Last summer I attended the Willamette Writers Conference. Not to teach. Just to learn. It was the first conference I’ve gone to in years where I didn’t have any duties. I could actually go to workshops and listen.
I wandered into a class by Larry Brooks and sat down. Larry taught a mesmerizing hour on the subject of story architecture and I was hooked. Larry is a master of story architecture. I introduced myself after his class and we’ve been in touch via e-mail since then.
In the last few days, Larry has released his latest book, STORY ENGINEERING, published by Writer’s Digest Books. He sent me an electronic copy a few months ago and I inhaled it in a few sittings.
Here’s the endorsement I wrote for his book: “Nobody on the planet teaches story structure better than Larry Brooks. Nobody.”
Since Larry’s book is new on the shelves, I asked him to do an interview on Story Engineering for this month’s e-zine and also for this blog. Here’s a short blurb about Larry:
Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com, a resource for novelists and screenwriters, and a frequent instructor and lecturer on the writing conference circuit. He is the author of “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” just released from Writers Digest Books. He has published five critically-praised novels, including a USA Today bestseller and a Publishers Weekly “Best Books of 2004” entry. To learn more about Larry, visit: http://www.StoryFix.com.
In my opinion, STORY ENGINEERING is going to be the standard reference on story architecture from now on. Click here if you’d like to check out the Amazon page for STORY ENGINEEERING.
On to the interview:
Randy: There are any number of books on fiction writing on the market. What’s unique about yours and what drove you to write it?
Larry: Great question, one that I actually address in the Introduction of the book because it’s also an important question. I think anybody that sets out to offer up some fresh thinking on a topic that’s this broad and popular harbors an inherent insecurity, wondering if the world really needs another writing book. In this case, while I know there are many terrific books out there on “how-to” write a good story, I also think that the craft remains highly elusive for some folks. That, combined with the belief that we can never get enough fresh thinking on this topic, encouraged me to develop my storytelling model — the six core competencies — to a level of depth that would make it immediately useful to folks while offering something completely new. And, I have to be honest, people in my workshops have been asking me to write this book for the last 15 years, so that helps overcome those insecurities.
In short, it’s unique because it’s a fresh and completely original take on the “physics” of storytelling, which are anything but fresh and unique, they are universal. It’s an eye-opener and game-changer for writers who are still seeking that “ah-hah!” moment in understanding what to write, where to put it, and why.
Randy: Your book is about the “Six Core Competencies” of the fiction writer. Tell us more! What are these six core competencies and what makes them “core?”
Larry: I like to say, and challenge, that there isn’t anything in the writing game that doesn’t reside within one of six realms of craft, which I call the six core competencies. Four of them are elements of story — concept, character, theme and structure (plot sequence), and the other two are issues of execution: scene writing and writing voice.
That’s all we have to work with. All are necessary, a weakness in any one, even if the others would humble Hemingway into quitting drinking, is a deal killer. And yet, it is the magic, artful combination of them, when executed at a professional level, that results in a story that will stand out. That’s why this can never become — or be viewed as — formulaic writing, because no matter the genre or intentions, these six core competencies are as eternal as they are necessary. They empower the ‘art’ of storytelling without ever compromising it. This knowledge bridges the gap between what is, for many, an elusive “art” and the accessible, learnable realm of “craft.”
Randy: Let’s talk about Concept for a bit. In my experience in teaching at conferences, this is one of the areas where beginning novelists almost always get it wrong. Do you have a set of steps for getting this right? How does a writer move from a bad concept to a good one?
Larry: Many folks confuse concept with theme. Confuse it with premise. Confuse it with an “idea.” One needs to rise above the rhetoric of these words to understand the differences. An idea is to write a story about Jesus, for example. A theme is to show how, in the author’s view, the traditional church has it wrong. A concept — the starting point of real story development — would be a proposition: “what if Jesus didn’t die on the cross, and evidence to that effect has been hidden and covered up, sometimes at the cost of lives, by the Church for the last 2000 years?” Which is way more compelling than the original “idea.” From there, a premise evolves that describes a hero, a love interest, an antagonist and an unfolding journey for them all, including the reader. The result here would be, say, a book called “The Davinci Code,” which ended up being the best selling modern novel, ever. Confusion ensues when we — including writing teachers — casually confuse these terms.
