Review: Story Engineering

Toward the end of his life, King Solomon famously noted, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Ecc. 12:12) In our modern age, we are now up to the point where there are endless numbers of books about the writing of books. Some new classics about the art of writing, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones, are designed to inspire both beginning and veteran authors.

There are other books that function as “how to” texts for adult newbie writers. These study tools can be helpful for some, and wearying for others. There is no one-size-fits-all manual that will deliver everything that an aspiring author needs to craft a book. A person who wants to learn to tell a story will benefit from wading through a few “how to” manuals in order to glean the information that works for him or her.

Story Engineering: Mastering The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks (Writers Digest Books, 2011) is a how-to manual for aspiring novelists. Brooks, a writing coach and the the author of five thrillers, approaches his subject matter with the precision of…well, a very chatty engineer. He insists that even those who sucessfully create their stories organically (like Stephen King, whose style Brooks refers to as “pantsing”, as in, “writing by their seat of their pants”) are bound by the rules of story engineering.   

The book explores the components used to build a story: concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution and voice. Brooks relies on popular recent blockbusters like Dan Brown’s ubiquitous The DaVinci Code to provide examples of how these components *must* be fitted together to create a marketable final product. He insists that if someone follows the formula (while insisting that it is not a formula), the author will increase their chances of creating a book that will catch the eye of an acquisitions editor:

Without the right knowledge, without mastering a formidable list of basics that is rarely talked about coherently, most of us end up with a dream that never materializes…too often (authors) don’t even recognize the pit they’re in, so when the rejection slips arrive they don’t have a clue as to why. 

I’ll tell you why, and I haven’t even read their manuscripts. They were rejected because one or more of the Six Core Competencies was executed at a level that failed to inspire the agent, editor, or producer to offer a contract….here’s the good news: The knowledge of how to understand and apply the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling is out there. In fact, it’s right here in your hands.

I have no quibble with the basic content of the book. It is formula – but novice writers need a helpful introduction to the rules so they know how to obey and intentionally violate them in order for their stories to capture the attention of readers in our era of “making many (many, many, many) books”. Though this is not the be-all, end-all of writing books, it will serve a purpose for some beginning writers of the left-brained variety who want to understand how to construct a page-turning story.

What I didn’t like about Story Engineering was Brooks’ habit of announcing and then announcing some more that he was about to make a Big Point. He devoted pages and pages of the book to hyping this principle or that one before he actually came out and just said it. It made me feel as though he was trying to sell me on the book even though I was already reading it, and I started resenting him for it about a third of the way through the book. If all of this point-padding were removed, the book would probably be about half its 288-page length – and it would have been a much more interesting and user-friendly read.  

*I received a Kindle version of this book to review from Thomas Nelson publishers.
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