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Story Engineering: Concept

Welcome back to my series on Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering. Finally. Things got a little delayed because of the fire upriver. Things have stabilized, and I’m no longer concerned with suddenly needing to evacuate so I can go back to bumbling along.


There are 51 days until November 1. Until the start of NaNoWriMo. Until I spend a month losing my mind and typing like a madwoman. Fifty-one days to actually prepare.

Last week, I talked about ideas and concepts. For the purpose of this blog, we’ll say ideas are the initial spark while concepts are that spark fanned into a small flame (I might have fire on the brain here).

The Idea

So, in the last post, I rambled on about where ideas come from and how they can be turned into a concept. I also chose an idea for my NaNo novel:

a story about a YouTube vlogger

I got the idea from my eleven-year-old daughter who is obsessed with YouTubers. The idea is character based as opposed to one of the other essential elements–concept, theme, structure–Brooks talks about. Just because the idea was sparked by a character doesn’t mean I have to start with character development first. I decided to work on the concept before I dug deeper into the characters.

Developing Concept

Larry Brooks talks about how a concept can be summed up by a “what if?” question.

“[If] the concept is rich and compelling to any degree, phrasing it as a “what if?” question will not only be possible, it will be clarifying and empowering.

lastsupperHe uses The Da Vinci Code as an example. “What if Leonardo da Vinci implanted clues to his views on Christianity and the veracity of scripture within his painting of The Last Supper?” Well, I’m hooked. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the movie. I found the concept fascinating. See, already using terms without thinking.

Of course, you might not have that one ultimate “what if” right off the bat. And even if you do, you can still play the “what if game” as I call it because as Brooks says, “… when you pose one ‘what if?’ question, it immediately leads you to another.”

Well, that doesn’t seem so hard. Sounds like brainstorming to me. Only a little more organized and structured. Can’t hurt to try. Brooks says you can jump in anywhere, but as Freuline Maria said, “start at the beginning–it’s a very good place to start.” (I might be paraphrasing there.)

What If?

I decided to try out this “what if?” thing with my idea and realized I’d already set the first few up when I initially came up with the idea. I wanted to write a story about a vlogger. A vlogger that was tired with vlogging. A vlogger whose family won’t let him stop vlogging. Because they like the money he earns. So, let’s see where this goes.

  • What if the vlogger doesn’t want to do his vlog anymore?
  • What if his family doesn’t want him to quit because the vlog makes them a lot of money?
  • What if he runs away?
  • What if he finds a town that has little internet access?
  • What if he meets a girl there?
  • What if the girl helps her grandmother run a campground?
  • What if the campground is failing?
  • What if the vlogger decides to help so he can hide out?
  • What if she decides making YouTube videos will help advertise the campground?
  • What if he agrees to help only if he’s not in them?
  • What if business picks up?
  • What if the vlogger gets to know the other campers while filming?
  • What if he starts to trust people again?
  • What if he trusts the girl enough to tell her how he feels about her?
  • What if the girl goes behind his back and puts him in a video?
  • What if a fan recognizes him and spreads the video?
  • What if a bunch of fans show up at the campground?

Well, that’s a start. It’s the basic plot–at least of the first two acts. Without even trying. I just kept asking questions based on the previous ones. Simple. Brooks mentions that you can jump in anywhere with a question. You can work forwards and back. Or to the side as questions advance the story or spawn tangents that dig deeper into the concept.

Like, in my example above, “what if he starts to trust people again?” That’s an interesting little detail. But why does he need to learn to trust again? A whole new round of “what ifs?” branched off from the original.

  • What if he’s been making videos since he was thirteen?
  • What if his parents got involved because they knew they could make some money?
  • What if they started filming everything he did whether he wanted them to or not?
  • What if they ignored his wants?
  • What if they manipulate him to do what they want?
  • What if his friends use him for the fame?
  • What if the vlogger has asthma and has an attack?
  • What if his mother films it instead of helping him?
  • What if he finds out his friends and family triggered the attack to film it?
  • What if they hid his inhaler to make it more dramatic?
  • What if his sister was the only one to help him?
  • What if he finds out she was involved with the whole thing?

Can’t blame him for not trusting people. My notes go on and on, but I won’t bore you with them.

Concept Criteria

All of these questions are great brainstorming. But is there a concept in there somewhere? Brooks gives a list of criteria that should be met in the development of a solid concept. Let’s check.

Is the concept fresh and original?


Fresh and original are pretty subjective. A majority of YA fiction follows a basic plot: girl meets boy, hilarious antics ensue, girl gets boy at the end. Authors stick with the format because it sells. I’m not trying to win the Pulitzer here. It’s commercial fiction. So is it fresh and original? Not so much. But I haven’t read any novels about YouTube vloggers (yet).

If not fresh and original, does your concept at least present an opportunity to impart a new spin on a familiar theme or premise?

