The Three Layers of Story Engineering, Architecture, and Art

Everything can be broken down.  Plant and animal.  Fact and fallacy.  Art and science. 

Sliced, diced, eviscerated, deconstructed, analyzed, charted, graphed, melted, spectra-analyzed and debated.  Sometimes this yields precision, other times a vague generality.

Either way, from this process of breakdown comes illumination.  Visibility.  Clarity of purpose, design and effectiveness.

And then… often only then… understanding.

Some resist the slicing and dicing of craft. 

They believe it to be antithetical to the “art” of storytelling.  IMO, that couldn’t be more wrong, or naïve.   

Imagine building something without an understand of the physics involved.  Imagine healing something without a keen awareness of the principles that make healing possible. 

Telling a story isn’t like driving a car or flying an airplane.  Telling a story is like designing and building a car or an airplane.  You better know your way around the engineering phase.  You better know your physics.

Because whether one looks or not, the underlying physics of things are always there, dictating parameters and outcomes.  

No matter how loud one yells “this is art, dammit!”

The more you know about them, the better your pantsing ways might actually  work (writing on instinct… instinct being a innate, even subconscious grasp of these principles), and the less critical a deep planning phase becomes. 

It’s one of the purest cases of irony I’ve ever seen.  One of the best examples of knowledge begetting art, too.  You just can’t beat a learning curve.

Writing stories is never only craft and never only art.  

The second you honor one above the other you are toast.  It is always a dance with both, to the sound of music with these three harmonies.

In your creation of art, do you really believe you are inventing a new type of canvas, a new formula of paint, a new kind of brush that nobody has seen before… that you’re really rendering images that have never been visualized before?  That you are really the Chosen One that is licensed to ignore all that is true and powerful about what makes art – in this case, a story – work?

No matter what the image, there’s always the same set of reasons residing under the paint that it does.

There are three levels of storytelling art and craft.

Recognition of these three dynamics opens the door to an understanding that will elevate  your art while empowering your craft.

Think of your story as a building.  That building has three fundamental levels, perhaps better thought of as “realms of dependent development” – it sits on a foundation, which, if not strong, will ultimately collapse or slide away… it is built in a certain way intended to comfortably and safely house inhabitants of some kind… and it has a unique presence or personality to it.  Or not.

The terminology here is mine.  The principles are universal and belong to all of us.  Make no mistake, a story that works has all three of these going for it.  Whether the writer knows it or not.

Professional writers – no matter what they say about their process – do know.

Level One: The Underlying Physics.

Stories have gravity.  Literary law that is very much like physical law.  Non-negotiable.  The management and leverage of gravity resides at the core of everything we build – our constructions must bear weight and withstand pressures.

There are a handful of basic storytelling physics available to us.  We get to choose whether we manage and leverage them, or not.  The latter (“or not”) usually results in rejection, because nobody is going to publish (or buy) a story without…

… dramatic tension… character empathy and arc … a vicarious experience (including a specific arena; this is also known as setting)… emotional resonance… an effective delivery mechanism (the voice of the story).

None of these directly dictate the nature and flow of your story.  These are the qualities of your story.  The factors that give your story power and originality. 

When you plan your story – whether ahead of time, or via a series of drafts – your goal should be to jack these through the roof.

Level Two: The Ways and Means of Execution

Of course, those story qualities are basic and obvious.  And yet, they too often get shoved aside in the focus on execution – you get too focused on plot or character, or you begin to preach a theme – and to an extent that they get short-changed.

To create a tight union between the underlying physics and the process of story development, there exists a set of tools that channel the energy of the former into the design wrought by the latter.

I call these the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.  In essence they are an organized, criteria-based menu of ways of making sure you have adequate power and balance among the underlying physics… that your story is designed in such a way that these parts coalesce in to whole that exceeds the sum of their parts.

They are: concept…. Character… theme… structure (the sequence of the story)… scene execution… writing voice.

Virtually every aspect of the process falls into one of these six buckets.  None are optional.

