gretchen deciphers the symbols and opens the door that leads to the cavern of Marsium121, she discovers a message that points to a city buried on the plain beyond the mountains she’s in.
This occurs 56% into the story. Optimally, it should be at 50%. Again, I’m a touch late.
Pinch Point 2: Frank and Gretchen capture John Reed, an Interplanetary employee working for Heather and Nancy, as he tries to kill them.
This occurs 66% into the story, which is optimum.
Second Plot Point: Frank and Gretchen plan an expedition to the buried city. They include Sam, who Frank believes is an Interplanetary spy. Frank believes that the city will entice Sam to reveal himself.
This occurs 78% into the story. The optimal position if 75% in.
From here to the end, Gretchen solves her story problems. She negotiates a deal to take possession of the city as well as its knowledge and falls in love Frank. She has work (of historic importance no less) and a loving relationship. Along the way, she and Frank expose Sam as a spy.
My largest takeaway is that the milestones are present. Without knowing about them beforehand, I was surprised. I didn’t set them up, outline to them, and then write. During the outlining and writing process, I intuited them.
The timing of the milestones is reasonable. As I read the Story Engineering, I suspected that exact perfect timing would be impossible. At one point, Mr. Brooks explains that it is, and each milestone has some flexibility. Overall, I’m pleased with information in Story Engineering and my book.
I should state that the results above are the end result of editing and applying the principles of the book. At one point, I started the novel by introducing Gretchen in the first chapter, which included a couple of pages describing the cold, ice, and snow of Antarctica. Not only was that exposition slow, it didn’t add to stakes or the problem of the story. Also, it wasn’t a grabbing opening hook. At another point, I didn’t introduce Gretchen until the 6th chapter, which is far too late for the protagonist to appear. Recently, I moved Gretchen’s introduction from the 3rdchapter to the 2nd.
As a writer who is part of a critique group, I see plenty of manuscripts that fail to adhere these structural milestones. The plain truth is that these stories fail to work; they aren’t satisfying. I recommend all fiction writers to read Story Engineering and incorporate its principles into their writing. I suspect their writing will be better if they do so.

I’m interested in many things, from Mars to space travel, music to books, movies to creating my own stories. My sci-fi novel, The Music of Mars, is available now.

About George

I'm interested in many things, from Mars to space travel, music to books, movies to creating my own stories. My sci-fi novel, The Music of Mars, is available now.
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