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.
I 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.
My 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.
I’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
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.
There 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.