Honestly, at this point, the answer is probably a no–it’s still the same predictable plot. The closest I can get is that the book is from the boy’s POV which isn’t common in YA romance. The vlogger angle is different but not necessarily “fresh.”

Is your concept compelling?

I don’t know. Brooks says, “It isn’t enough that your character and your theme be compelling… you need to give your hero a motivated situation and an intriguing goal or problem to conquer.” That makes a little more sense. Is my main character motivated by a situation? Um, his family nearly kills him by hiding his inhaler. To increase their viewer numbers. I’d say he’s pretty motivated to get the hell out of Dodge. An intriguing goal? Eh. That still needs some work.

Does the concept set the stage for an unfolding dramatic story?

Okay, I think I got this covered. The whole him running away because his family almost kills him sets up all sorts of drama.

Does the concept lend itself to the other three essential elements of storytelling?

The other three elements are character, theme, and structure. Well, the concept I have so far builds up an interesting array of characters. The two main ones are shaping up to not be stereotypes (no girl waiting to be saved by her knight in shining armor). I actually do have a theme that came from my “what if?” brainstorming (I’ll talk more about that later). Structure is the outline. The sequence of events that supports the rest. That was the big thing I discovered while looking for the concept inspired by my little idea–the structure just kind of builds itself. My structure, though, is still a little lacking in the second half, but it’s getting there.

Can the concept be expressed in a succinct “what if?” question?

questionI already answered this. Not yet. But I’m getting there. Obviously, I need to do some more work. There’s probably a concept in the pages of questions I’ve asked, I just haven’t put it into words yet.

I’m not sure if this is what Brooks really meant when he talked about “what if?” questions. But for me, it worked as a great brainstorming exercise that sorted my thoughts and showed the direction the story could go in logical ways. I’m just gonna keep doing things my way.

Next week, I’m going to skip ahead to look at the structure of my story. The four essential elements don’t have to be worked in any particular order, but as Brooks says, “at some point in the development process you must create a concept for your story.” I like to get that done right off the bat. I’ve found that figuring out the concept leads to the other elements.

More in this series:
Part 1: An Introduction
Part 2: Ideas Vs. Concept


Delayed again

Part three of my Story Engineering series has been postponed on account of Oregon burning to the ground. Washington, too.



(C) whereintheGorge.com


The Eagle Creek Fire spread downriver to within eight miles of my town. Then it jumped the Gorge, lighting a fire on the Washington side. Ten miles from my house. We spent Tuesday waiting to see where the fire would go and if we’d need to bug out.

Thankfully, it stayed close to its origin point. We’re safe for now. The kids are disappointed. They have to go to school tomorrow (first day!).

It’s been a long stressful few days.

Story Engineering: Ideas Vs. Concept

storyengineeringIn the 2nd part of my series on Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, I’m going to discuss “ideas” vs. “concept.” If you’re just turning in, you can find part 1 here, but I’ll give a little refresher for everyone.

Story Engineering is Brooks’ method of planning out a novel. It’s not what to write, but how to gather all of the needed components before writing begins. He breaks this down into “Six Core Competencies”:

  • Concept
  • Character
  • Theme
  • Structure
  • Scene execution
  • and Writing voice

Brooks says, “… the Six Core Competencies is a checklist that must be addressed and completed before a story will work.” I’m going to take his word for it since he’s actually published books.

The House Metaphor

snoopyhouseFor me, the Core Competencies are like building a house. You need a foundation, walls, tools, etc. to design, build, and finish a house. Not having everything will build a house that topples or is never finished. Sounds like most of my novels to date.

The main problem I have with Brooks is that he’s very wordy (that’s saying a lot coming from someone who likes to ramble) and tends to talk in confusing circles. That’s why I’m attempting to break things down and cut out the clutter, so to speak.

I’m going to start with his first Core Competency. It’s good to remember, though, that you can start with any of the first four which he calls “essential elements.” These are the building blocks of the house: the blueprints, the foundation, studs, and walls. You can start a project by gathering these things in any order, but you can’t actually build a house until you have all of them in one place. I like to start with Concept because it’s the “foundation” in my metaphor.

Concept, though, can be confusing. Brooks goes around and around trying to describe it and how it’s different from “ideas” and a “premise.” It doesn’t help that people often use the three terms interchangeably in common vernacular. In the end, he says it doesn’t really matter what you call it, as long as you get that foundation laid.

Ideas vs. Concept

So, what’s the difference?

lightbulb-ideaI look at it this way: Ideas are those little sparks you get in the shower while you rush to get ready for work. You know what I’m talking about. They’re the most basic building blocks of a story with little detail. An idea is that first shovel of dirt moved as the foundation is laid.

I want to write a story about aliens.

That tells you nothing about the story except that it is about aliens. Which may or may not be interesting to read.

