Monday 23 March 2015

Favourite Writing Craft Books - Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Review by Ian Acheson

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I was one of those novice writers that wrote my first manuscript using the organic drafting method (yes, I’m a pantser) rather than a well-defined plan that Larry Brooks encourages in this excellent guide to writing fiction.

In fact I wrote pretty much all of the first draft, all 250,000 words, without studying writing craft books in any detail. So theories of three-act structures with plot and pinch points were all part of a strange new lexicon that I understood conceptually but hadn’t practiced.

I then found myself an editor who taught me the basics of the craft of writing. And in so doing became enamoured by the writer/editor partnership.

I don't regret starting out this way primarily because it both taught me a lot but also confirmed to me that I had a "story" that could be written. Yes, I did work through 3 significant re-writes, a number of minor edits, and I estimate I wrote the best part of 1,000 pages for what ended up being a 380 page novel.

Enough of me, what about Story Engineering?

It’s sub-titled “Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing” which are as follows:

  • Concept
  • Character
  • Theme
  • Story Structure
  • Scene Execution
  • Writing Voice

I first read “Story Engineering” a number of years ago when I was in the process of a final major re-write of Angelguard. I found it an excellent reference point to check, not only the key structural elements of the story, but also the other concepts Brooks outlines.

I took pages and pages of notes that I still refer to today. In addition, Brooks provided access to a single page cheat sheet that summarises the key elements. I’ve particularly found his detailed outline of the 4-part story model and major story milestones invaluable as I work through other manuscripts. The pantser in me struggles to assimilate such a model when I set out on a new manuscript. It’s like my characters reject it telling me to trust them but I appreciate this model underpins the majority of novels and screenplays (3-act equivalent).

The book is very practical with many references to both his novels (he’s published at least six) and others. Yes, it could perhaps have been shorter (he likes his sports metaphors) but the key information is very accessible.

If you're new to fiction writing, or experienced but challenged to re-invent your process, or simply want an excellent reference guide, I’d encourage you to add "Story Engineering" to your writing craft collection.

Larry Brooks is an author of six psychological thrillers, is a freelance writer and writing instructor. He can found at which is often listed as one of the top blogs for writers.

Ian Acheson is an author and strategy consultant based in Northern Sydney. Ian's first novel of speculative fiction, Angelguard, is now available in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. He wonders if he'll ever finish the sequel, Wrestling with Shadows, but trusts Jack Haines is getting equally frustrated being away from the three girls that make his heart sing. You can find more about Angelguard at Ian's website, on his author Facebook page and Twitter


  1. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for your review. I like how you say: "The pantser in me struggles to assimilate such a model when I set out on a new manuscript. It’s like my characters reject it telling me to trust them but I appreciate this model underpins the majority of novels and screenplays (3-act equivalent)."

    I too can appreciate the insights the structure advocates can give us. I love K M Weiland's blog posts and books, appreciate James Scott Bell, Syd Field, Christopher Volger, Joseph Campbell and others - though I can't help thinking that there are other story structures out there too or maybe other ways of tweaking it. Alexander Mcall Smith's popular No 1 Ladies Detective Agency have a more "slice of life" feel than a typical mono-climatic 3 act structure. Marcus Zusak has fun breaking the rules of structure in the modern classic The Book Thief.

    The three act hero's journey structure does work and is very popular these days. As they say, perhaps you need to know the rules to know when to break them. On the other hand, a wooden application of rules without allowing breathing room for one's characters and story can produce very ordinary results imo :)

    1. Hi Jeanette

      Thank you for your detailed response. I do like to understand the "accepted" norms and then hopefully be able to "flex" them a little bit. I think we'll see more flexing with self-publishing. Some of it will be fabulous, some not so.

      I'm finding my best course of action is to provide an enclosed playground that my characters can enter and let them loose to take the story where they're being led.

  2. Ian, great review! I love it when I find a craft book that really speaks to me at a specific stage of my writing journey. Story structure isn't an easy concept to understand and put into practice. Thanks for sharing Story Engineering with us :)


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