Level Three: The Sensibility of Optimization

One of the scariest parts of professional aspiration can be explained from two contexts.

First, you already recognize how complex and necessary those first two levels are.  They may not be new to you, but they are always challenging, even to the best of us.  You understand that knowing does not equate to doing.

But here’s the scary part, the other context… they’re just the ante-in.  The baseline level of proficiency that gets you into the chase.

To emerge from the pack of otherwise solid submissions you need to wield those tools, based on those underlying story physics, with power and nuance and the sensilibility of an artist.

Yes, the word art finally applies.  Right here.  Prior to this level, it’s all craft.

Some call this phase talent.  Others, experience.  Some… an ear, a sense, a knack. 

Call it what you will… you’ll need to cultivate it to raise your story from a bedrock of dramatic theory supporting a masterpiece of architecture, into the realm of publishability.

Doable.  Especially when you see this three-lane road ahead of you.

Did you get my new newsletter, Edition 1?  Like to?  Click HERE.

Are you new to the Six Core Competencies?  Use the search box to find posts on any and all of them – concept, character, theme, structure, scene writing and writing voice… or you can find them all in my bestselling writing book, “Story Engineering.”

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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

22 Responses to The Three Layers of Story Engineering, Architecture, and Art

  1. Very interesting and detailed article. I appreciate the concrete advice.

    Like pretty much everything else, it comes down to a balancing act. You need to be able to give the proper attention to both the craft and the art. Without one or the other, things fall apart. This is probably why most writers don’t make that jump from good to great.

  2. I have five published novels, and I think I’ve become relatively solid in the six core competencies. But I want to lift my writing to a higher realm, and “art” is as good a way of naming what I want to achieve as any other term, I suppose. I’m struggling with that and hunting for ways of achieving it. “Write, write, write” doesn’t really apply here. I’ve done a ton of writing. I need to absorb the means to a higher level before I can achieve it. That’s just the way I’m built.

    I know it goes beyond storytelling ability, but I’m not talking about “literary” dilettantism. I’m looking for nuts and bolts. For instance, I improved my use of stronger verbs by underlining every one I saw in my reading, and as a by-product, I quit overusing adverbs.

    Perhaps “read, read, read” is a more apt encouragement. Can you, Larry, or anyone else give me some suggestions of authors whose writing is outstanding because of this higher level of writing? Ones I can read and say, “Aha! That’s the way you do it.”

    Or is there some other way to learn to put art in my own writing? Is it even something that can be taught?

  3. @Nann — first four that come to mind: Alice Sebold, Dennis Lehane, John Irving and Colin Harrison. All different genres, all with a toe in the mainstream. Harrison, in particular is a master wordsmith, once dubbed “the poet laureate of American Thriller writers.” My wife chimes in, says “Shadow of the Wind” won’t leave her mind because of the beautiful writing.

    All that said… as you seek to go higher, don’t just focus on the “art” level. With your command of the 6CCs, go deeper into the foundations of your stories, the sheer weight and power and compulsive force of the underlying physics of dramatic tension, stakes, the pull of a vicarious journey and strong emotional empathy. Those all trump equisitive verbage anyday, and are the stuff of bestsellers. Add your clean, edgy, compelling narrative, organized and rendered via the 6CCs… that’s the ticket. L.

  4. Thank you, Larry – and Mrs. Larry :). I ran right over to Amazon and downloaded a Colin Harrison book (I love thrillers!) and Shadow of the Wind. And thanks for the additional advice, too! I’ll take it to heart.

  5. For a great painter to create art he must understand various surfaces, textures, paint qualities, brush tips, how to hold the brush, stroke methods and alignment of visual components.

    A musician must understand lyrical appeal, the pro’s and cons of various instruments and sounds and blending, among a host of other things.

    These are both “art”. I have always found it curious that many writers defend their lack of knowledge by saying that what they do is “art”. It is, of course, but art requires a set of knowledge, a set of skills, in order to create it. Be it painting or music or writing or film. Defense of artistic purity is not a shield against the realities of creative endeavor and the results, if they are looked at with clarity, prove this.

