A Guest Post About the Discovery of Story Structure, and The Matrix

We take this quick timeout from our series on “The Help” to offer the stage to Shane Arthur, who runs a cool website called “Writing Prompts,” with a very engaging exercise called the Creative Copy Challenge.” 

You may want in on this: he invites people to offer ten random, interesting words, then readers respond with a sort of flash fiction short (very) story that somehow uses them in the narrative.  Shane is also a very astute student of storytelling and — largely because of what you’ll read here — a budding bestselling author.

The Matrix Moment of Story Engineering

by Shane Arthur

Imagine this: You’re at a bookstore. The clerk bags your book, hands you the receipt and smiles at you like a proud father.  He reminds you of someone, but you can’t grab onto it at the moment. 

When you go home and peek inside the bag, you’re astonished to find not one, but two books sitting there.

One is the book you bought; the other resembles the scene in The Matrix where Neo becomes The One and can suddenly see everything in zeros and ones.  It takes you a moment to realize, but this second book is a blueprint, the structural engineering of what makes the first book great.

The two books merge into one. And suddenly, you know everything.

You know that even if you take the blue pill and don’t pursue your dream of writing books, you’ll be a master observer of proper storytelling, not the mindless reader-drone you once were.

And you know that if you take the red pill and embrace this story engineering to its fullest, you’ll have the necessary tools to transform yourself from a frustrated hopeful into a successful, published author. 
Interesting to imagine, no?  
Fantastic transformations will occur when you study story engineering.  Whether it’s Larry’s book or somewhere else (though it’s tough to find this clearly somewhere else), it’ll change your writing experience forever. 
I know, because I used to read books and see weird spacing between paragraphs and think they were … wait for it … just weird spacing between paragraphs.
Even after reading six or seven how-to-write books, I’m embarassed to admit my mind just didn’t click that these were official markings of scene changes.  I knew the author had switched focus, but I had no idea of the structural significance of it.
Think about it; have you ever counted these scene changes and comtemplated their number, lengths, and overall effect on pacing, character development, and story? I never had until I participated in Larry’s book deconstructions. I used to read just for fun.
Where I once saw interesting developments inside stories, I now see purposeful hooks, plot points, pinch points, and character and story arcs. Who knew each had a name?
Where I once saw random coincidences that reminded me of something I’d read earlier in a story, I now see skillful foreshadowing and revelation. 
Where I once thought how lucky an author was to have the ability to pull everything together, I now know luck was nowhere in the storytelling equation. Skilled, thoroughly crafted story planning was. And now I realize, planning isn’t the real issue (though I’m with Larry on that issue… highly recommended), knowing is, and that if a pantser knows, they too can make it work.  
And where I once bought books to enjoy, I now buy books to enjoy on one hand, and learn from as a student of storytelling technique on the other. I love two-for-one steals.
I could mention a dozen more specifics as to how Story Engineering has heightened my understanding of storytelling, but I’ll summarize my amazing journey with a quote from The Matrix …
 “I know Kung Fu!”


Writing a memoir?  Writers Digest is offering an online workshop on how its done.  I’ve taken several of these, and they put out a great experience.  Click HERE to learn more.


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16 Responses to A Guest Post About the Discovery of Story Structure, and The Matrix

  1. Hear, hear. Professionals in any field act both as a naive audience member and an informed, knowledgeable colleague.

    Either can be a blessing or a curse at any one time; sometimes we just want to enjoy the story but see the Craft. Other times we want to study the underlying Craft, but the author sucks us right into the story.

    Being a reader is tough.

  2. Vivienne Grainger

    Never thought about what Larry does as story-fu before …

  3. Trish

    Great post Shane–kept me at the edge of my seat. I have studied “rules” in creative writing and the hero’s journey, however story engineering seems to be the foundation. I’m interested to go there… I always was one to take the red pill!

  4. “Why didn’t I take the blue pill?”

    I know Story Engineering (and the earlier Story Structure, Demystified) has been a game-changer for me, both in how I write and how I teach. I am a walking infomercial for this book! Thanks for a great post, Shane, and a fun analogy.

    And Vivienne, LOVE “Story-fu!”