My favorite tool for concepting is the old “what if?” exercise, using the highest level of “what if?” to develop a descending ladder of ensuing “what ifs?” that take the story in an optimal direction with originality and compelling drive. When a killer “what if?” begets a cascading natural flow of other what ifs, you end up not only with a way to expose the best possible creative choices for the story, but the assurance that you have examined all possible narrative options and have chosen the optimal one. Too many writers, especially “pantsers,” just write along and make the first and natural narrative choice without considering the options. The result is usually a rewrite, or a rejection.
Randy: You’re probably best known for your work on Story Structure. Outliners and Snowflakers tend to love Story Structure and Seat-of-the-Pantsers tend to fear it. Why is Story Structure so critical to every novelist, and what do you do if you’re a Pantser?
Larry: Because it is non-negotiable. Every good story ends up with it, so it makes no sense to fear that which you must discover one way or another. Pantsers are hoping to discover it as they write a draft. Planners begin with it. While I favor the latter, both can work. But neither can work unless the final draft demonstrates the “physics” of story structure. You can’t reinvent that, you must invent your story, no matter how original in nature, in light of those storytelling physics. Structure is to story what wings, a tail and an engine, all in context to aerodynamic theory, are to the designing of an airplane. Miss any of these and what you have is a crash and burn scenario.
Once you know what these physics are — the specific sequence, mission and elements of story structure — you begin to see it in every story you encounter. Even in successful stories written by authors who swear against planning or even the existence of structural principles. It’s like somebody turning on the lights for the first time. This recognition is the turning point of a writing career, because everything that happens from that point forward is from an enlightened perspective, rather than a random, hoping-to-stumble-on it, imitation-driven perspective. It empowers pantsers as well as planners… though once experienced, pantsers quickly being using story planning in their process.
Randy: One of your concepts on Story Structure that was new to me was your idea of “pinch points.” What is a pinch point and why does a story need one?
Larry: It’s from the movies, and it works great in novels. The driving source of tension in a story is the presence, the pressure, of an antagonistic force. We meet or sense that force early, we experience it at Plot Point One, and then it’s up to the author as to how we experience or see this antagonist. But we must see it and feel it again, and more than once. Pinch points are, very simply, when the antagonist comes to center stage, in context to what it/they want to achieve and how it opposes and threatens the hero and her/his quest. In a story about cancer, the cancer would rear its ugly head at the pinch points in a way that reminds us what’s at stake, what’s at risk and what the hero must conquer. The optimal locations are the 3/8th and 5/8ths points in the story, at a minimum, but more can be better, too. Because those moments often occur frequently, we can easily miss them as pinch points. But that doesn’t change the power of them when they are inserted in the right place, even if they are in nearly every scene otherwise.
Randy: Talk to us about “voice.” Editors and agents often say they’re looking for writers with a great voice. What is voice and how do you develop one if you don’t think you have one?
Larry: Voice is literally how you write. What you write in a narrative, stylistic sense. Your sentences. Your paragraphs. Your word and phrasing choices. Your wit, your irony, your poetry. Or your purple prose. A professional writer announces that skill within the first sentence. Thing is, you don’t have to be a poet to deliver a great voice. This is the least daunting of the six core competencies, and yet, non-negotiable: you must write professionally, rather than stylistically (the latter being the bane of many rejected manuscripts). You simply need to write compellingly. To be entertaining. Have a light touch, wield subtlety, have great timing. And most of all, never be over the top or too heavy-handed. John Grisham is a great example — he’s not going down in history as the best writer of sentences ever, but he is clear and clean, his narrative is an efficient and pleasant — and occasionally powerful — vehicle for his stories. Writers need to be clear: a solid voice is the ante-in, it’ll never be what gets you published. It’s all about your story. It’s like athleticism in pro sports — you’ll get cut on the day if you don’t have it. But from there, because everybody in camp has it, your success depends on higher, more elusive skills, moves, sensibilities and instincts. In writing, “talent” isn’t about sentences, it’s about storytelling.
Voice is like scent in the air — sometimes it’s pleasant, sometimes not. But that’s always a judgment call. Clear fresh air is always best, and safest. Sometimes brisk, sometimes lightly scented. But never something from a paper mill. You think that you’re clever and witty, but the editor might find you glib and pretentious. It’s always a risk to take your voice too far.
Less is more, unless more is called for. That’s the art of it. It’s hard to teach, hard to evolve, and invaluable once you do.
Randy: Thanks for joining us today, Larry!
Randy sez: Now, once again, if you want to check out Larry’s book, here’s a handy link to STORY ENGINEERING on Amazon. (Please note that this link carries my pesky Amazon affiliate code.)
Check out Larry’s web site and blog here: www.StoryFix.com. I subscribe to Larry’s blog and highly recommend it.