By Chris Mathews
I have been looking at the usefulness of Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering to the aspiring writer. We have looked at three of what he deems the six core competencies of storytelling: concept, character, and theme. Although I believe concept and theme could be combined into one category, I did find his breakdown of character very useful in identifying it as having three dimensions (surface, backstory, and character growth, or character arc). However, Brooks, I believe, takes too long to get to the most important aspect of writing from which the title comes, not beginning his explanation of structure in good storytelling until Chapter 22, almost halfway through Story Engineering. I have been using the story of Little Red Riding Hood to test out his advice(my choice, not his).
He breaks storytelling into “four boxes.” The first box is subtitled “The Setup.” In this section of the story, we learn what the stakes are for the main character(what he or she has to lose). There should also be some foreshadowing of the antagonist in this section. And empathy for the main character or hero needs to be created. In the case of Little Red Riding Hood, box one would include her backstory that her mother told her not to leave the path, and her encounter with the wolf. Here we see how naïve she is when the conniving wolf wheedles information about the grandmother out of her and tells her to pick flowers thereby leaving the path and we glimpse the wolf’s duplicitous nature. Box One ends with the first plot point when we sense what conflict is going to take place—in this case Innocent Red versus scheming wolf. According to
Brooks this is where the story really begins.
The protagonist’s quest begins the second box, which should show the hero studying the problem faced. In Little Red, this section would include Little Red’s questioning of the wolf(“My, grandma, what big eyes you have”), culminating in the Wolf’s “…the better to eat you with.” Brooks calls this moment the midpoint of the story. For Little Red, her purpose is clear: the wolf is out to get her.
This third box, the attack, occurs in stories when the protagonist becomes proactive. At this point, the protagonist usually mounts his or her strongest attack against the antagonist or dies trying. In most versions of Little Red, it is the later. The hunter’s entrance on the scene would mark the second plot point. The final struggle now takes place in this box.
The fourth box is the resolution. In the Grimms’ Brothers version, the hunter cuts the wolf open and Little Red and Grandma are both freed, and after he replaces rocks for humans and sews him up the wolf meets his demise. According to Brooks, Little Red would fall into the category of “lame part 4 hero status” because she is not the primary catalyst in the story’s resolution, the hunter is.
In a final blog on this book, I will examine Brooks’ remaining structural component of structure, milestones. In addition, I will comment on his final two competencies, scene execution and writing voice.