Story Engineering: Getting Down to the Story Mechanics

Larry Brooks is a published author that has writing classes/workshops. In Story Engineering, he shows us what he teaches his students about writing fiction. Apparently, writing a screenplay is very easy in comparison. Books out there detail the rules required in an acceptable screenplay. Larry Brooks has brought that over to fiction writing. If you ignore the condescension of organic writes, the book brings a needed insight to novel writing.

1

Story Engineering starts with an argument against the formulaic nature of planning out a story using his components. The difference between art and putting matching things into a formula is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant while reading it. That’s one of the few things not explained in Story Engineering. I figured out a possible explanation. The various story elements, concept, story structure, character, theme, writer’s voice, and scene construction have a synergy between them. Each element builds on another. For example, first person, solitary confinement, weak mental state, and being alone is inhumane. With first person, we are with the inmate at all times. There’s minimal interaction with other people. Add the weak mental state and there’s a compelling story. Add examples of what other inmates in solitary confinement come out as. That makes a pretty good story right?

2

Concept is the central question of the story. Story structure is the pacing of the story. The author does a really good job of getting this point across through the book. What plot event should happen at certain points throughout the story? Several movies and books are discussed as examples. Every book and movie I remember follows the plot events. I’m not sure about the timing yet.

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Character is presented as a personality selector you would use in The Sims. Different characteristics that can be tweaked to show the universality of humanity. Figuring out how each characteristic affects the others is where the art part comes in. Then the character arc. That was completely new to me.

 

I use a few lines of research to understand how characters operate. First, observing people and imagining what goes through their heads. Talking to people and looking for the motivations. Deeply analyzing my psyche through meditative practice. And method acting in my head. What would this character do if that happened?

 

Theme is the meaning behind the story. The story can give an opinion or explore a question. Figuring out what to say helps put it into the novel.

 

Writer’s voice is something that needs to be discovered through writing and trying different things. Scene construction states each scene has a mission. The scene needs to be short enough to accomplish its mission.

 

Reading Story Engineering will forever change my novel writing. I was already close, and now I get it for the first time. Larry Brooks knows his stuff. Great book Mr. Brooks.

The Forest for the Trees: A Way through the Mess of Being a Fiction Writer

Betsy Learner is a writer, editor, and agent. In The Forest for the Trees, she offers a collection of sage advice for any writer, especially when you’re questioning your ability as a writer. Reading this book helped a lot. I’m on the right path and need to wo4k more before I get there.

 

The first half of the book identifies several different types of writers. There’s something in there for everyone. I identified with several things that matched. When I’m the most truthful and unafraid, my writing is at its best. Very few writers are naturally successful. The vast majority need to work really hard to get in and become something. The process of writing and getting good is a long process. Write, get feedback, make improvements, write, and repeat until you arrive. Throughout there are many examples from a ton of successful writers and how they got started.

 

The second half of the book is about the publishing side of things. Betsy tells us how she started and moved through the publishing world. These are my biggest takeaways. Sometimes you find a person that can voice your inklings about something you wrote. A good editor should also alight on those things. Query letters are replied in several ways. The first stage is a form rejection letter. Then a form letter with a little personalization. Third a personalized response and finally an acceptance letter. Seeing the process of traditional publication was like witnessing someone else living your dream. One day, that’ll be me. I’ll get there.

 

Later guys.

A Few Mini Dreams: Paper Nightmare, Escape of the Innocent, and Flying Through

A few mini dreams:

 


 

Thrown papers fly at me through a slammed open door. Each one impacts with a great puff of smoke, forcing me back with each incoming blow. Eventually, I trip into a pool of paper at the end of a test wallpapered hall, flailing in the ruddy pool, and slowly sinking into black ink swirling beneath the surface. All I can see is failing grades while I drown.

 


 

I run upstairs chased by an unknown foe, into my bedroom, and try to escape. A huge dream creation of a dog confronts me with a bark, actually waiting for me to climb onto his back. We emerge through the door, land on the enemy, descend the stairs, and spot an evil accomplice. Racing back into the bedroom avoids the unsurprised wrongdoer. The dog and I jump off a diving board outside the open window, through a horizontal mullioned greenhouse roof, land on thick palm fronds growing from the ground unscathed, and make our escape.

 


 

Controlling a miniature airplane with my tech flies it around perfectly. I sit inside the tiny cockpit, soaring through the clouds, along a highway, under an overpass, and keep flying. I somehow maneuver through a bedroom window and land on the floor.

Book 2: The Characters that Make the Tapestry

The Trouble with Dreams requires really strong characters to pull off the story I have in mind. Six characters that allow us into their lives to see it for what it is. Then we need to peer deeper to understand their inner dreams. Also what factors are preventing them from what they truly, deeply want in life? That’s a lot of weight placed on small human shoulders. Let’s make them mighty.

 

What prevents people from getting addicted to prescription drugs? A support network. I wanted this place addiction to be stronger than reality. Showing people at various levels of success would do that. I wanted average people for their lot in life. And what’s the best way to reframe addiction in a way that’s new, visceral, and real? Make the addiction instead an experience that’s their dream life incarnate. And there we have the concept.

