Writing Books 101: Story Engineering

In theory, writing is easy. You type one word after another until the story is finished. But somehow it doesn’t work out that way in practice.

At least for me, as someone who’s never had any significant writing instruction, the scope of a large project can be daunting.

All the writing classed I’ve ever taken have been focused on short works. From high school creative writing, the classes it took to get junior college requirements out of the way, a few online college classes in short stories and non-fiction articles, and none were focused on work over 1500 words.

So when I started thinking about writing something like a “normal length” short story of around 6000 words, or even a novel, I froze. My longest writing has been here on this blog where a post might get near 2500 words if I had a lot of technical explanation included. For longer fiction I was at a loss. Most of my questions were about structure and how to tell the story in an effective manner.

Since I’m not in a place in my life where I can chuck it all and go back to school (online classes, even those from a proper school are no substitute) I turned to books on writing technique. I also quickly found out that most of them are glorified “This is what I did” books slightly generalized for a wide audience. At first read they can be very inspiring, but the techniques discussed seemed to fall apart when I was faced with a blank notepad.

In a desperate attempt to find something, anything to help I signed up for Kindle Unlimited. Most of Amazon’s reference collection is enrolled in KU and this saved me hundreds of dollars in the first week alone. I proceeded read through most of the top titles. Nothing seems to “crack the egg” for me. But I did learn to spot vagueness and cutesy attempts create new writing terms.

Story Engineering cover.

That was until I found Larry Brook’s Story Engineering. This is the first book that really dug into the how of putting a story together. He breaks down the three-act structure in to four parts. The second and third parts are the second act split in two for dramatic purpose. Then he lays out what should go where and what the goal of each part is.

At first this seemed like another unnecessary distinction without a difference. But with further reading it began to make sense. While Brook’s take on story structure might seem like the main thrust of the book, it’s not.

Before getting to structure he lays out the techniques for getting a story in place: Concept, Character, Theme, Structure, Scene execution, and Writing Voice.

What I found most helpful was his explanation of story concept. He’s very clear that an idea isn’t good enough. It needs to be developed into a concept that will be used in a story. An idea is something like a story about alien invasion, or a story about killer robots. This chapters about concept are worth reading more than once.

For me they were painful to read. I’ve had several stories planned for a while now. But I was forced to face the fact they were nothing but ideas. This explained why when I started to write the story went nowhere. I was writing about the idea and didn’t have anything else to go with it. Sadly, this rubs right up against the established tradition of science fiction being about ideas with the story taking a back seat. It also showed me why so much “high concept” SF from the past falls flat.

Armed with this new knowledge I was able to start building out my ideas into something that might be worth reading. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but now I feel like I’ve filled a bit hole in my writing technique. Understanding the three-act structure is not hard. What I had trouble with is how to fit a story into the three acts and what else needs to happen along the way. I’m hoping to avoid dreaded comments like: “the middle drags,” or “weak ending.”

Brooks also makes it clear that whether you outline or freewrite, the search for story structure is the same. One does it while writing. The other before starting. Either way the goal is the same. One just takes a lot more typing. I’m in favor of less typing and would much rather plan first than face a page-one rewrite to get everything working.

If you have Kindle Unlimited, read this book for free. If not, it’s worth a purchase (about $12 for the paperback. If I decide to let KU lapse, I plan to buy a hardcopy. It’s that good of a reference.