Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Interview with Larry Brooks

by Rebecca Talley

Larry Brooks is a successful novelist and a popular writing guru. His blog has a huge readership and has won awards for its outstanding advice and tips. Larry is a personable guy who's always willing to answer questions. I've read his ebook Story Structure and his newest book, available in Kindle and print formats, Story Engineering. Excellent resources. His advice and explanations are easy to understand and have enlightened and empowered me to, hopefully, improve my fiction.

Larry Brooks is also the keynote speaker for the LDStorymakers Conference May 5-7 at the Salt Lake Sheraton,, a conference you definitely don't want to miss if you're serious about writing. I am so excited to hear him speak because I've been reading his blog for some time now and his take on writing really makes sense to me. Be forewarned, though, that he is not LDS and his language can be colorful at times on his blog and in his books.

Larry has agreed to do an interview. Be prepared to learn a ton just from this interview.

Why is story structure so important?

Because structure is actually more than structure. Like a building, structure has a role: it bears weight, it provides safe access, it provides efficiency, it becomes the foundation for aesthetic beauty (think Effiel Tower on that one, yet the design is all engineering).

Structure is the machine that dictates pacing and dramatic tension. Without it, too much or too little is revealed too soon or too late. A cynic might ask, "who says?" The answer is proven by the marketplace -- publishers don't buy books and readers don't read books that don't have that solid pacing and dramatic tension.

Certain things need to happen in a certain order, and at certain places within a story that works. There is some wiggle room, but very little. This disappoints those who thought they were getting into some kind of "free-form no rules do-what-you-want" craft... but the contrary is true. At a professional level of writing and publishing, structure is the foundation of story.

How did you come up with the Six Core Competencies?

I was looking for a new, clearer and more accessible way to wrap my head around the craft of storytelling. I'd hear this grad-school rhetoric, like, "You hero's quest is dictated by the sub-text of his subliminal need as demonstrated by the backstory, and in context to the agenda of that antagonist who is merely a catalyst for the hero's exposition and the ultimate denouement of the dramatic arc."

All of that is true, by the way. But it's pretty much elitist mumbo-jumbo, too, leaving newer writers cold and frustrated. There had to be a better way.

The model of the Six Core Competencies was developed over many years of teaching fiction at writing conferences. It began as "the four pillars of story," which later became a sub-set of the 6CC when I added two  "executional" (my word, spell check doesn't like it, either) core competencies to the list.

Virtually anything and everything you can come up with pertaining to the goal of writing a story falls into one of these competency "buckets," each of which has its own standards, criteria and techniques.

What are the Six Core Competencies?

Four are elemental, two are executional.

The four "elements" of story are: concept, character, theme, and structure (plot exposition).

The two "executional" core competencies are scene development and writing voice.

A weakness in any one of these will kill the story. You have to be solid in all six to get into the game.

Can you explain the difference between idea, concept, and theme?

A good challenge that, and an important one. Because when a writer doesn't know the difference they may head down the wrong road. It is made all the more challenging because an "idea" actually can be one of the other two.

An "idea" is the initial germ or spark that begins the search for story. It can be generic, such as: "I want to write a mystery that takes place in a military academy." Is that a concept? No, not yet, the criteria for concept asks more of us. Same with premise, there isn't enough to it.

Then again, an idea can be more specific. "Write a mystery that takes place in a military academy involving the son of a controversial senator." Better. The idea is heading toward conceptville. But it doesn't get there until...

... you add a "what if?" component. Something that asks a dramatic question that sets the stage for a story. Such as: "What if the son of a senator attending a snooty military academy is killed when it is revealed he's been dating the wife of the head master?" Juicy. And conceptual. There's a story there. There was no story at the "idea" level, but now there is.

As for premise, this becomes an expansion of the concept through the addition of character arc and agenda. Just as concept uses a "what if?" tool, premise uses this: "this is a story about..." and goes on to overview the dramatic landscape, with the inclusion of theme and character. In this example: "This is a story of a young man trying to live out from under the dark shadow of his disgraced senator father, who falls for a woman who needs his help to rescue her from her abusive husband, who happens to run the military academy he attends. The story is about the murder of the young man and the ensuing coverup, plumbing the depths of the lengths people will go to in order to avenge a broken heart and protect a false legacy at all costs."