Concept takes that up a level. It evolves that simple idea into something usable. It’s kind of like a short summary or logline you might pitch to an agent.

I want to write a story about a teen alien that must stop his mentor/father figure from invading Earth while living secretly among humans during an anthropology school assignment.

That’s a concept. It tells you a little about the character and main conflict. There’s something original and interesting–a twist on the generic alien invasion story.

Premise goes a step further. It tells you what the story is about underneath. Is the story about the struggle of the alien coming to terms with his mentor/father figure betraying him? Does it expose the hypocrisy of humans through the alien’s eyes? Does it highlight the inherent racism and division of human society and how they get past that once aliens attack? Answering those questions would raise the concept to a premise.

This is actually the plot of one of my unwritten novels, although it hasn’t been fully developed. Someday I’ll write it because I really want to read that.

Where do ideas come from?

According to Brooks, ideas can spawn from any of the four essential elements.

  • Character – “I want to write a story about a girl with a famous brother.”
  • Theme – “I want to write a story about the consequences of abandoning your friends.”
  • Structure – “I want to write a story about two kids that survive an accident that kills their friend.”
  • Concept – “I want to write a fanfic about an alternate universe that reverses the roles of the main characters.”

None of these are concepts yet, but they are, coincidentally, the ideas for some of my novels and fanfics.

Boys Like Mine – My 2015 NaNo novel about a girl whose TV star brother has a breakdown and comes to live with her while getting his life together and inadvertently throws hers into chaos with his fame.

“Homecoming” – A 2005 That 70s Show fanfic about Hyde disappearing for twenty years after the season seven finale and the emotional struggle of picking up the pieces of his life and friendships when he finally returns to Point Place.

Whatever It Takes – A novel I wrote in 2013 about two teens thrown together (and eventually falling for each other) in their grief and guilt after they survive a car accident that kills the girl’s sister who was dating the boy at the time.

The Great Ring Series – A Stargate SG-1 fanfic series I wrote in 2011 set in an alternate universe where the Stargate isn’t understood until modern times which results in Sam being promoted to Lt. Colonel and leading SG-1 while Jack is demoted to Major and has to learn to be subordinate to an inexperienced field officer. (There are four stories, but the series is unfinished.)

These descriptions are a lot closer to concepts, although they could be fleshed out more. Hopefully, you get the idea.

Where am I going with this?

My goal is to actually develop an idea through all of the levels of Brooks’ Core Concepts (hopefully before NaNo starts in November). So, I should probably come up with some ideas. I spent a little time brainstorming the other day and hit on these four generic ideas–one for each essential element:

  • a story about two teens that meet in the virtual reality of an online game (concept)
  • a story about a YouTube vlogger (character)
  • a story about mental illness (theme)
  • a story about what happens during a traffic jam caused by the total eclipse (structure)

After consideration, I narrowed the choices down to two–the one about the virtual world and the one about the vlogger. And after a little more brainstorming, I settled on the vlogger story.


My daughter being creepy AF

I actually got the idea from my eleven-year-old daughter who is obsessed with vlogs, especially the ones that involve entire families. I was sitting there one day, while she rambled on again about this guy she watches, and I was like, “you know, I’m totally going to write a story about a vlogger one of these days.” She got annoyed that I interrupted her. Then I did it again: “I’m going to write a story about a vlogger that decides he doesn’t want to do the vlog anymore but his family won’t let him quit.” Even then, the idea was evolving into a concept.


How do you go from idea to concept?

Brooks idea is to list “what if” questions? They will lead one to another if the concept is good. In other words, brainstorming. Sometimes, the questions open the plot up. Other times, they illuminate some hidden, deeper aspect of the story.

What if the vlogger wants to quit because his parents film everything he does?
What if they won’t let him quit because the vlog makes them a lot of money?
What if they are negotiating to turn the show into a reality TV series?
What if the vlogger runs away to avoid being exploited further by his family?

That’s the general idea.

Next week, I’m going to focus on developing this idea into a concept. And hopefully, that will lead to Brooks’ other Core Competencies.

You can join in the fun by brainstorming an idea for each of the “four essential elements.” Pick one then take it a step further by asking “what if” questions to see if there’s the hint of a concept hiding in there somewhere. Let us know what idea you chose and why.


More in this series:
[Part 1] An Introduction

Story Engineering: An Introduction


It’s that time of year again. Summer is coming to a close, kids are gearing up to go back to school, and people all over the world are prepping for NaNoWriMo in November. In between the back-to-school shopping and last-minute summer trips, I’m planning story outlines in my head. Or trying to anyway. There are three weeks left before school starts and two and a half months until NaNo. I can do this.


