In his craft book Story Engineering, Larry Brooks espouses a standardised approach to writing that basically takes the form of a checklist. He insists – and I agree – that this isn’t formulaic so much as making sure you have the necessary tools for the job. The checklist, the Six Core Competencies, are split into two groups: ‘elemental’ or basic ingredients, and ‘execution’ or how you implement those ingredients. Let’s have a quick look at the list.
1. CONCEPT: The basic idea. Often most powerfully expressed as a ‘what if?’ question, which leads to further ‘what if/then?’s and cascades into a story. Elemental.
2. CHARACTER: Crucially one the audience cares about, even if they don’t necessarily like him/her. A person that draws them into the story emotionally and makes them want to find out what happens to that character. Elemental.
3. THEME: Not to be confused with concept. This is the message or reflection on real life that you are trying to present through the medium of fiction. Elemental.
4. STRUCTURE: Three acts, two doors and so on. The building blocks of how storytelling works. Execution.
5. SCENE: As above, but bringing it down to the level of individual scenes and their connections. Execution.
6. VOICE: A mixture of your style, your choice of language and phrasing, the way the story is presented. The thing that makes readers follow you as an author, rather than just read one book. Execution.
As Brooks points out, this is not a sequence of steps. You don’t have to start with a concept – hey, the reason I really ended up writing Corpus was because the protagonist walked into my brain and kicked over my muse’s bins until I gave her a theme to play with. But you do need all of them in there and Brooks strongly advocates knowing as much as possible about all of them before starting to write.
Too many writers get that initial idea and then they start writing a story about it. Without giving the other essential elements much, if any, consideration. They wait for it to come to them – they expect it to – in the drafting process… The story won’t work until there is presence, balance and power amongst all. And unless you know this, unless you practice this, you are at the mercy of your storytelling intuition, and little else. ~ Larry Brooks, Story Engineering
If you’re interested, you can buy Brooks’ book here from Amazon. It’s recommended reading by Kristen Lamb, one of the writing bloggers I follow. The opening pages available to preview are a bit too heavy on analogy for me, particularly after promising in the opening stages to be ‘a book that shows storytellers what to write, where to put it and why it works there’, and the Amazon reviews below suggest that this continues throughout. But if anyone has read a copy, do please share your thoughts below. Do we need to read more, or will that checklist – an undoubtedly sound one – do the job?