You could say it's a matter of degree. But really, it's story planning at its highest level. If a writer begins writing with only that first idea, the story will have no focus, no pace and no arc. It's a recipe for a rewrite, because all that draft could ever be is a tool in the search for the story.

What are the five elements that each story must have? Can a story be successful without them?

A hero who must achieve something, with whom we can empathize and root for.

An antagonistic force that blocks the hero's quest, thus summoning the heroic core of the protagonist.

A hero who becomes just that, conquering inner demons and ultimately becoming the primary catalyst and instrument of the story's ending. The hero can never be rescued, they must achieve something, even if it isn't what he/she set out to accomplish.

A story must have a solid structure. Four sequential parts, each with a succinct narrative mission. Each separated by a prescribed (non-negotiable) narrative milestone (shift, twist or new information) that speeds things up, deepens stakes, empowers context and fuels the forward motion of the exposition.

A combination of vicarious reader experience (they must be taken for a ride), thematic weight (they feel it as they read it), character arc (the hero's rewarding journey) and a sweet writing voice that doesn't seek to become a distraction to the story it tells.

And no, a story cannot be successful without all of these thing in play.

You're not only a successful novelist and a popular presenter at writing conferences, but you also offer a manuscript critiquing service. What is the most common mistake you find in the manuscripts you critique?

A violation of all of the above princples is commonplace, and understandable. Writing a great story is really hard. REALLY hard. Most mistakes can be assigned to the writer not yet wrapping their head around what I call the six core competencies, they leave something unclear and unexecuted in that regard. The idea and the resultant concept isn't strong enough. The character/hero isn't three dimension. The story doesn't matter, it elicits a "who cares?" response. And most of all, the structure is off, usually by way of far too much expositional description, side-trips and lack of scene focus.

That last one is the stuff of professionals, and it's the best writing tip I know: each scene you write should have a clear, efficient and compelling mission to fulfill. A piece of narrative exposition to deliver. This isn't characterization -- that is incumbent upon every scene to delivery. Rather, each scene needs to propel the story forward. Not with a bunch of stuff, but with one compelling piece. We should build our scenes around what chunk of narrative information, whatever it is.

This is the art of it. Where do you start within a scene? How do you know when and how to cut to it? What makes a scene dramatic, keeps it from lagging? What details are important, what aren't?

Always the writer's call. Those who get it, who develop a sensiblity in this regard, go on to write successful stories and possibly have a career.

You get to that point by internalizing the six core competencies, which ultimate blend together and depend on each other, and, when done well, become a sum in excess of their parts.

Hope this stuff helps excite you and propel you toward even better storytelling! Thanks for having me.

Thanks, Larry for dropping by. Great information!

I told you this was AMAZING stuff. I LOVE it. Visit his blog for more info on writing. His book Story Engineering, is available at Amazon as well as bookstores.

If you want to see him in person and learn from a master, come to the LDStorymakers Conference. You won't regret it!


Steve Westover said...

Rebecca, Fantastic Interview! Really great questions to elicit great responses.

I think a lot of writers have an internal feel for many or all of these areas, but many of us have a weakness we have to pay special attention to in these competencies.
It is always nice to hear from individuals who are able to explain WHY things work the way they do.

Thanks for sharing.

Deirdra Eden-Coppel said...

I love your site and as I browsed your blog I decided to award you the Creative Blog Award.

Go to and pick up your award.


Christine Thackeray said...

Okay, I'm so wishing I could go to Storymakers coming up. I want to soooo badly especially when you tell me about the incredible keynote speaker. Was your intention to make me miserable?
Seriously, anyone that can go would be a fool not to. Thanks for the heads up, Rebecca.

Valerie Ipson said...

Really great stuff. I'm looking forward to learning from him at the conference!