DBW Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

I’m taking a course in substantive editing, so I’ve been immersing myself in books on storytelling. Today’s DBW Review is about a helpful book called Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering by Larry BrooksI’ve read several books describing how to write great stories, and many of them fail to deliver. They focus on providing lists of what not to do. This is all well and good, but not positive or useful for someone who is trying to learn what they should do. Larry Brooks has written a comprehensive book on what he calls the six core competencies to build a successful story. Four of them are the basic elements of a story: concept, character, theme, and story structure (plot).  The remaining two are narrative skills: scene execution and writing voice. For each competency, Brooks goes into detail to describe why it is important, how to execute it, and where it fits in with the other competencies. For those who want to learn more about Larry Brooks, you can visit his website Storyfix.

What I Liked

One of the things I liked was how Brooks works hard at relating all of the parts together, rather than providing separate laundry lists of items to consider. Each section builds on the next, until you feel like you have a full grasp of the entire process.

The sections themselves are covered in a great level of depth. The section on character, for example, describes the three dimensions of character, how to create backstory, interior vs. exterior conflict, crafting a character arc, and many other topics. I honed in on this section because I enjoy character-driven stories. I had to laugh when he called me out for this in a part called “Character Is Not Story”:

More than one writing guru and established writer has described the essence of storytelling as character-focused […] But that’s like saying the essence of baseball is pitching, the essence of music is singing, the essence of medicine is diagnosis, and the essence of cooking is salt and pepper. It’s not wrong, it’s just not right enough. Because there is so much more to consider. (p. 58)

He then goes on to relate character to all of the other elements in a deft fashion that is both convincing and helpful. Brooks has an engaging writing style that helps to carry his messages forward.

I know I’ll be referring back to this book often.

What Could Be Better

The first twenty-eight pages of this book introduce the six core competencies and Brooks’s approach for his storytelling model. This section contains repetitive sales pitches on why his model works better than other models. It also includes several references to Stephen King’s On Writing and why none of us should follow his advice. (In a nutshell: because we don’t have an instinctive grasp of storytelling principles like he does after his many years of reading and writing.) I liked On Writing, so I felt my hackles rise every time this point came up. Even if I understood his point.

Brooks also spends too much time throughout the book on planners vs. pantsers. He often points out how story pantsers can benefit from his approach, even if they don’t like to spend a lot of time outlining. (For those who are not familiar with the term, a pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. This contrasts with a planner, who likes to plan ahead before writing a story.)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

I have yet to read a great storytelling guide written by a sci-fi/fantasy writer. (Suggestions, anyone?) As a fan of the genre, this is so disappointing. Brooks writes thrillers, and uses this genre for a lot of his examples. The only sci-fi reference in this book is to the movie Avatar, where Brooks describes James Cameron’s use of backstory to build the main character.

Verdict

This is a solid resource on storytelling that is worth multiple reads. Whether you are a writer/editor of fiction or simply a person who enjoys reading stories, you will find a lot of valuable information here. Highly recommended.

***

For those of you who have read up on storytelling, what is your favourite resource, and why? If you’ve read Story Engineering, what did you think? And for you readers out there (which I should hope is all of you), what do you pay attention to the most? Character, theme, or plot?

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37 thoughts on “DBW Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

  1. As a reader, I pay attention to the theme first (such as journey, discovery, survival, escape). Then, when reading I am intrigue by the plot, checking if the series of events and their time line is accurate. Having said that, if characters are flat, theme & plot will not be as entertaining or interesting, or may not make the theme credible. Not easy to pinpoint the one I will pay attention the most….

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    1. It is hard to separate them out, isn’t it? That’s neat that you focus on the events and timelines…I don’t tend to notice these as much unless there are some obvious mistakes. What genres do you like to read? Do you enjoy thrillers with complex plots?

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      1. I used to read lots of sci-fi & some fantasy…now reading mostly science & disease (medical) thriller & mysteries. My favourite of all time LOR Tolkien (has everything i one book: great characters, strong themes and time lines!)

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  2. I really liked this book. In fact, that and Brooks’ follow-up, “Story Physics,” are two of my favorite books on the craft. I think it’s because his method appeals to my left-brain tendencies. Plus, his approach is great for thrillers which is the genre I write. But I also loved Stephen King’s book “On Writing.” I think reading a variety of books on the craft is most helpful.

