By Chris Mathews
For those writers looking for a sure-fire way to create a powerful story, Story Engineering, Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks illuminates some of the shadowy precepts of structure, while at the same time acknowledging that good storytelling can never just be a paint-by-the-numbers process. With a working knowledge of the tools and process which Brooks calls the six competencies of storytelling--concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and voice--, the writer can discover how to create a great story. Without these craft secrets, Brooks contends, great storytelling is just not possible.
As I stated before, I was very dubious of concept as a core competency apart from theme. However, Brooks does a credible job of making the case that the writer should write with an intention of theme, and not just let it emerge mystically. Theme is, of course, what a story is about, but Brooks expands the definition adroitly. Theme must be “relevant” to life itself; in a real sense, Brooks believes that theme is the launching pad for story in that it is what “makes us think and feel” about the plot.
As far as implementation of theme, he believes what the story means can be linked like the double-helix with character arc, the character’s growth. It’s why the critics panned The DaVinci Code, he maintains. The main character’s growth was secondary to plot and therefore Robert Langdon appeared an empty suit. The character has to conquer both inner and outer forces to make a theme viable. Like the main character in Dan Brown’s novel, Little Red in Little Red Riding Hood does not change very much, remaining naïve until the wolf makes his “all-the-better-to-eat-you” speech. Little Red’s rose-colored world comes crashing down as she fails to grasp the wolf’s trick until it is too late…unless you buy the dues ex machina of the hunter. The theme could be: You have to see things for what they are or you’re going down. The wolf’s cross-dressing makes his character development much more intriguing than Red’s, but the story’s theme emerges. In defense of Dan Brown’s writing and in most best-selling novels, plot takes precedence over character.
After spending half the book on other core competences, Brooks finally devotes the second half of his book to what he clearly believes should be the mantra for aspiring writers—structure.
To be sure, he qualifies his advice, constantly reminding the writer, that all of the other core elements need to be intertwined into the story to make it truly riveting. The hopeful note for the writer here, as Brooks points out, is that structure can be learned.
In a final blog, I will examine in more detail Brooks’ concept of structure, the pith of Story Engineering.