 

I needed compelling characters that go through this experience. I started with a homeless veteran with PTSD and cancer. Uplifting, right? Jk. A large percentage of the homeless are veterans. I wanted to make it a choice superficially, but we all know there’s more to it than that. Chris manages his PTSD by limiting stimulus that triggers his symptoms, like sound and movement. He has a family ready to help, but everyday things trigger him. The potential for him to hurt a loved one is always there.

 

Then we have an ex-con. It started as a male character but later turned into a woman. Getting a job as an ex-con is really difficult. Most ex-felons are black and reoffend. Unable to get a legal job, she returns to the only thing she knows, car theft. I know very little about low-tech car theft. Mix in those wireless key fobs and then it gets interesting. Software defined radio, RFID, Bluetooth hacking, wifi hacking, deep packet inspection, copying packets and retransmitting. Computer stuff. Never actually done it. I know the general principles and the thought process. She’s trying to be reunited with her daughter.

 

Then we have Elise (Lotus Elise comes to mind). Elise is a high-end call girl. The company keeps employees under tight control by getting them hooked on prescription painkillers. I wanted Elise to have surrogate relationships with her clients. I also wanted the story of how she got there.

 

Then we have an author. Michael wants to publish a romance novel, but his first book is a tremendously well-selling pick-up artist guide. He’s hung up on a patient he had as a therapist and is nearly in love with his escort. I connected each character to every other to resemble the fact that everything’s connected. Michael stays sane by picking up women for fun. That should work out really well for him, right? Sarcastic.

 

Then we have a closeted lesbian lawyer. She has a partner that the firm doesn’t know about. Add a nice apartment and a few cats. Her struggle is getting pregnant through IVF. Some medical issues causing it to be very difficult.

 

Then a millionaire founder like Elon Musk. Supermodel wife and the works.

 

Finally, we have a psychologist that interacts with all the rest. Larissa Emery is the common thread through the story. I wasn’t clear on her storyline at the beginning. It grew into her suspicion that her husband was cheating on her. She finds the truth and deals with it. Her interaction with her patients (the other characters), help her decide what to do.

 

I wrote each point of view separately as if writing an independent story without worrying about fitting everything together. I started with Chris. To get the story under 50,000 words, each of the seven parts should be 7,000 words. Chris’s part took 10,000. My word counts would be higher for the other characters. My vision for the story was too big for my goals. I cut back the characters to four. Chris, Elise, Michael, and Larissa. That grew into The Trouble with Dreams. The entire first draft took ten months and now out to beta readers.

Book 2: The Law of Averages or The Trouble with Dreams

I tried getting Remember an Agent. That work was the best I could manage then. It was sheer audacity to believe Remember was the correct fit to be published. Since then, I’ve learned so much about writing. I needed something more relevant and approachable. More than that, it needed to be marketable. Would the work be appealing beyond the angle of dropping the reader into the character’s shoes?

 

That gave me a hit list. A list of things that the next book required. Some givens were already established so far in my writing career. A psychological thriller, futuristic optional, character driven, and involving love somewhere along the line. I also wanted something that’s set in reality, relatable, 50,000 words, and with average characters. Not all analytical scientists. I also wanted a few hangers-on from the Remember Sequel. That ended up as multiple points of view. I also wanted simple, easy to understand prose that allows the story to get across.

 

I came up with a few ideas/concepts.

1. the Earth is really one big machine that can teleport

2. a ghost sucks life force and vanishes after the people die

3. a cat turns into a human, helped to become a successful human designing cat toys

4. an alien world with varied population, mainly very thin humanoids that neatly float away without gear weighing them down, from high gravity home world chases down criminal just to allow escape

5. snake civilization of high intelligence makes heaters from fire to stay warm and hunt down larger animals  for food

 

And finally the idea I stuck with:

  1. place addiction

 

That idea came from a weird place. We all know about addiction to chemicals like cigarettes, alcohol, opioids, methamphetamine, benzodiazepines, marijuana, and various other things. The jargon abounds with these obviously. Let’s extend that to something more like love. Put on your nihilist hat, please. Love is basically an addiction to a person. Being around a particular person you love, triggers a highly complex, not well understood the neurochemical cascade of dopamine, oxytocin, and numerous others. Now, what about a place? Can people become chemically addicted to a place? Yes, if there’s an association or neural connection that links getting high with a specific place. The next obvious question is what happens if the place no longer works or the dosing ends? If a junkie can only get subpar dope, what happens? Well, we have a pretty good idea. What happens when a great relationship ends abruptly? Hate? Confusion? Betrayal? Inconsolable pain? Suicide? Take your pick. Initially, the idea just appeared as if from nowhere. Looking enough gave the root and stem of the idea/flower.

Walking Through the Forest of Night to a House so Bright

A story of transformation, finding something unreal, and seeing things in a new way.

Walking through the black forest shakes trepidation through this vessel. I just walk from some unknown location to the warm comfort of my home, each step concluding in pain, as branches thick and dense scratch up every square inch of open flesh. The continual movement through this underbrush offers a constant reminder of what hides just out of sight in the utter darkness all around. The unavoidable trip over an up-turned root or impact with a hearty low hanging branch adds punishment to my circuitous, wandering journey. I need some way to escape this blind torment — a slight reprieve from this suffering — just something, anything to change this sightless wandering.

