Structure in Storytelling
By Chris Mathews
For some of us, writing good sentences is not a challenge. We can do that. We write with flair (we like to think). We know how to color our words with strong nouns and verbs, with sensory details, and with vivid metaphors and similes. The real challenge is to structure our writing so that the reader wants to keep reading our story and not lose his or her way in ornate sentences that meander.
Writers wonder what they can do when they come to a dead-end in their writing, when the muse whispers no more. The answer according to Larry Brooks in Story Engineering is that “…successful stories are as dependent upon good engineering as they are artistry.” For me, this book provided just the recipe I was looking for, especially since my method for writing had always fallen into what Brooks calls pantsing, writing from the seat of your pants without a plan.
When I didn’t know where to go next with a story, my writing would stall out or I would write passages that filled up the pages but did not advance the story. What Brooks recommends is applying screenwriting techniques to build a scaffold for any story, making the story work by blending what he calls the six core competencies: concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and writing voice.
He defines concept as the idea that is the springboard for the story, best defined by answering the question “what if?” The answer leads to further “what if?” questions, and the answers become the story. Although concept seems very close to theme to me, it is clearly set apart by Brooks. For Little Red Riding Hood, the concept could have developed by asking, “what if a wolf meets a little girl in the woods who tells him she’s going to her grandmother’s? What if the wolf races ahead to kill the grandmother so he can have a second course—Little Red?.” You can see how concepts for screenplays can be “pitched” to movie studios.
Character is broken down into three dimensions, the first, second, and third. The first dimension of a character is what the reader sees on the surface (he has a hairy face, for the wolf). The second dimension provides the backstory or meaning behind the surface (the wolf is hairy because he is an alcoholic and has let himself go to pot). The third dimension reveals the true nature of the character and includes the character arc, the means of showing character growth (Little Red is naïve in telling a stranger too much, but finally puts two and two together). Brooks is adamant in claiming that the reader must be able to empathize with or root for the main character in the story. He also claims that the protagonist must face conflict if the story is to advance, and he or she must learn something or at least die trying. The structure of the story should change at crucial times as the hero changes from orphan-to-wanderer-to-warrior-to-martyr (here he makes reference to Carol S. Pearson’s The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By). In an upcoming blog, I will discuss Brooks’ other core competencies of story-telling, and complete an analysis of his techniques in Story Engineering.