Six Core Storytelling Competencies: Good… Better… Best.

Ask anyone who writes fiction how many issues an author needs to think about, how much stuff there is to know and execute, and you may get an answer that amounts to dozens, even hundreds of things.

That’s pretty accurate, actually. Few who have tried it are tempted to over-simplify.

You know my theory, my story development model:

All of those dozens of things, or hundreds of things, can be categorized into six discrete buckets of elements, nuances and requisite functions, each of which is essential to a successful story. I call them the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling, and they really do cover the whole fiction enchilada.

Think of something you need to know, and it’ll fall into one of those six buckets.

That said, each of them is a matter of degree. For each thing within any of the six buckets, you can cover the base, or you can hit it out of the park.

Or six parks, for that matter.

Toward that end, it’s good to inventory your six buckets of storytelling strategy, and all their inherent nuts and bolts of content and technique… if nothing else to make sure you’re not taking anything for granted. You want your story to be the best it can possibly be, and it’s easy to settle in one category while pursuing excellence in another.

What follows is offered as a sort of checklist, organized as a good, better and best description under each of the Six Core Competencies. That’s 18 opportunities to improve your story.

My hope is that you’ll find something you can take to the next level.

Concept

Defined: the Big Idea of your story… the basic what if? proposition… the dramatic landscape… the window into plot… the source of conflict… the compelling question… the enticing situation… the promise of the story… the stage upon which character finds something to do.

Good: the reader is inherently drawn to the proposition through an attraction to the answer to the dramatic question posed.

Better: the reader can inherently experience the hero’s journey in pursuit of that answer. They can live the hero’s journey vicariously.

Best: the reader not only experiences the hero’s journey, but empathetically feels what’s at stake. The reader relates to the consequences of the resolution of the story.

Example: The Hunger Games. The concept alone is a home run. Then again, a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom relies more on character than concept (yes, it has one).

Lesson: the deeper you are within a genre — any given genre — the more critical concept becomes. Concept is the stage upon which character is allowed to unfold.

Character

Defined: the protagonist of the story, presented with layers of backstory, inner psychology, outer dimensions and a journey that will allow her or him to become heroic as they evolve as necessary to eventually serve as the primary catalyst of the story’s resolution (which is what heroes do).

Good: a protagonist we can root for.

Better: a protagonist we can relate to.

Best: a protagonist who feels what we feel, fears what we fear and steps into the hero’s role as we would hope we would… in other words, a vicarious juxtaposition between hero and reader on an emotional level.

Example: Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye. He’s us, at our most basic level of humanity.

Theme

Defined: the relevance and transparency of the human experience through the dynamics of the story, both in terms of character and conflict.

Good: a story that shows life as it really is. One that allows us to recognize the dynamics of being alive in whatever time the story reveals, while illuminating universal truths in any case.

Better: a story that shows the virtues of heroism as it plays out on a thematically rich and realistic stage.

Best: a story that pushes buttons, doesn’t flinch, one that demands the reader see both sides and all the options that attach to the hero’s choices, and teaches us truth and reality in the process.

Example: John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, which exposes both sides of a polarizing issue on a level that defies politics and religion and doesn’t flinch from consequences on either side.

And of course, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is a clinic on theme.

Structure

Defined: the expositional unfolding of the story in a sequence that deepens stakes, presents twists while defining the reading experience.

Good: a solid four-part sequential presentation of the story: set-up… response (to the first plot point)… a proactive attack on the problem… resolution.

Better: a sequence that allows the reader to get lost in the story in a vicarious way, which is the deepening of the effectiveness and compelling nature of the four parts that comprise it.

Best: a story that surprises, intrigues, captures, and then rewards the reader on both an emotional and intellectual level.

Example: Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code. Love it or hate it, the story blends all six core competencies in a way that, literally, readers could not put down. All 80 million of them.

Scene Execution

Defined: blocks of narrative exposition that move the story forward in an optimal way, with equal attention to characterization and dramatic tension.

Good: scenes that are logical in order, that blend into subsequent scenes.

Better: scenes that play like little one-act dramas, each with a set-up, confrontation and resolution. Scenes that deliver one primary, salient point of plot exposition while contributing to characterization.

Best: scenes that cut quickly to the point of the scene, that resolve a moment while setting up a subsequent deepening of stakes, urgency, options and character arc.

Example: anything by Michael Connelly, Nelson Demille, or Jodi Picoult.

Writing Voice

Defined: the flavor of the writing itself (the prose), from the reader’s point of view.

Good: exposition that is clear, direct and uses adjectives and description sparsely yet effectively. Prose that is not conscious of itself for the sole purpose of stylistic effort. Prose that readers don’t really notice as they get lost in the story.

Better: prose that illuminates the sub-text of the moment, and of the characters involved.

Best: prose that goes down easy, with a hint of humor and spice, with nuance and subtletly where required, and the power of a blunt instrument when called for.

Example: John Updike was the modern master of voice.  Read Colin Harrison, too, who sets the bar here higher than anyone still breathing.

