It’s no secret that today’s guest is my favorite author. In my opinion, he’s written two of the best craft books ever written — Story Engineering and Story Physics. Matter of fact, he has a new e-bookstore in the works, with craft books ranging from .99￠ – $2.99. Once he releases an official page I’ll add it to the Crime Writer’s Resource and link for easy access.
Larry Brooks is the author of six critically acclaimed thrillers, and the guy behind www.storyfix.com, one of the fastest-growing and most respected writing sites on the internet, voted one of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers every year since its inception. His latest novel is The Seventh Thunder, released April, 2014 by Turner Publishing. Other titles include Deadly Faux, Darkness Bound, Bait and Switch, Pressure Points, Serpent’s Dance, released as trade paperbacks.
I’m reading Bait and Switch — and it’s AWESOME!
Hi Larry! I am so excited to have you here.
In Story Engineering you focus on the Six Core Competencies of Storytelling. To help explain what each core competency is I’ve taken quotes from your book.
This sums it up nicely…
“A Story Viewed As A Living, Breathing Thing”
“A story has many moods. It has good days and bad days. It must be nurtured and cared for lest it deteriorates. And it has a personality and an essence that defines how it is perceived. Just like human beings. In fact, comparing a well-told story to a healthy human being becomes an effective analogy to better understand the interdependency of the parts and the delicate balance of chemistry and biomechanics that allow the body– and the story– to move, to thrive, and to grow.”
“When applied to the story development process, you end up with an approach that is based on nothing short of what it is, in essence, story engineering. It works for writers for the very same reason it works for the folks that build stadiums and skyscrapers. It’s based on natural law. On time-tested, basic truths. For builders, that’s physics. For writers, that’s the Six Core Competencies. In no way does using these compromise the experience of the writer or the value of the end product. The Six Core Competencies create a story development model that leaves nothing out of the writing equation, except perhaps the need for an abundant number of drafts.”
“Execute them at a professional level and you may find yourself in the hunt for a publishing contract.”
The Six Core Competencies are: CONCEPT, CHARACTER, THEME, STRUCTURE, SCENE EXECUTION and WRITING VOICE.
In Story Physics you look at the six essence of storytelling. Physics are essence, forces, catalyst for an outcome. Competencies and Essence are “Completely different things… Yet connected at the hip.” The six basic essences of storytelling are: COMPELLING PREMISE, DRAMATIC TENSION, PACING, HERO EMPATHY, VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE, and NARRATIVE STRATEGY.
Writers: I found it best to first read Story Engineering and then delve deeper with Story Physics. When put together these books will transport your writing to a whole new level. For today, though, we’ll concentrate on The Six Core Competencies of Story Engineering. Perhaps at a later date Larry could be persuaded to come back for Story Physics, or one of the many new craft e-books (click the cover to go to Amazon page).
Let’s get into the Six Core Competencies…
“The idea or seed that evolves into a platform for a story. Best and most powering when put as a “what if?” question. The answer leads to further “what if?” questions in a branching and descending hierarchy, and the collective whole of those choices and answers becomes your story.”
Many writers struggle with the difference between PREMISE and CONCEPT. I know I sure did before reading Story Engineering. When I was first taught PREMISE by a college professor he phrased it as a “what if?” question, and I think that’s why the two — PREMISE and CONCEPT — are so easily confused. Can you define the difference for us, please?
Writers: Larry gets into a higher level concept, or ascending value-add, and a lateral, or a descending value-add, that drills down deeper into the actual storyline. There’s so much information in this book it’s difficult to pinpoint what message is more important than another. Which is why I’ve only concentrated on the difference here.
Over to you, Larry…
LB: To simplify even further, the two context-setting essences required for a story to soar are CONCEPT and PREMISE, the latter being what you just referred to as “a lateral, or a descending value-add, that drills down deeper into the actual story line.”