    Great post, Larry.

  6. Art Holcomb


    I’m not familiar with all your writings, but I think Larry would agree that atttempting a work in another medium might be useful.

    You might try a screenplay.

    Because of its natural limitations (limited pages/scenes and its almost exclusive use of dialogue and description) one is forced to do more with less in the search for more potentcy and effect. It could give you another view of “artistry” which you could bring back to your novels. You certainly have the talent to make it work.

    You might start with studying a screenplay if you haven’t already so as to get another vantage point to story. If you have done this in the past, I encourage you to try this anew. Let me know if you’re interested and I can refer you to some excellent examples to learn from.

    All the best,


  7. I’ve broken down the various aspects of writing (fiction) into the relative contribution of the Craft and the Art (creativity/imagination, et. al.). The _only_ part that had Craft (the Six Core Competencies) contributing more than Art was the initial setup (on a computer) of a new work — copying the templates for your beat sheets, synopsis and the like into a new directory. About the only “art” required is perhaps a working title. Every other aspect had the art/creativity contributing significantly more than the Craft.

    If writing successfully were easy, anyone could do it. We _must_ have the knowledge of the physics underlying storytelling because they lead directly into the why of the Six Core Competencies. We must have the Six Core Comptencies because they are the minimum ante-in even to have a chance for success.

    Learn and practice (as in apply) the physics and Craft while turning up that artistic creativity higher and higher. Now we’ll have a chance. Remember, the publishing world is a jungle out there, and only the tigers survive — and they have a hard time.

    Now go write something great.

  8. @Art,
    Writing a screenplay sounds intriguing. Please DO point me to the “excellent examples” you refer to. I’ve followed Larry’s movie deconstructions, but it never occurred to me to try to write my own. But I love to learn any aspect of writing, so why not this one…

    Thank you for your interest! And thanks to the others who have added to this discussion.

  9. Art Holcomb


    While this is really a topic for a series of post or a class, I can start you out with an excellent example on one that follws Larry’s Core Compentencies very well, but also is an excellent example of how strong characterization and detail to relationships – and their link to goals/obstacles balance- can make for a very satisfying story . . .

    The movie is KUNG FU PANDA

    Animation, bacause of its freedom from most special effect and cost issues, often produce the most pure storytelling. I often use this story as an intoduction to quality screenwriting for people interested in learning the craft.

    Take at look and let me know what you think, and I’m happy to answer any questions.

    Here’s the address for the script on IMSDb:

    All the best,


  10. @Art: Thank you, Art. I have a couple of big in-house editing jobs I’m working on, but I’ll follow up on your recommendation asap. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.


  11. spinx

    I know this struggle very well – not in from the writing field (obviously) – still, regardless which field you aim at, there always comes a point when things come to a hold. You become confident, which is not that bad at all- but you also grow comfortable.

    Now THAT is a problem.

    I am a firm believer that, as in life, periods of hard work should always be followed by rest. Now, don´t get me wrong. I´m not talking about writing for six months and then taking six months off.
    I am talking about taking a certain time off from improving, and simply getting comfortable with the skills you have earned until then.

    Get used to your rythem, write, test your abilities – you will get used to your new standard, you will grow into your new shoes.
    Only then, when your mind has rested, when the doubts have been pushed back and you have gained new confidence from your writing – only than can you finally start thinking about taking this thing further. One step above.
    Remember how it felt to read something you have written, after not having laid an eye on the thing for months?

    I sure as hell do – it felt absolutely cool. It felt like someone elses work – certainly not mine. It allowed for distance, and it finally allowed me to see this thing as a whole and connected. I had no trouble pointing out every single mistake- and better yet, I deffinitely had no trouble ereasing every single one of them.

    A pair of fresh new eyes will make the impossible possible.
    Taking your writing one step above means digging deeper. I can only agree with Larry here. Take it deeper, dig, and dig some more. Take your old work, something that is older than six months (a year), and take notes – I mean it, take notes, write down what you want to improve, write down how you would like it to feel——————————->>> and now go and read some authors you consider godly.