I have no idea what I want to write in November, but I know I can’t have a repeat of last year. I didn’t pick an idea until October 30 and didn’t have time to prep at all.

patricktearsI gave up after a week despite really loving the premise of the novel. I just didn’t have time to world build. This year, I want to be ready ahead of time. And I want a solid idea that I can grow into an actual publishable book. I thought my 2015 novel would be that, but the more I go over it, the more I realize there are some fatal flaws in the plot.

storyengineeringMy solution is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I’ve had this book for years and have read it several times, and each time, I put it down more confused than when I started. It’s been a couple of years since I last tried to understand Brooks’ theories, so I pulled it out, hoping for inspiration and direction. Shockingly, it all started to make sense. Once you get past Brooks’ long-winded, round-about way of describing things. I mean, seriously, it took 23 pages before he even got to listing his “core competencies.” Twenty-three pages of him talking circles.

I’ll save you the headache and break it down for you.

Brooks has a method for writing, and since he’s published multiple books and coaches other authors to publication, I’m going to assume he knows what he’s talking about. He calls his method, “The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing.” And it’s less a method of writing and more a process of story development “that must be addressed and completed before a story will work.” With me so far? Probably not.

What I mean (and what Brooks takes eleventy billion words to say) is that the Six Core Competencies don’t tell you how or what to write but how to gather all of the elements you need to kickstart your writing. It’s a list of things that need to build your novel. And it can work for planners and pantsers once you know what you’re doing. Or so Brooks says.

So what are these mystic Core Competencies?

Here’s one of Brooks’ descriptions:

… The Six Core Competencies are like six categories of aligned pieces of the storytelling puzzle. Within each is a longer list of specific things to consider, and then each of those specific things has its own qualitative criteria and checklists that ensure you’ve considered them properly. There is nothing about storytelling that doesn’t clearly and cleanly fall into one of these six categories.

See what I mean about “wordy?”

Brooks’ book is full of anecdotes and examples from films and novels, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to his metaphors, and he tends to jump from one to the next like a hummingbird on crack. By the end of the first chapter, I wanted to smack his editor upside the head. I’ll give you my short version:

1. CONCEPT. Concept is the development of your idea. You have a basic idea that just suddenly comes to you. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that dream about dragons or that crazy conversation you overheard at the coffee shop or the article in the newspaper that sparks your imagination. But “concept” is more than just that first idea. It’s the development of that idea into something that resembles a story with a protagonist, conflict, and resolution. It’s the foundation of your novel.

2. CHARACTER. This one is kind of obvious. You need good, solid characters or nobody is going to care about what happens to them. Like studs holding up walls, they support the rest of the story and give you something to build on.

3. THEME. Theme is one of the most confusing things he talks about in his book, and one of the things that often eludes me. Theme is what the story is about. Not what happens or who it happens to, but what gives the story meaning. Theme is the walls wrapping around your novel and pulling it all together.

4. STRUCTURE. This is the biggest component of what Brooks calls the “four essential elements.” Basically, it’s the plot. He breaks it down into four parts which correspond with the basic Three Act Structure most people know with Act II separated into two parts. The structure is like the blueprints of your novel telling you where all of those studs characters need to go and how to arrange the rooms scenes.

5. SCENE EXECUTION. Scene execution zooms in on the structure. It’s about how you format a scene. What is happening? Why is it happening? Does it set up the next scene in the sequence? If Structure is the blueprints, then Scene Execution is the layout of furniture in the rooms. (I think my metaphor is running away from me.)

6. WRITING VOICE. For a lot of people, voice is one of the hardest parts of writing to nail down. It’s not just the “voice” of the characters, but the broader sound of the prose. Meaning, the words you choose can dramatically change the feel of a story. There’s a big difference between a mystery novel and a young adult novel. Between J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. Your voice is the personal style you bring to the novel–the way you “decorate” the scenes.

duhI’m sure some people are reading the list and thinking, “well, duh, you need those things.” Like building a house, though, there’s a lot more to it than just listing your characters’ names or picking an idea from thin air. If you’re missing any one of these elements, your house isn’t going to stand up. Or it’s going to be a maze of rooms that all look the same and no one will want to live there. In other words, your story will be boring or confusing or a rambling mess.

Story Engineering is about how to gather all of those little elements and assemble your house novel.

So, my plan is to tackle each competency one by one. There are ten and a half weeks until NaNo starts. Hopefully, by the end, I’ll have a solid outline of the plot and a firm grasp of the characters and goals–to guide my writing. In other words, I’ll have the foundation dug, the studs and walls ready to go up, and a plan for how to put it all together. All that will be needed is the finishing touches. The paint and drapes and kitchen tiles that make a house unique, so to speak.

spongebobdanceThere won’t be a repeat of last year.

So, come back next week when I’ll be discussing ideas–where they come from and how to use them to develop a “concept”–the first essential element of story development.


Part 2: Ideas Vs. ConceptPart 2: Ideas Vs. Concept

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