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    1. Hi Carrie! I agree that it’s good to read up from a lot of different sources. I’m somewhat of a left-brained person myself so I find clear methodologies quite helpful. I’ve heard that Story Physics has a lot of overlap with Story Engineering – is that true? Or is it just that one builds on the other? I’m glad to hear it’s worthwhile regardless – I will be adding it to my TBR list.

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      1. Now I’m trying to picture a story structure book that would appeal to writers who are definite pantsers…that’s a tough one! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Story Physics. It will be good to see how they compare.

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  3. I’m with you: I started reading the book and wondered when he was going to get around to talking about the good stuff. He went on and on and on about the Six Core Competencies, and I found myself getting annoyed. I was thinking, come on, Brooks, cook or get off the stove. When he did finally get to the meat of the subject, I was hooked. It’s an excellent book, just skip the first twenty-five to thirty pages.

    When I write fiction, I concentrate on characters more than I should. Almost to the point of excluding everything else. Gotta work on that…

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    1. Thanks for commenting, John! I focus on characters when I write, too. I guess I am more comfortable writing about what I notice in books (characters). Also, I suspect that my experience in improvisational drama and role-playing games is feeding into that. It’s all about the role, and everything else follows from that. Time to work more on plot!

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  4. I’m with you, I found the constant selling pitch annoying (especially the ‘you’ll benefit from this if you’re a panster’ message which he really rammed home)

    On the sci-fi / fantasy front, check out Orson Scott Card, he wrote a book on story telling, specifically for science fiction and fantasy. I read it ages ago, but I remember it had lots of valid points, although it was a little too geared towards scifi for me (I write and read more fantasy/steampunk stuff)
    http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Science-Fiction-Fantasy/dp/158297103X

    Also James Scott Bell’s book is pretty good, I haven’t finished it yet, but I prefer his explanation of story structure to Brooks’ actually. I got to grips with it better as far as applying it to my book (it’s basically the same structure but explained differently)

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    1. Hi Celine, thanks for the sci-fi recommendation. 🙂 I will be sure to check it out. I have heard good things about James Scott Bell but have not gotten around to reading his Plot and Structure yet. I’m glad it was useful for you. Here’s to more great reading!

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      1. Haha just remembered something about James Scott Bell: where Larry Brooks talks about first and second plot points, James Scott Bell talks about doorways that the main character has to go through. Very appropriate for your blog being Doorways Between Worlds! 😉

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  5. glad to see this review, I can never be sure what’s real and what’s planted on Amazon! Now I feel like I have a real rundown on this Story Engineering thing. Thanks!

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  6. Great article, Sue, and I’ll certainly check out the recommendation. I’m always looking for novel resources (no pun intended).
    Two books I’ve relied heavily upon in the past–although not so much any longer as I’ve got enough people in charge of my writing after it leaves my desk to throw their weighty opinion around as to what needs mending–are Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction (or anything he’s written, really), and Story by Robert McKee. The last is directed toward screenplay writing, but is easily transferable. One more would be Stealing Fire From the Gods by James Bonnet. These are my favorites. I’m hoping yours might find a spot within that list as well.
    Happy to see your words this week! Cheers

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    1. Shelley, thanks for sharing your list of go-to resources. I have just added them all to my reading list. And your pun may not have been intended, but I laughed anyway. 🙂 Great to see you, as always!

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  7. That looks like it’s got some useful stuff – I always like it when writers actually connect together the different aspects of the craft, rather than keeping it in separate compartments.

    I was going to recommend the Orson Scott Card book on sci-fi and fantasy but I see someone already got there first. I know Card’s views on marriage have made him a divisive figure recently, and I certainly don’t agree with him on that, but I’m never going to judge a whole person by one part of their personality and that book of his is incredibly useful.

    Victoria Lynn Schmidt is also worth checking out if you’re looking for structures and templates to play with – she has a book with different template plots and at least two on character archetypes. I know some people find that stuff restrictive, but I find it useful in ordering my thoughts.

    And for sf+f guidance in general the Writing Excuses podcast is great – fifteen minutes a week, and there’s always something useful.

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    1. Hi Andrew! It’s true that Orson Scott Card has fallen out of favour lately (for very good reason – I don’t agree with him either), but as you say, that doesn’t automatically negate the value of what he has written. I’m glad that his book has been useful for you.

      Your thoughts on Schmidt remind me of Brooks’s comments on creativity vs. structure – that having a structure in place can help free you to be more creative and not get mired in too many possibilities.

      And thank you for the Writing Excuses tip – it looks like a great resource. To the SF&F writers out there, you should definitely check this one out. 🙂

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