 

A deep thumping moves through the forest floor and into my very bones. The need to brace myself to the strength of a behemoth tree possesses my deliberate action. My touch turns into a hug that becomes a death grip with another mighty, ground shaking vibration. A light reflecting back onto the trees — showing their full depth and complexity — grows with the intensity of a dozen suns in the utter darkness of this endless night. A menacing, throaty, animalistic roar from the omnidirectional distant wood sends a shiver down my spine, raising hair as if preceding electromagnetic discharge. An unwitting glance in the general direction blinds and reveals. I will and force my body to unleash the hold upon this mighty protector, this sentinel of a tree. I reluctantly gaze at the source of bright emanations floating ahead of this feeble body. The illumination acts as a giant obfuscation of my true savior, whatever form of creature may yet it be? I approach with a heart halting terror and unbridled curiosity, unhindered by neither. This encroachment continues until the ultimate conclusion of facing this thing.

 

The light fades to a faint glimmer of the once magnificent beacon, facing me with the stuff of nightmares — a monstrous feline form waiting to tear meat from bone. The shiny salivating mouth, at the ready, takes no action except to show itself. I feel this undeniable need to touch the top of its slick, black hair covered head, so much so that I just do it. Combing my fingers through the thick, luxurious fur that encompasses this unearthly beast coaxes purrs of the cat’s pleasure. The agape mouth recedes to that of a happy kitten with no interest in ingesting my delicate flesh. Another one of pure white enters the clearing, looking for some unknown treasure. The newcomer requests the same tender moment, displaying its gentle face near that of the other. I indulge the arrival with the same strokes to receive the much needed safety and security. With each stroke, the wild and feral nature of these beasts transforms into the kinder, gentler forms of pet cats with diminutive size.

 

The two cats pull back as if something calls their attention away from this. They move past me deeper into the overly dense growth. I follow as they are now my acolytes in the unfamiliar terrain, giving myself over to their animalistic instinct with no other recourse than belief in their prerogative. I trust them implicitly as sheep lend themselves to the whim of the herder. They move from branch to branch with a graceful ease, occasionally leaping to ground without faltering. The white lioness, the feline is bombarded with distraction meant to disrupt — wandering thoughts of something unknown. She flees at some indiscernible input abandoning him and me. I follow the member of our party devoted to our mutual interest, getting me out of these accursed woods. We approach a house of black smoking chimney and yellow glow through window. He makes himself comfortable here, a sign for me to enter the hidden, secret chambers within. He swiftly climbs an overhanging tree, drops down upon the lowest eaves, and curls up onto a ball. A peaceful slumber is the lofty goal of this lowly, once majestic creature.

 

Entering the bleak, sterile innards of this home leaves something to be desired besides modernity. The organic, although dark forms outside provide more of a comfort than this… barren cold. I go through the myriad of metallic cabinets and bins, looking at everything and searching for nothing. The white floor offers the only change from this… storage on every side. I pantomime my way around the room, searching the cold walls for the misplaced door, failing at a hidden compartment or any other such thing. The cold leaches into my hands, trying to rip my very essence away. I stop in futility. A noise startles me into looking one way. The cold at my back melts away to nothingness. A look back offers nothing, except black air surrounding this body. The limited surroundings are no more. Trying to escape the whiteness below, running into the dark proves this space inescapable.

 

Somethings come out of the black void and surround me in tight ring after ring. The objects flicker into life showing him to me, the black feline lounging above in various states — anything from growling to purring, eating to sleeping, back arching to scratching, and hunting for some elusive prey. The images send me through waves of reflected emotion. The scratching comes to gradual focus. The images look too real for my own good, the scratches too close. The hot searing pain cries out from every part of my outsides. The resulting outflow of blood provides a limited relief. I just want and need this perpetual torment to cease! This unavoidable pain must come to an end. I just have to get out! I welcome the sweet slumber of sleep that is death alone.

Jailed

A fictional construct of the mind.

 


 

I hang, suspended by this ball of cast iron bars, high up in some leafy mammoth. A firm, swift tug on the rope holding the cage — through some form of pulley — sends me down from whatever method of comfort I have necessarily employed. I land with the grace of land-bound seal or walrus upon the welt-inducing corrugation of metal bars and air. The descent into the light penetrating fog — beautifully hiding the goings-on at the surface — perpetrates an animalistic, lizard-brain originating rage through me.

The moment of release lies near as through thickening fog a group emerges. The usual screams and yells of fear, anger, and hatred fill the air accompanied by a single wail of deep longing and hurt. From within the heart of the assembly, two people, my parents come forth, tear soaked and still streaming. I extend one arm by the cage, out to them, which they hang to with desperate and strong hands. At this, my ascent to prison and isolation begin as every other day, my endless cycles of suffering continual. Grabbing the bars (seen as fitting) is the recourse of choice. I shake my cage wildly, issuing a guttural sound from deep down. An abrupt drop of this cell knocks me out.