Larry Brooks: Story Engineering

“You’re too cocky.”

Cocky? I said, “Cocky?”

“Yeah. You have all these theories, and that’s fine, and you’re probably right more than you’re wrong. But once you’ve answered something, you stop looking.”

“I don’t understand.”

He sighed. “All right, you know how we say you have to keep developing as an artist? …If you’re going to be a theorist as well, you have to keep developing that way, too. You can’t be content with easy answers any more than you can be content with paintings that are easy to do. Does that make sense?”

I said, “I guess so. But, shit, man. Where am I wrong?”

“Hell, I don’t know. I’m not trying to be a theorist. Besides, I agree with all your theories.”

Steven Brust, The Sun, The Moon, and the Stars

That’s a long quote, but it’s as close as I can get to a thumbnail of my review of Larry BrooksStory Engineering. The man is sold on his theories, which makes him occasionally insufferable no matter how much sympathy I have for his titular concept. Story Engineering is a good place to start if you’re a writer lost in the process of building your cool ideas (whether concepts, characters, or scenes) into a complete novel. Once you get past the bluster, Brooks’ advice is surprisingly practical.

The bluster, though…ye gods. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, skip the first three chapters. They are 40% extended analogies meant to sell you on the necessity of story engineering. The rest is mostly beating up on Brooks’ favorite target: the strawman pantser. (If you’re not familiar with the term, writers often separate themselves into two camps: plotters and pantsers. The plotters plan every detail of their stories before they begin writing. The pantsers just sit down and write whatever comes.) Brooks repeatedly rails against an imaginary, stereotypical pantser who refuses to outline, refuses to plan, refuses to think beyond the current location of their cursor. This straw man has an ingrained resistance to anything that might make their story “mechanical,” especially any idea that story structures and elements might build on recognizable formulae.

Given that Brooks’ Story Engineering is more or less a formula for producing a novel, one can see how his straw man pantser might not buy in. Brooks would immediately retort that Story Engineering is more about principles than formulae, and he’d be right. That doesn’t stop him from tearing down this straw pantser at every turn.

I get it, though. This book grew out of presentations he’s given and work he’s done with consulting clients. When you’re in a room full of people, you have to punch up your rhetoric. (This is why, incidentally, many academic papers fall flat in a conference setting. Their authors don’t adjust their language for spoken delivery.) When you’re trying to help somebody who refuses to see the flaws in their work, you push and plead and coax and hope they will give. That, I think, is what pushes Brooks to oversell his argument so often. He goes so far as to declare that anybody who successfully sells a story is doing things his way, even if they don’t realize it.

So…what is Brooks’ way? In Story Engineering, Brooks outlines six core competencies. Two of these we usually chalk up to talent, though they’re also a product of long practice: scene execution and writing voice. The other four (the ones he starts with) are concept, character, theme, and story structure. He’s at his best in these sections, approaching writing as a craft rather than as his series of pre- and proscriptions about planning. There is nothing revolutionary in his concepts. Brooks explains them clearly (between bouts of pantser-baiting) and, even better, provides series of questions to help writers develop their own ideas.

Story structure gets the most attention. Although, again, there’s nothing revolutionary here, Brooks draws on lessons from screenwriting and studies of bestsellers (particularly The DaVinci Code) to lucidly explain the foundational elements and shape of a plot. If you’re familiar with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey or similar explanations of story archetypes, there is nothing here to shock you. Brooks, though, approaches the form from a practical standpoint. He doesn’t just tell you which moment comes when, but offers suggestions on how to write those moments. Brooks’ pragmatism is refreshing.

If your collection of writing books is heavy on the “just sit down and write your way forward,” Story Engineering may be a useful counterbalance. If you’ve already immersed yourself in explanations of story structure and are a habitual planner, there might not be as much here for you. As a writer closer to the pantser end of the spectrum, I found much to use in Story Engineering…when I wasn’t grimacing at Brooks’ extended metaphors and posturing.

Larry Brooks’  Storyfix.com offers regular advice about writing and publishing novels. (It is also the virtual storefront for his writing consultancy.) Story Engineering (ISBN 978-1582979984) is available in print and digital editions from Amazon.

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