  5. Steve

    Before any know-how of writing ever entered this brain a story was just a line of time with stuff on it happening. Now just as Shane points out essential elements to good stories will expose themselves as the structural foundation is being laid down. Structure allows for the temperal and spatial worlds of the story to be better understood. I didn’t know my mid-point character (she is the twist) was standing 180 ft. away from the hero (who is looking for her) while they were both foreshadowing the mid-point in two different contexts (dialogue and action). Completely seperate scenes in my head now have the potential to change the entire direction of the story. What if he see’s her and doesn’t have to search for her at all, instead of driving away in the opposite direction? Pantsers beware, your technique is limiting. Structure is freeing. It’s literally adding a dimension to your creativity. A matrix.

    Bruce said: “Other times we want to study the underlying Craft, but the author sucks us right into the story.” Even knowing can’t ruin a good story.

    Thanks Shane.

  6. This seems like the perfect post to leave my comment. I’m reading Story Engineering right now. Today I read p. 41, where Larry talks about attending Robert McKee’s storytelling workshop. Robert exposes M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense as a “really lousy story.” Larry then explains why.

    Up until today, when people asked me what I write, I would tell them, I write in the M. Night Shyamalan genre. Mostly because I love Unbreakable but a little because sometimes I use the gimmicks in The Sixth Sense.

    Talk about a paradigm shift.

    And that’s just the first forty pages. I’m not there yet, but hopefully by the end of Story Engineering I can look at the vertical lines of code and say, “All I see now is blonde, brunette, redhead.”

  7. Curtis

    I’ve enjoyed retro fitting Larry’s “Story Engineering.”

    Think “Thunder Road” 1958 with Robert Mitchum. Every structural element Larry describes is in this story and on time.

    Example: What does the protagonist want? That question comes right out of the mouth of Mitchum’s girl friend. The only cover for it – Mitchum asks her first.

    I guess the telling of story technique had to wait until technique ruled just about everything. How is now the guiding question. Good news for those who want to be selling story tellers.

  8. You got it! I no longer just watch movies or read books… I am now in a constant state of deconstruction… and because of that, I am finally understanding my own stories better. Love that!

  9. Shane, who knew that the Matrix would help us understand how to improve our writing? 🙂 I dig it!

    Thought provoking post.

    BTW, a similar thing happens to musicians as well. At times you just want to listen to a song, without dissecting the composition in your head, hehe.

  10. I’m the same now. For the past year, I cannot read a novel without tearing it apart and analyzing it.

    My hope is that I’m getting it “right” in my own writing. Thanks for the insight Shane and thanks for having him Larry. Now I know I’m not the only one that can’t read a book for fun anymore!!!

  11. Deconstruction, analysis, understanding, insight. Kinda reminds me of what happens to adults when they understand the dynamics of an alcoholic household — suddenly they see dysfunction everywhere.

    A poor example, perhaps. But, OK. You got me geeked. Story Engineering is on my list.

  12. @All: Glad you all liked the article. I had a blast writing it.
    Thanks Larry.

  13. Olga Oliver

    Larry – I’m here again to pour out my appreciation for Story Engineering and for The Help deconstruction. I believe serendipity is in progress with finding your book and your taking apart The Help at the same time that I’m beginning the revision of my first book. I’m into revising the first chapter setup and it’s so obvious how my timing is off, how I need to establish stakes, foreshadowing and others in order for my protagonist’s preparation to launch the FPP. However, I’m having a problem with my time line and wonder if you have any suggestions on that subject. In researching my small library, I find absolutely nothing on how to do this. There must be a secret somewhere. For some reason I feel like every day must be accounted for. And I know that’s not true. Just read something that skipped 6 years. Do you make a time line first? Thanks again, so much.
    Olga Oliver

  14. Love it, Shane! I’m the same way. I bought Story Structure Demystified a few years back, must get the update. And The Matrix is my favorite. The first plot point is classic.

  15. Great post Shane.
    It was interesting to learn about Story Engineering in such an ingenious way.

    Like others, I think having the blue pill could be quite nice. Cherry

  16. Pingback: “The Help” — Seeing the Structure in Living Color. Literally.