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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.

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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

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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.

youcandoit

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

Camp NaNoWriMo

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Every November, hundreds of thousands of writers all over the world embark on a strange and magical adventure called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days.

Is this even doable? Definitely. Is the writing any good? Probably not. Are these writers crazy? Oh, definitely.

The goal is to write 50k words, not finish a polished manuscript. Mostly it’s about the fun of writing with other crazy people attempting to do the same thing.

Sound fun? It really is. But you missed NaNoWriMo in November. Oh, no! It’s another seven months before you can throw your crazy hat into the fire.

Never fear. Enter Camp NaNoWriMo–the less intense version of NaNoWriMo. At Camp, there aren’t any set rules. You make up your goal and how you want to track it. Do you want to do the traditional 50k words on a single novel? That’s cool. Want to write one hundred poems, counting lines? Go for it. Want to revise that novel you wrote last year? Awesome. Want to go balls-to-the-wall and aim for 100k words? You rock! You can do that and more during Camp.

And if April is too busy for you, you can always try Camp in July! Yes, two camp sessions every year for your writing pleasure.

As for me, my goal is to write at least 1,000 words each day from a different prompt related to a fanfic challenge I’m doing on LiveJournal. I don’t necessarily plan to finish all of them, but want at least 1k words each. That’s 30k words during the month. With bonus kudos to me if I finish and post at least one a week.

So, anyone else ready to hop on the bus and head off to camp?

NaNoWriMo: Days 25, 26, and 27 totals

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I think I’ve pretty much given up. I’m not at all upset by this. I did a lot better than I thought I would considering being in school at the same time with five kids (and my husband still off work and driving me nuts). If I feel up to writing I might put a few more thousand in, but 30k is respectable. I’m happy.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo every day since 2005. That’s ten years. I won in 08, 09, 10, 12, and 13. I’m batting .500. Next year will be better. I’ll be done with school and have more time to plan ahead (instead of only coming up with an idea two weeks before November starts). Actually right now I want to go back and start editing the novel I wrote last February (in 2013). I had a few ideas for it but couldn’t start with November looming. Looking forward to next year.

NaNoWriMo: Day 24 totals

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So I wrote. Not as much as I wanted, but I wrote. I challenged myself to put 5,000 words in, and had the best intentions of doing so. And then my dad showed up, complaining that I spend all my time doing homework when he is around. I was forced to hang out all day with him and the kids which meant I got almost no time to write. I started that morning eager to write. By the time I got to sit in front of the computer, I was worn out and uninterested. I still managed to write 3,665 words. But it wasn’t 5,000. That brings my total up to 30,423 words. I’m extremely behind and have come to terms with the fact that I won’t win this year. I just don’t have the energy with all the writing I do for school.

I said I’d give it a go this year, and I think 30k is a pretty good number while in school. If I’d had more interest I think I could have easily pushed out 50k words along with all the short stories and essays I needed to write for school this month. I just didn’t feel like it emotionally.

NaNoWriMo: Day 22 and 23 totals

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I should have started combining days a while ago. Still no writing. Homework basically filled my day on Sunday. With Thanksgiving this week, I decided to be all studious and get a bunch done today, so I am now off to write. Apparently I need 3,128 words a day now to finish on time.

I’m challenging myself to finish 5,000 words today. Can I do it?

NaNoWriMo: Day 20 totals

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Buffy won out again, as I knew she would. I somehow crammed like eight episodes in before I crashed at 1:30am. But I have serious plans to write today. It’s been a week, and I need to catch up. I really didn’t think I’d finish this year because of school, but I haven’t even been trying. Last year I drove myself crazy and busted my butt to put words down. I can do it again this year.

Today, I also have to finish a short story for my fiction class. I’ve been having difficulties even thinking of ideas that are worthy of an upper level writing course. This week we focus on pacing. I have a rough draft, but it sucks (as usual). I think in between revising it, I’ll work on my NaNo novel. Maybe if I just keep writing it will all work out.

And if I’m a good girl, I can still get some Buffy in tonight. I have three more episodes left in season four to watch.

Word count for Friday, November 20: 27,758. No change in seven days… YAY!

NaNoWriMo: Day 20 totals

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Depression and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have done a number on my productivity. Okay, so my procrastination does a number on my productivity. I’ve been mainlining Buffy and knitting. Now it’s the weekend, and I’ve got homework backed up on top of my missing word count. Sill 27,758.

NaNoWriMo: Day 19 totals

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So this is getting kind of ridiculous, don’t you think? In my defense, the last few days were barely above functioning. Today was the first day I’ve felt like I could accomplish anything, and I spent it on homework. I haven’t really been thinking about my novel, except in how it can help me finish my assignments in my media writing class.

Should be at 33,333 by the end of today and I’m still at 27,758. Only like 5,500 words behind (including today’s count). Pffw, I was almost 9,000 behind on Saturday.

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