Some people have story ideas locked in their minds for years but don’t know how to turn them into full-fledged novels or screenplays. Some start writing but get lost in the process. They feel that something is missing, that the story can’t just write itself, they have no idea what to write about between two big story events… trying to figure out what is missing on your own can take years of work and haphazard guessing, and who knows if your motivation will endure the passage of time… luckily there are books that provide you with a clear roadmap. Story Engineering is one of them, and this review highlights how it can help you.
Larry Brooks sees writing as a craft with principles to be learned and mastered before one can hope to elevate it to an art. He presents and explains Six Core Competencies: premise, character, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice. Four elements and two execution skills. Naturally, we all know those competencies, but how much mastery do we have over them? Story Engineering attempts to increase our level of understanding and craft.
Lots of insight and advice scattered among fluff
Larry’s writing asks for patience and can even get longwinded at times. However I appreciated his intention to clarify his points as much as possible and give you a crystal-clear understanding of key notions governing the art of fiction.
Larry also warns against many pitfalls that many new writers fall in. Pay attention while reading because some short paragraphs thrown here and there explain various reasons for the failures of many would-be authors. This book is worth reading for that alone.
This is not the most practical guide; don’t expect “do this, this and that”. That said, it asks you questions that, when answered, will show you what is good about your story as well as what you need to fix.
Story Engineering does also a good job of clarifying nuances between words we use interchangeably (idea, concept, premise) as well as providing a better understanding of what “three-dimensional” means.
You’ll get some really valuable insight which will allow you to get a better feeling for what works and what doesn’t. Now in order to get that value, get ready for a myriad of metaphors and analogies. While reading this book I was in a very relaxed, tolerant mood so I didn’t mind this quirk, but it put off many readers and I can’t blame them.
Story planning: an efficient process
Larry advocates building a clear sequence of events instead of improvising aimlessly. He emphasizes the importance of structure and assures that professionals don’t just go by random feeling and must keep their narrative focused and cohesive.
Personally I was never a pantser, because once I start thinking of a story I get too impatient and I want to figure out the rest right away. Planning ahead allows me to approach writing with confidence.
Larry does get a bit redundant with his point, but I see where he comes from. Last year I read Stephen King’s On Writing out of curiosity, without expectations of some wondrous enlightenment. I enjoyed his anecdotes and got a handful of solid tips. But King’s approach to story creation – very intuitive – can hardly be emulated as it requires a high skill of “tying everything together as you go”. Larry’s approach of planning ahead is very efficient and will save you a lot of time, effort, tears and frustration.
“Just sit down and write” is a common advice but I think there is one that is as equally important but often forgotten: sit down and think. You need to figure out what happens exactly in your story. Think long and hard before you write, so that all elements of your story fit together tightly. Yes, at some point you have to stop procrastinating and confront the blank sheet. But the more you plan your story, the better your chances of avoiding (or overcoming) writer’s block.
My favorite parts may be the ones on scene execution and story development
Larry encourages the use of a beat sheet. This is a terrific tool as it forces you to exercise focus and makes sure that every single scene contributes to the story, thus securing a good pacing.
That’s how I usually roll, so I find myself agreeing with most of Larry’s recommendations and arguments.
He even offers a link to a downloadable checklist of questions you should answer in order to acquire an all-encompassing vision of your project. The more you know your story the better, although honestly I know a few cases of hobby writers not knowing the ending beforehand and still succeeding in tying everything together as they go and crafting a cohesive, powerful story. But that takes high skill. The beginner had better plan his moves carefully. Larry shows you not only how to use each Core Competency, but also how they must come together in a harmonious way.
It’s much, much more useful to follow Larry’s blueprint rather than relying on the thousand internet discussions (or workshops) with thousands of contradictory advice and opinions. Larry lays out the groundwork for building a professional-level story, one that can be published and/or sold. Regardless of tastes and choices, you need to reach a professional level of storytelling, especially if you have yet to make a name for yourself. And Larry explains in (too much?) detail how to do that. A story with a messed up structure or a weak premise will be rejected/ignored. Aspiring authors often fail to understand why or simply refuse to admit the causes. Larry proposes a tried-and-true approach for writing a story with no glaring flaw – thus able to convince agents and readers.
Depending on how experienced you are, you may find the content in Story Engineering either eye-opening or just a nice reminder. Personally I don’t read every writing book out there in the hope of having light bulb moments (this is only my second one). I heard about Story Engineering through the review of a fellow blogger and eventually decided to check it out. I feel it was well worth my time since my grasp on fundamental writing notions was enhanced.
If you can get past the author’s quirks, there is definitely value to be gleaned from that book. Just don’t expect it to revolutionize your outlook on writing – unless you’ve just started out and are in dire need of fundamental notions.
What are your thoughts on Larry Brooks’s teachings? Which how-to write books do you recommend?
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