If you are drafter (pantser), you can discover these opportunities as you go, and revise and optimize as you do future drafts.

If you are planner, you can (and should) think of these at the both macro-story (plot and character exposition) and micro-story (sub-text and scenes), making sure they all seize their inherent potential to enrich your story.

Either way, all of these things will find a way onto the page by the time you’re done. The real question is… will they just show up, or will they be the best they can be?

Go deeper. Harder. Be in command of every moment of your story.

Can you think of other examples of stories that are stellar in any of these core competencies?

If you’d like more on the Six Core Competencies, please consider my book, “Story Engineering.”

See you this weekend at the Rose City Writers (Portland, OR) conference. Me and 200 romance-minded women talking story over four sessions totaling 10 classroom hours… doesn’t get any better than that.

If you’re looking for a workshop presenter for your next writing conference, let’s talk. I describe my workshops as intense, surprising, entertaining and, sometimes, slightly disturbing. Experiences that change your life usually are. References available.

21 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

21 Responses to Six Core Storytelling Competencies: Good… Better… Best.

  1. I’ll offer a reference.
    Larry Brooks is a familiar presence in the Pacific Northwest writing community and was a keynote speaker and workshop presenter at a variety of conferences I’ve attended in the past eight years. In June of 2010, I attended an intimate Summer in Words conference with my sisters, and Larry did an awesome job of presenting these Six Core Competencies into a four hour workshop. It truly was a mind blowing experience and I’ve followed his blog since then. Story Engineering is always on my desk, instead of on my bookshelf.

    However, I have attended many stellar workshops by others on the craft and creation of storytelling and have many reference books and process that I use. The writing life is truly a continuing journey. What sets Larry apart from all the others in my experience is his core truths are the foundation of good writing. This was my experience with working through so many other books and processes on the craft of writing and storytelling, prior to Story Engineering. There was always something I was missing that others couldn’t explain. I finally found those Six core competencies that I am now striving to master.

    Another point that sets Larry apart from all the other teachers and presenters, in my journey to now, is his energy and attention to the success of others. Because of this, Larry is willing to transform himself. I remember his prior disdain for the NaNoWriMo exercise. This year he offered a month of intense blogs designed to make the NaNoWriMo a process that can be a successful experience. He saw a problem, he created a solution.

    During that 2010 conference I attended with my sisters, I was on a break from my focus of creating commercial fiction and was learning the craft of memoir writing. This memoir intent increased my personal mind blowing experience because Story Engineering is very powerful when applied to memoir, nonfiction, journalism, and even blogging. They are core competencies for all writing.

    Reference complete.

    I’m very excited to be one of the attendees at the conference this weekend. See you in on the river. 😀

  2. I love your posts. I always come away with so many tips at being a better writer. I’ve got about 10 of them bookmarked now, this one included. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  3. Debbie Burke

    All meat, no fat, plus a good-better-best ruler by which you can measure your work and see where is needs improvement.

    One of your all-time best posts, Larry! Thanks!

  4. Pingback: Worksheet for Larry Brooks’ Six Core Storytelling Competencies Good—Better—Best | Jeremy Brown | Official Author Site

  5. Fantastic post Larry, thanks for breaking it down so well. Your post inspired me to create a worksheet for this checklist in Word and PDF formats, and I’ve made them available for everyone here:

    Worksheet for Larry Brooks’ Six Core Storytelling Competencies Good—Better—Best.

    Thanks again for all you do!

  6. Fancy

    Perfect timing, Larry! Just yesterday I started reviewing your Six Core Competencies series of posts. I have been focusing a lot on structure (which was an answer to an unknown prayer) and now that I feel I’ve pretty much nailed that, I felt the need to review the other competencies before I start writing in earnest.

    Thanks to Jeremy for the worksheet!!!!! Already downloaded.

  7. We’ve all heard the term, “back to basics.” The Six Core Competencies are basics; if they are not performed well enough, the end result will be a fatal flaw in the story. The reader may not know what wasn’t right, but will know he wasn’t satisfied enough.

    All the creativity in the world won’t make your story successful if your basics aren’t present in enough depth/polish/competences/what have you to _communicate_ the story to the reader. If you are not writing your opus for the reader, you can ignore the Six Core Competencies and hope your grandkid will endure it for their bedtime stories.

    As Larry has pointed out before, having the SCCs in place at least to a minimum degree is the base-level buy-in, the ante-up before you can even get into the game.

    All professionals practice the basics. This “practice” is sufficient repetition of the proper concepts/movements (whatever the arena is) so that they can apply them to their actual performance without having to “think” about them. Malcom Gladwell claims (through his research) that a true top-of-the-game professional will have put in at least 10,000 hours of proper practice to get there. Agree or disagree, it’s the proper practice which counts.

