Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review, Part IV: STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks - Practical Principles for Writing

By Chris Mathews

Story engineering, Larry Brooks contends in his book by the same name, must contain milestones, which he defines as the points in the story where new information changes the direction, tension, and stakes of the story(the first plot point, midpoint, and second plot point, he calls “major milestones”).  Here are the milestones he outlines, along with my illustrations of his points using the Little Red Riding Hood story:

1)       The opening scene of the story—the set-up scene(the mother in Little Red Riding Hood, for example, carefully instructing her daughter to stay on the path and not to talk to strangers as she goes to take goodies to her sick grandmother)
2)       A hook (first 20 pages in novel, first 10 pages in screenplay)—the reader is grabbed by a question he/she must know the answer to(Why does the Wolf want to know where Little Red is going?)
3)      First plot point (occurs about ¼ of way into story)—the hero suddenly has a quest and a mission as the antagonist emerges(Little Red meets the manipulative BB Wolf and we see he may have bigger plans in mind—or else why wouldn’t he just eat her?—he could.) Conflict, without which there can be no story, comes into sharp focus here. (This wolf is big and bad and conniving and he is going to get in Red’s way.)
4)      The midpoint (at the exact middle of the story) which shifts the story’s context--probably occurs in Little Red when she gets to her grandma’s and starts to realize there is something a little wrong with this picture.
5)      The second plot point (3/4 of the way through the story)—in Little Red, when Red learns that the wolf is playing the part of Granny(“the better to eat you with”). At this point, the true power of the antagonist is revealed.
6)       The final resolution scene (In Red Riding Hood, this scene occurs when the hunter bursts in and kills the wolf.)

I find Brooks’ outline of structure useful, but too programmed.  Fortunately, he realizes that while screenplays must adhere closely to this structure, these points might be better thought of as principles for the novelist, rather than hard-and-fast rules.

Scene execution and writing voice comprise his final core competencies for the aspiring writer. The most important point he makes about scenes, I believe, is that each scene must move the story forward. All scenes must have a mission. He suggests writing scenes that propel the story forward, ending a scene with a question that drives the reader’s interest on. Brooks spends even less time on writing voice, feeling this competency is way overrated, especially at writing conferences. His watchwords are: keep it simple, and less is more. He favors “essence” over “eloquence.” While he acknowledges the importance of dialogue and feels you can develop an ear for dialogue, writers fail, he maintains, when they don’t get outside themselves in their dialogue.

In Story Engineering Larry Brooks has put together good benchmarks to help writers stand a better chance of being published. His contention is that knowing where you are going as you write is a good thing. Outlining can help strengthen and hold your story together. Intuition can be cultivated. Little Red Riding Hood may not be much of a heroine, by Brooks’ definition, but the story is compelling because the construction of the story holds. Theme is intertwined with character and conflict: listen to your mother, don’t be too naive, there are bad creatures out there. The storytelling of Little Red Riding Hood is tight. Every part fits together and has a purpose that leads forward.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are we to infer that a writing voice has something to do with eloquence? Voice isn't a question of essence versus eloquence. Voice is the difference between reading about Annie Proulx in an encyclopedia and reading one of her books.

Voice is not easy to identify. And I wonder if you can teach a writer how to develop a voice.