Engineered for Success

A guest post from Bryan Wiggins

How Larry Brooks Helped Lead Me to My Path to Publication

 I don’t remember what classroom I sat in, or which teacher was my guide, but one day as I scratched away in my composition notebook at my tiny wooden desk in Green Tree Elementary School, I picked up the trick I’ve been using ever since to present my thoughts upon the page: the outline. That organizational tool’s ability to plot a premise, build its argument, and cap it off with a conclusion, powered me through school from my first book report to my final term paper.

When my daughters began their own editorial explorations, I shared the outline as the trail of conceptual breadcrumbs they could lay down to help them find their way. That began my writing relationship with both of them—one that continues to this day—although the red pen is just as often found in their hands as in mine.

Ten years ago, when the challenge of writing a novel lured me from the poetry I’d puttered with for so long, I turned to my trusty prose pal and used an outline to sketch my first plot. Soon, I was off and running, creating scene after glorious scene, and, ultimately, a wonderful mess. I tried free-writing my way out of it, eventually penning a therapeutic essay I titled 80,000 Mistakes. In it I fussed and fumed about the 80,000 words I’d tapped into my Mac in the early morning hours, trying to build a story arc that finally collapsed under its own weight. But I ended my sorry screed with a promise to myself: I simply would not quit till I’d figured out the novel’s form.

I filled my Kindle with every book that looked like it could help me crack the craft—more than two dozen of the titles that every hopeful Hemingway knows, mixed with others that only a form freak like me would read. The light began to shine with books like John Truby’s, The Anatomy of Story; it taught me how to lay that all important foundation—the premise—in a way that would carry me, if not to publication, at least to a tale that might add some meaning to my life. Jack Bickham’sScene & Structure was another bright spot, one that revealed why the stories I struggled with had been so episodic. From it, I learned the cause and effect relationships that create the chain-drive of a story, linking the series of scenes and sequels that keep readers’ fingers flipping far past bedtime.

But the tome that brought it home was Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. It was the bridge I’d been searching for—one strong enough to support the weight of 100,000 words or more, to carry the world I’d built in my head to shine within my readers’ hearts.

I used my skills as a graphic artist to make a map of Larry’s formula, memorialized as the four-page “novel blueprint” you’ll find linked at the end of this post. I pasted the damn thing onto a foam core wall and posted it behind my laptop to refer to every single morning as I poked through my first novel, trying to put into practice again and again the principles I finally learned well enough to write from by heart.

I caught fire from my new learning, giving a couple of talks through the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance to pass on what I discovered in a Keynote presentation, complete with screenshots showing how I’d woven Story Engineering into my Scrivener template to keep me oriented as I dove in and out of scenes. I even convinced Boston’s Grub Street writers’ center for a guest spot in the big leagues, presenting at their national Muse and the Marketplace writers conference. There, in a room full of other hungry story structure seekers, I was rewarded with the questions and comments that let me know I was playing a small but vital role in passing on the torch that Larry first lit for me.

The Winter Queen was the first novel I built from Story Engineering. It rests right where it belongs —deep within the depths of my hard drive—as the fertile failure that taught me so much. My second, however, was (will be?) published onSeptember 27 by Harper Legend, a brand new imprint of “visionary digital fiction” from HarperCollins. I’m currently deep into the creation of its sequel, using the same Story Engineering concepts and constructions that have carried me so far.

Recently, I’ve been sharing what I’ve learned with members of the Pine Cone Writers’ Den, the ten-member writing group that meets monthly in my home. I sent one writer the novel blueprint a few weeks ago, and was delighted to hear it helped her break through to her book’s final phase of development. I invited another member over one Saturday morning, stretching a copy of the blueprint across my kitchen table as we discussed her memoir’s big story beats. We traded the red pen to plot just where those pivotal posts might fit within Story Engineering’s structural plan. I sent her home with that map and the hope that it serves to help stitch her string of moving spiritual passages into the published piece that finds the audience she deserves.

It’s too early to tell just how far those principles may take her, or the rest of us. There’s no question, however, that the most important book I ever read about the way to build a story will always play a part in mine.
Click below to view the Novel Blueprint document, which Larry uses regularly in his writing and workshops.


Filed under Guest Bloggers

13 Responses to Engineered for Success

  1. Amanda

    I love this. I, too, didn’t know a scene from a sequel or episodic from a hole in the ground before I read Larry’s book. His was not the first “how to write” book I read and wasn’t the last, but was definitely the best. I also have a story structure visual that I use with all my books. It’s Rachel Savages Three Ring Circus from 2010. I have a copy that goes from outline to outline to keep me in check. Unfortunately I have not been published yet, but I know I will in time and it’s all thanks to Larry.

  2. John V

    Congratulations on your success and for sharing your story with us. I love the novel blueprint, too, especially the way you wove in the story elements with the four story parts.

    • Thanks so much John. I am so glad you found the blueprint helpful. It’s the tool that lets me keep Larry’s framework handy when I’m down in the weeds fleshing out my tale. Good luck with your writing!

  3. Nicely done on the story blueprint. I wish you much success.

  4. Martha Miller

    This is very, VERY cool. Thanks for the graphic representation of Larry’s wisdom — and yours.

    • Thanks so much John, and all. I am so glad you found the blueprint helpful. It’s the tool that lets me keep Larry’s framework handy when I’m down in the weeds fleshing out my tale. Good luck with your writing!

  5. Thank you for sharing your insights, Bryan. Your blueprint can be helpful even for pantsers like me to check to make sure our stories are on target. Well done. Good luck with your writing!

    • Thanks Nancy, really appreciate the support from a pantser, and believe me, I’m convinced it takes both analysis AND intuition to make a good story sing!

      Best, B.

  6. When I first tried outlining my writing, it was a failure. My mistake was following the strict outlining format taught in elementary school. But, the overall point of this article is correct: outlining works.

    I don’t have a published novel to my name, but I do have several textbooks and courses all created by outline. Also, for the first time, I’m on the fourth draft of a novel, and it was created by outline.

    I would love to see some posts about the specifics of outlining, but the larger point is the importance of planning.

    My short version is that outlining works. The long version is that I started outlining. Larry Brooks brought home to me that there were certain points in the story that need to be in that outline at specific places. Planning a story around this basic structure does not take away from the creativity. It just splits the creativity up. Writing “Ian attacks the temple” in an outline allows me to create both the plot and the actual description of that event. The outline puts it all in place, and it allows me to write the words without worrying about what happens next.

    An outline is nothing more than a plan. The specific pattern of the outline doesn’t matter, but I strongly suggest looking at the methods of a lot of different writers: it really is educational. With the outline in place, you are truly free to write.

  7. Bryan, I’m a deep student of Larry’s work and coaching, and I’m a little confused with the numbering of the competencies in the chart as they are different from Larry’s presentation in “Engineering”. For instance you have character numbered 6 on your chart and Larry has it 2nd in the book. Voice is 4 on the chart, 6th in the book (not elemental). Is there a reason for this? I say this because Larry is saying 1-4 are elemental and 5-6 are narrative strategies. Mixing them up seems counter intuitive to the book. Are you renumbering things to fit them within quartiles for that chart?

    I use Larry’s 4 parts/seven key milestones graphic (The green triangles one). It’s flawless.

    Best of Luck ,

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