    I just read an article on Big Ideas about Lady Gaga which compares her to the 17th-century (?) castrati opera singers. These castrati started with the basic physical re-arrangement which might lead to the desired result. Then they underwent “rigorous training” often up to 10 years. Betcha that included tons of scales, breathing exercises (both to learn how and to get the body to do it properly), motions, presence, etc. Then they might have a chance actually to sing and perform. Often these successful castrati were flamboyant, egotistical, and what have you. So what? The proof was and, in the modern day, is in the performance delivered. A writer’s performance is the story presented to the public. At least we don’t have to hit that high note perfectly in real (live) time in front of thousands of people.

    Did Amanda Hocking put in her 10,000 hours of proper practice? Dunno. What we do know is that her basics (SCCs) were in solidly enough that her creativity at storytelling had a chance to be successful in the marketplace.

    As writers, we must practice the basics properly. We’ve got it made, to a great degree. With the Internet, we can get all sorts of data on basics.

    And, it’s all damn cheap, too. We can get _everything_ Larry has written/published about writing (Story Engineering and all the rest) for maybe $50. Get them all and practice (apply) all the concepts. Keep going back to his blog for articles like today’s.

    I have Larry to blame for me to undertake the re-write of my four novels. That’s almost a million words and a couple years of work for the original writes (and some moderate revisions). I found out the minimum basics didn’t exist (SCCs) in them, so now I’m doing a complete re-write. At least when I’m done, I’ll have a much better chance of being successful with them (whatever definition of “success” one may have).

    Learn, relearn and practice your basics. Then go write something great.

  8. Joanne

    Story structure is really well explained by Kal over at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html ; amazing how his structure underpins all the best films.

  9. I think of your posts as if you’re a farmer with a plow, Larry. You break the ground so we can learn to plant right instead of going Johnny Appleseed and throwing ideas into the wind.

    I’m expecting a bumper crop this year.

    Thanks,

    David

  10. Tessa

    Hope you got my tip. That was worth way more than what I can afford. You are awesome

  11. Betty Booher

    I’ve been writing fiction for a while now. Went to meetings and classes and workshops along the way, submitted every novel I finished (see me flinching), and generally followed the oft-given advice of send it out! send it out! send it out! that can be one of the downsides of writing group membership.

    Two years ago I attended a Margie Lawson weekend workshop. I brought the first three chapters of the story I’d just sent to two editors on request. I figured I’d learn a thing or two, but that basically, I had it covered. After all, I’d been writing and submitting for years. How much more craft did I really need to cram into my brain anyway?

    As she directed us to highlight our description, emotion and power words, I looked down with dismay at my still-white pages. Huh. I didn’t have much, if any, of that stuff. A little of my hubris melted into low grade panic as she read one well-written example after another, most from NY Times best selling authors.

    A few weeks later, when those inevitable rejections rolled in, I wasn’t surprised. Clearly, I needed to work on craft.

    Last spring I was hanging out at Jessa Slade’s house, chatting about black moments, when I noticed Story Engineering on her coffee table. This time, I didn’t hesitate. I knew I needed help with structure.

    Like the work I’d done on the micro level in Margie’s class, Larry’s book helped me map the ebb and flow of the story, to analyze what was missing and what was extraneous.

    The overall lesson I learned, probably way later than I should have, is no matter how long you’ve been on the writing journey, there’s always room for improvement and often need for a coach.

    Larry – looking forward to your workshop this weekend in Vancouver!

  12. One of the best StoryFix posts ever. Thank you, Larry.

  13. Cindy Hassell

    Thanks, Larry. This is one of your best. I particularly appreciate the examples–they are most instructive.

    And thanks to you, Jeremy, for the ws! I plan to take this to my critique group and propose that we use it as a rubric to assess each other’s progress.

  14. Each time I read it and hear it a little more sinks in.

    Thanks to Jeremy for the work sheets.

  15. Barbara Rae Robinson

    Thanks for a wonderful workshop this past weekend! Enjoyed meeting you and hearing your ideas in person. Love Story Engineering and intend to keep using it. Can’t wait for the next book you’re writing to come out.

    A friend sent a link this morning that you might appreciate. Since you’ve newly discovered romance novels can be interesting. http://www.theromanceman.net/

    Barb

  16. Thanks for sharing this. You’ve definitely got me thinking.

  17. Adding these to my extensive notes from Story Engineering. Larry, you speak truths, my friend.

  18. Yes, I’m way behind on your blog. But I’m working my way backwards through the last few months b/c I know there’s so much awesome stuff here. Today’s a perfect example. Though I wrote my first draft with Story Engineering by my side, I’ve heavily (and *slowwwly) revised my WIP since. This post has reminded me to go back and make sure those 6 Competencies are still in place. And even better, I now have the good-better-best yardstick!

    And thanks for the worksheet, Jeremy!

  19. Pingback: K is for Kick-Ass Blogs for New(-ish) Wrtiers | The Odd Particle [Re]View

  20. Pingback: Favorite Posts on Writing, Literature, Reading, and All Things Bookish « Live to Write – Write to Live

  21. Pingback: Perfect Picture Book Friday/ Madlenka | Clarbojahn's Blog