This is both a pothole and an opportunity. It’s a pothole because too many writers don’t recognize the difference between them. Because there is a natural affinity between them, writers just plow ahead. It’s like a student going to medical school (that’s a concept, “I want to be a doctor”) and then, before graduating with the skills and knowledge necessary, they begin practicing dermatology in their spare time. The actual practice is composed of hundreds or even thousands of pieces of information, specific protocols, criteria, benchmarks, models and sequences, the sum of which, while flexible, constitutes a successful practice. And yet, “being a doctor” remains a singular idea that fuels the whole thing.
With concept, we are looking for something fresh, compelling, provocative and inherently interesting. It’s a notion, a proposition, a “what if?” Or an arena, a landscape, a specific social or geographical or historical playing field for the story (like, a love story about firefighters who live together for three days at a time… that’s an arena that is inherent interesting, because the only way we can enter that world is vicariously). Or, it can be something about a character around which you can build a story, such as a terminal patience, someone with supernatural gifts, someone who is a psychopath or immortal or the best looking/ugliest person ever… all of those precede a storyline, but they all create a CONCEPTUAL context for one. That’s the goal of concept.
Premise, however, isn’t all that simple. While it can and should be stated in one or two sentences, those sentences need to cover a lot of ground – what the hero needs and wants in the story (your hero’s journey or quest), with a goal, something opposing that goal, something that creates conflict and tension and urgency, with clear stakes involved, and some sense of what the hero must DO to reach the finish line.
Every genre except “literary fiction” has this criteria. No exceptions. And each genre becomes, in a way, its own conceptual essence, but we need to add another layer to it within the parameters of the genre.
Get them both right – concept and premise – and you’re in the game. Take one for granted, or lightfoot it, and you’re already behind, or even DOA.
“Don’t leave home without one. Every story needs a hero. We don’t need to like him (contrary to what your high school composition teacher told you) but we do need to root for him.”
It would be great if you could explain the three dimensions of character. Understanding this really helped me on many levels. I know agents/editors use this as a reason for rejection quite often. Writers get a form letter with “I didn’t connect with your character” and no explanation. And I think the three dimensions of character will help with understanding why and hopefully how to prevent it in the future. Writers: that’s not to say if you nail this one of the six core competencies you won’t get rejected. You need all six — executed correctly.
LB: Character isn’t over-rated, but it’s often misunderstood. Seeking to tell the life story of a fictional character rarely works, and yet many new writers go down that fatal path. Rather, the story is about the hero’s journey and quest (with the criteria mentioned earlier), and it is through the hero’s decisions and actions TOWARD the pursuit of that goal that becomes the tapestry of the story’s character arc.
The acid test is easy. If you have a scene that is solely, without linkage to the plot, about showing who the character is, then chances are you’re already off the mark. You can get away with only one of two of those, but they must be in the first quartile, before the First Plot Point really launches the core story (hero’s journey/quest).
One other note. If the hero’s goal is to “be happy” or to “find love,” that’s not it. It’s what they must DO or CONQUER – decision and action – that will empower them to be happy or find love that becomes the fodder for the story. Story isn’t about happiness and love, those are OUTCOMES. Rather, story is about WHAT HAPPENS to get to that ending.
“Yes, it’s like putting smoke into a bottle, but it can be done. Not to be confused with concept, theme is what your story is illuminating about real life.”
To show the importance of theme I’ve taken another quote from your book: “If your concept doesn’t naturally align with a journey for great characters and deliver a thematic punch along the way, one that makes people resonate with their own humanity, it isn’t a good concept after all.”
This is where I think I had my biggest epiphany. Sure, I knew about theme. At least I thought I did. But I had no idea just how big of an impact it made on a story until I read Story Engineering. And while reading The Seventh Thunder, your incredible, heart-thumping secular thriller, I saw theme in action. For those who missed my post about The Seventh Thunder you can find it here.
In Story Engineering you reference The Da Vinci Code, along with others, to help drive home the importance of theme. I, too, have referenced a secular thriller, The Seventh Thunder. But I don’t want to give writers the impression that theme must relate to religion. You talk about exploring an issue vs. making a point.
