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Structuring Your Story

A pantser's review of Larry Brooks's 'Story Engineering'

· Writing Tips

Some great debates have persisted throughout the ages: Montagues vs. Capulets. Logic vs. emotion. Ketchup vs. mustard. Star Wars vs. Star Trek. There's an age-old divide amongst writers, too. A debate that can get downright heated.

Pantsers vs. outliners.

Pantsing, or writing without a plan--i.e. by the seat of your pants--is the romantic's way to write a novel. It's a long (sometimes many years long) journey of discovery. Discovery of your characters' true selves, of your plot's shape, your story's message, and your own writing style. It's where you find all the quintessential writerly milestones: the terrible first draft, the endless revisions. The revelation after draft nine that the entire story starts in the wrong place. (That one's fun).

But is there a way to unite us? Better yet, a way to make us all more efficient, better storytellers? Larry Brooks thinks so. He's the author of the popular writing guide Story Engineering, and creator of the site Despite a few forays into outliner territory, I've been a devoted pantser for several years, so I've been skeptical of detailed, story planning how-to guides like this one. But after some serious writer's block in the last year, I was ready to try a new approach.

Support Structure

According to Brooks, the dichotomy between pantsing and outlining is a false one. In fact, you don't even have to choose one or the other! He says that both methods are just different forms of finding your story. The pantser--or to use Brooks's preferred term, organic storyteller--is just searching out the story arc through a series of drafts, instead of through an outline or a beat sheet. (Though Brooks does seem to think organic writing takes way too long and can lead a writer astray).

The essential part, Brooks says, isn't whether you write organically or whether you construct a detailed story plan ahead of time. The key is nailing down your concept (i.e. the overarching question that forms the basis of your whole story), and then putting the rights kinds of scenes in the right places. Every well-told story has those same milestones--an identical, underlying framework--regardless of genre or audience. Brooks tells us, "To attempt to write a story any other way is to seek to reinvent the storytelling wheel."

Where Science Meets Art

I know what a lot of you die-hard pantsers out there are thinking: Sure, I could plan my story in advance instead of discovering it as I go and then revising to make it all fit. But, the pantser argues, those two methods--pre-planned vs. organic--don't get me to the same place. The organically written manuscript will have tapped into the author's inner psyche in a way that outlining doesn't allow. It will speak to the collective unconscious, capture the zeitgeist! It will be art.

And the same criticism can be made of Brooks's "story milestones" (his version of the almighty three-act structure). Doesn't all this careful plotting, all this engineering, take the artistry out of writing?

Well, just hold on.

Brooks has seen these impassioned pleas coming a mile away, and he has a (pretty good) answer for them. Think of your manuscript as a building. It needs the basics: a solid foundation, proper electrical and plumbing, walls, a get the idea. But its the aesthetic elements--the unique vision of the architect--that elevate that project to architecture. "Story structure can be taught," Brooks says. "But nobody can teach you how to turn it into art." That's on you, the writer. That's where your true creativity and talent come in.

I'm pretty convinced by Brooks's arguments, enough to adopt story planning--and even detailed outlining!--as my go-to method. (I'm in the middle of a revision where I'm doing just that). However, I do think there's one time that pantsing is important. Possibly even essential.

The Value of Getting Lost

I started my writing life as a pantser. All I had was an idea, a setting, a couple characters, and I was off. I did what Stephen King told me to do, and wrote my 2,000 words a day. A few months later, I had a big monster of a first draft ... which needed a monster rewrite. And then another. Five plus years later and it's still not there yet! I've had better success with other manuscripts, especially as I've learned more about the three-act structure and proper pitching. But where Brooks would see all that work on my first, unpublished manuscript as a waste of time (or maybe, more fairly, a very inefficient use of my time), I see an invaluable learning experience.

I could not have learned how to write a novel without making mistakes, flailing around, and generally being pretty bad at it for a while. This is the great benefit of pantsing. You're out there, writing without the safety net of a story plan. Which means you try out lots of different things. You explore. And along the way, you discover your unique voice and identity as a writer.

Brooks himself makes a similar point when he's talking about voice. He tells beginning writers, "listen for your true voice to emerge. Like a muscle, it needs to be pushed and practiced, to be allowed time to become part of the growth process." What better way to push and practice and grow than to write organically for a while? Give yourself the space to make mistakes, to get your voice wrong, so you'll eventually learn how to get it right.

I completely agree with Brooks that every writer must eventually master some version of story structure. But I think you'll actually be able to understand that advice, and then know how to implement it, after you've pantsed your way through a manuscript or two first. Is it a quick process? No way. But all that patience will come in handy when you're waiting to hear back from agents and editors.

Simple, yes. Easy? No.

Story Engineering covers a lot of ground. Brooks says he'll tell us everything we need to know to write a salable novel, quite an ambitious claim. There's a lot to ponder here: how to define your concept, dimensions of character, the role of theme, how to structure individual scenes. To me, some of these chapters seemed a little vague, like those topics might be covered more thoroughly elsewhere. The real price of admission here was the breakdown of plot structure. It's why I picked up this book in the first place. Brooks takes the classic three-act structure and fills in all the gaps. That amount of detail (all smacking of, God forbid, rules!) would have been overwhelming and confusing when I was a beginner writer. But now, I welcome the clarity. Brooks does an incredible job of laying out each milestone and explaining its function in the story.

Brooks tells us what to write, and where to put it. If that sounds too easy, Brooks assures us that, in practice, telling a good story is very, very hard. No surprise there. All of us writers already knew that. But Story Engineering does deliver on its promise: it provides a roadmap. And for any experienced writer who's been stuck on a particularly impossible manuscript--pantser or outliner or anywhere in between--I'd say it's worth a try.

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