    You will pick up what interests you immediately. For now, the steps that you were struggling with a year ago, will be firmly set, you won´t notice them—-you will only notice the things that stand out- the things you are seeking so desperately, the ones you want to see in your own work.

    And because your fundament will be very stable by now, you will be focused on your new goal only, without fear of loosing your developement, or messing up with other basics.

    Sorry for the long post…………….I only came for a one-liner!!! I swear!

    (Ps: John Irving has been going downhill for a while now—–in my opinion, he is showing GREAT signs of a lack of plotting.)

  12. @spinx: Who are you, spinx? I ask this in a friendly way. I find your posts different and refreshing! I have indeed picked up an old bit of work and surprised myself. That’s a very satisfying and uplifting feeling. I also have taken time away from my work – I haven’t written much for months except a few posts and a lot of comments to the folks I edit. I keep writing in my head, though. 🙂 When I get the chance to put more words “on paper,” I’ll have a lot of learning to incorporate. I’m anxious to see where that leads me!

  13. Many interesting points in this one. Thanks for again mentioning pantsing is looking for the story by drafting.

    One of the things that happens most times is that I’ll get an idea, start from that idea, head on into the story and pick it up. There’s always a lot of Front End Work. Nearly always. Once in a very great while, maybe one in twenty of my pantser novels, will have an opener that’s pretty clean from the beginning.

    When that happens, I look back and realize it was usually one of the ideas I planned for years. Played with, daydreamed about, thought “I gotta write this someday” a thousand times. Sometimes I know how it ends. Sometimes not, but during the process I focus more on “what’s next” and it’s a practiced reflex. If it doesn’t work, it bugs me, I start over, I do a better one.

    The most drafts anything ever got was my first novel, about 40 of them before I got one I was satisfied with. The most since then was four or five. It was a very long learning curve compared to your excellent lessons.

  14. Donna Lodge

    To Art Holcomb:

    Re: your response to Nann -” I can refer you to some excellent examples to learn from.”
    Can you share your favorites/best picks with the crew?


  15. Donna Lodge

    To Art Holcomb:

    I missed your post to Nann. Saw your recommendation, Kung Fu Panda. Thanks.

  16. I couldn’t agree more! That’s why I have to laugh when I hear writer’s say they don’t need to read the books or attend the conferences or, essentially, learn the craft. They don’t realize the foundation is so very important!

  17. I find the interplay between art and craft in writing similar to the creative balance inherent in architecture (my “day job”). If I focus only on the artistry of design, my buildings would be Seussian, fantastic but unbuildable. If I focus only on structure, I’d churn out unimaginative tract houses like those that litter suburban landscapes. The challenge is to conceive of something unique, significant, experientially pleasant and then devise a practical means of making it happen.

  18. spinx

    @ Nann Dunne:

    I am young, ambitious, and my native language is German—which might very well be the reason why you find my posts different.

    But tell me, what is it exactly that you find is lacking in your stories? Are the connections between your characters deep enough? Dramatic enough? Is it your style you are struggling with?
    Can you actualy form in words what it is you would like to see on your page?

    Sometimes, you need to do that. For how are you going to change something you cannot even grab mentally?

    Other times, when you have earned enough skill (and you certainly seem to have!!!!) you should let your hand do what it really wants to do- instead of forcing it on the same path over and over again.
    I mean it, have you ever tried writing about something that you never thought would even interest you?

    On another note——-take a good look at this! It might very well help you:
    “Why consistancy isn´t always a good thing”

    Have a very nice day!

    (Ps: I am doing art- as in painting, drawing, sketching, and all that- for a living, very soon it will be my sole source of income. It must, it must, it must!!)

  19. Olga Oliver

    Nann, I might be way out in the pasture, but can there be more art in writing than I find in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden? Could there be an art equal to the wisdom Steinbeck gives us in that story? What is art in writing?

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