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.

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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?

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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.

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.

Photo Manipulations with Photoshop

This is a gallery of everything I’ve done so far. This is basically my way of procrastinating and not doing the work of writing. This series on Photoshop is wandering a little too far from the goal of this blog.  Most of these are from an up-coming anthology of my best writing in Remember. So here’s the gallery. Enjoy and click through to my Deviant Art page for full resolution.

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