Theme is such an important factor in storytelling — theme as a whole and when it refers to character. To truly grasp the intricacies they need to read the book. ;-)
Did you hear that, everyone? You need to read the book!
So, what can you tell us about theme?
LB: Well, I agree, of course. (grinning) Theme can easily be overplayed. Often it enters a story naturally… you can’t set a story in an orphanage and not have it be thematic by definition. It’s simply the “issue” or “life experience/lesson” that the reader is being asked to engage with in the story. The hotter the buttons being pushed, the better.
“What comes first, what comes next, and so forth… and why. And no, you can’t just make it up for yourself. There are certain expectations and standards here. Knowing what they are is the first step toward getting published.”
There’s a lot to structure. In the book Larry talks about four buckets. Each bucket represents an Act. He goes into depth about what each bucket should contain, where it appears in the story, and why. In the interest of time, so we can get more in-depth in other areas, could you please explain the difference between Story Structure vs. Story Architecture?
LB: Structure is the grid, the skeleton. Story Architecture is what you hang on the skeleton. Engineers pay attention to structure first, because it bears all the weight. Architectures, while totally engaging with structure also think about aesthetic choices, colors and surfaces and art and design. In writing, these two become separate focuses, yet are sequential and eventually one in the same. If you put a great character into a cool setting but the structure is off, it won’t work. Conversely, if the structure is stellar but the story isn’t, then you’re not there yet. We need both. They are the same, but different.
“You can know the game, but if you can’t play it well you can’t win. A story is a series of scenes with some connective tissue in place. And there are principles and guidelines to make them work.”
Here’s my favorite quote in this section: “As for your writing skills… it isn’t always the fastest or more athletic player who wins, or even becomes champion. It’s the player who has the most heart, the player who won’t quit, and the player who gets the most out of what she knows and has been given. To which she is always striving to add.”
Isn’t that empowering, folks? Fabulous!
Here’s another place I had epiphanies galore. In the book you talk about “ushering the reader into a new scene” and how every scene must have a mission.
LB: I believe that the single most illuminating, powerful and career-changing principle is just this: every scene needs an expositional mission, IN ADDITION TO illustrating character and place. The plot must be visible in every scene, and it must be either in the process of being set up (in the first quartile) or being forwarded (beginning with the First Plot Point forward). It’s that simple: what’s the mission of the scene? If the answer doesn’t forward the plot, then the answer isn’t good enough. Yet. Fix it.
A reminder, “literary fiction” has a different set of expectations and criteria. The plot/conflict criteria is lower or absent, while the character and writing voice benchmarks are vague, elusive, and considered to be higher.
The ushering part is a function of how well the story adheres to a solid structural plan. Because each scene is forwarding plot exposition, the each scene can be – should be – developed in context to full knowledge of what happens before it, and after it. Which, in turn, facilitates transitions between those scenes. That in itself is an art form, the sense of where and how to end a scene with an open-ended moment, something that compels the reader to keep going. Television does this really well (especially drama), pay attention to the last moment before a commercial, that’s all by design, you really want to stay tuned.
“The coat of paint, or if you prefer, the suit of clothes, that delivers the story to the reader. The biggest risk here is letting your writing voice get in the way. Less is more. Sparingly clever or sparsely eloquent is even better.”
This I’m not going to ask you about, because, frankly, it’s too involved. Writers: you’ll really want to know what he talks about in the book with regards to Writing Voice. There’s only so much room without making this post way too long. You know what to do. Buy. The. Book. I promise, it will be the best investment you’ve made in your future thus far.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Larry.
Thanks for having me here, I hope someone out there has a little Epiphany or two from this experience.
To learn more about Larry Brooks and his work visit his author’s page here or go to his website, Storyfix.com. Larry also offers coaching and story empowerment services… four levels, all really affordable. Find out more here, or by visiting his website. Also, he’s in the midst of publishing shorter tutorials (more than just those pictured in this post).
Below are Larry’s pulse-pounding thrillers (linked at the beginning of this post). If you’re looking for an un-put-down-able read you can’t go wrong with any of these talented author’s books.