(The following is an excerpt — it’s Chapter 1 — from “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing” – Writers Digest Books, 2011)
by Larry Brooks
You can go your whole career as a writer without someone asking you to define the essence of story. What it means. What it is. What it isn’t. For many writers this is a good thing. Because their answer just might come up short.
Your first goal as a writer is to not be counted among this group.
There are so many ways to define story. Story is character. Story is conflict. Story is narrative tension. Story is thematic resonance. Story is plot.
Trouble is, all of these are partially correct, while none of them, viewed as isolated definitions, are completely correct. Even when you combine them, they are still fall short of expressing their melding delivers the essence of a great story. Without that essence, what you have is a kitchen table full of ingredients waiting for a recipe that allows them to become a delicious sum in excess of their individual parts.
Many writers just sit down and write. A story may or may emerge, and the writer may or may not be cognizant of the presence of structure, theme, conceptual appeal and the multi-faceted complexity of characterization.
Some writers give all these issues due diligence through some form of story planning, be it notes on a cocktail napkin, yellow sticky notes on a wall or through a full-blown outline.
Either way, it’s all just a search for a story the springs from the seed of an initial idea. And in that search, whether we realize it or not, or even if we care to admit it or not, our success depends on certain dramatic principles, story elements, functionality, process and even physics, all of which melts together into a literary stew that defines the core essence of story.
What we need is a model that embraces all the requisite elements of a good story. A development model that is as much a functioning tool chest as it is the ultimate target of our efforts.
Just as an engineer relies on a blueprint to build a structure that will bear weight and resist the elements, a vision and a plan based on proven physics and structural dynamics, writers can benefit from approaching the craft of storytelling armed with a command of certain principles and criteria that always work. It’s unthinkable that an engineer and an architect would meet at the construction site one day and just start digging and pouring concrete without much more than a vision, or even an artist’s rendering of the end product. In addition to a detailed blueprint, they both bring the fruits of an informed planning process based on an in-depth understanding of the physics and principles that reside at the core of their craft.
But like an architect’s vision that yields the engineer’s blueprint, the resulting product may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea, even if it’s structurally sound. That’s the art of it. Standing up against a stiff wind is one thing, making the cover of Architectural Digest is quite another.
Writing is no different. We build our stories on a foundation of structurally-sound principles. But from there we depend on something less definable and teachable to elevate our work. To something that publishers will buy and readers will consume and enjoy. What the writer creates from these storytelling principles and the development model that puts them into play is no less aesthetically-challenging or artfully endowed than the work of a writer who, perhaps in either ignorance or rejection of such a tool chest, labors over a manuscript for years in search of the very same fundamental literary physics.
In other words, we can work hard or we can work smart. Hopefully both. A killer story development model doesn’t take the hard work out of writing, but it totally infuses it with smart.
The Physics of Storytelling
There are many theories and principles floating around in the vast oeuvre of writing instruction. And pretty much all of them can be boiled down and grouped into six separate and succinct buckets of information. You may think the list of things a writer needs to understand and execute is long and complex, and you’re absolutely right if you do. But that list can be grouped into separate yet dependent categories – six of them – and in doing so the fog that shrouds the storytelling challenge begins to lift.
I call them the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling. When applied to the story development process, you end up with a process that become, in essence, one of story engineering. And it works for writers because of the very same reasons it works for the folks to build stadiums and skyscrapers. It’s based on physics. On natural law. On proven truth. And it in no way compromises aesthetic or artistic expression or excellence.
Viewed both separately and in relation to each other, the Six Core Competencies create a story development model that leaves nothing out of the writing equation.
Execute them all at a high level and you may find yourself in the hunt for a publishing contract. The model can’t infuse your work with artful genius – that continues to defy quantification or definitive criteria – but it will get you in the game and make you competitive with authors who are already publishing. Bringing evidence of your command of these six core competencies is your ante-in to the world of publishing. From there, like a tryout for a major league team crowed with other hopefuls who are in command of the basics of the game, you need to bring something magic on top of it all.
Leave one of these six core competencies out, or execute any one at a less-than-stellar level, and you will be sent back to the drawing board.
With this model in hand, at least you’ll know what to shoot for.
A Checklist-Driven, Criteria-Based Story Development Model
The Six Core Competencies comprise perhaps the first storytelling model that brings all of the necessary components and skill-sets of successful storytelling under one process-intensive umbrella approach. That drives toward the core essence of story in a comprehensive way, over and above simply being a collection of things that a writer must know.
Here’s a fact: with some isolated and therefore irrelevant exceptions, every
published novel or produced screenplay delivers on each of the six core competencies described in this model, at least to some degree. And even then, the really successful ones take them to a level of integration that defies definition. That becomes artful.
Even if the author doesn’t recognize it, or backed into it after multiple drafts. Even if it was organically rendered rather than proactively articulated from within a structured storytelling process.
The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling are as integral to the healthy growth of a story as protein, hydration, antibiotics, sleep and exercise are to the development and growth of a healthy human body.
Which leads us to another fact: leave one out, or execute one poorly, and you won’t sell that story.
The Search for Story
Since the very first story was set to parchment, writers have used the drafting process – creating version after version of their story, adding to it and revising it as they go – to discover and explore these same six core competencies. Intuitively they know they aren’t done until they’ve covered these bases, even if the bases themselves reside outside of their awareness and understanding. Or, if they don’t intuitively grasp them, or if they are in denial of them, or if they abandon the story before they’re all in place, they never really find the story at all. At least not to the degree necessary to make it work.
Imagine the power and efficiency of understanding the necessary components and skill-sets ahead of time. I’m not talking about story planning, per se, but rather, arriving at the keyboard armed with the awareness and understanding of the principles required to empower your story to greatness. Why do some prolific writers seem to spill stories out of their head in a manner that embraces the six core competencies – think Stephen King or Arthur C. Clarke – in such a way that their revision process is all about adding value and polish and nuance, rather than fixing major holes and out-of-rhythm narrative exposition? The answer is that they get it. They inherently, at the very core of their talent, understand the physics of a solid story, and the Six Core Competencies that come to bear on the process of putting them onto the page.
Sadly, this is not the case for the vast majority of writers, who aren’t even aware of the standards they need to reach.
In fact, it could be argued that talent is nothing more than the degree to which an author understands and applies these Six Core Competencies to their storytelling. Because prose with the lyrical magic of Shakespeare in not required to publish. You merely need to be clear, crisp and clever at the right moments. What is required, though, is a storytelling acumen that, whether cause or effect, reflects the principles and criteria of the Six Core Competencies.
This model results in empowered storytelling, rather than exploratory or even blind storytelling. Whether you spill them directly out of your head or plan for them before you begin to write, the Six Core Competencies manifest two direct and immediate benefits: better stories, and better early drafts of those stories.
Reason enough to allow them into your process.
This website goes into depth on the Six Core Competencies, with over 500 archived posts. If you’d like to subscribe, either email or RSS, click HERE.
My new book — also explored in depth on this site — “Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Physics of Storytelling,” comes out in June 2013, also from Writers Digest Books.