My Love/Hate Relationship with Story Engineering

Last week I finished reading Larry Brooks’s writing manual Story Engineering.

I have to say that I loved it as much as I hated it. I also need to give a shout-out to Rebecca Berto, whose “Best Advice I’ve Learned” series turned me on to this book to begin with.

So why the mixed feelings?

1. Brooks spends a lot of time telling you why his method is the best. The trouble is, there’s a pretty good chance he’s right. (And nothing is more irritating than someone knows he’s right and likes to tell you so.)

2. He trashes on some resources I’m fond of, like The Writer magazine and Stephen King’s On Writing. Yes, these resources may not be as specific and neatly tailored as his is, but they’re still useful. Not everyone’s brain works the same way, Mr. Brooks, so we may get some use out of reading about other approaches.

3. He’s a fan of tough love. Brooks doesn’t shy from telling you why your method sucks. He’ll tell you how to correct it, but not before elaborating on why you’ve been shooting yourself in the foot with your methods.

4. He’s right. I know I said this in number one, but it drives me crazy when someone irks me or hurts my feelings and then turns out to be right. The nerve!

On the other hand, this book has completely upended my revision process, and, when I start a new book, it’ll revolutionize my writing process, too.

Clear, straightforward rules for how to plot a book, how to populate it with well-rounded characters, and how to tie the whole thing together with skillful execution and a strong concept can help any writer improve her craft, no matter how much she insist she knows what she’s doing.

Honestly, if I had read this book before plotting Shaken, I would be doing a shorter rewrite. It is true, though, that learning and making mistakes are part of the process. If I didn’t learn by doing that my process was flawed, I’d probably be even less willing to listen to Mr. Brooks.

And if I weren’t willing to listen, I wouldn’t have learned from this book how to improve my writing.

Bottom line? If you’re a writer, read it. And—if you’re like me—chuck it off the bed from time to time to vent your feelings. Once you feel better, pick it up again and keep plugging. It’s worth the frustration.

Sounds like I’m talking about writing itself, doesn’t it?

Have you read this book? Did it help you? Did you hate it? What other writing books do you love/hate?

20 thoughts on “My Love/Hate Relationship with Story Engineering

  1. I haven’t read it — and honestly I’m really touchy about being dictated to about the “correct” way to do anything. Sounds like it was good, solid information — but the author’s tone would have made my eyes emit pure beams of hate-light.

    I love “On Writing” and I don’t care who knows it. How many Gunslinger books has Larry Brooks written?

    • I’m like that, too. Really. I hated approximately one third of every sentence in this book, just because it put my back up. And you’re totally right — who cares about Larry Brooks’s fiction? Loads of people love Stephen King, and he wrote a book about writing that was both helpful and encouraging.

      But Brooks just so damned useful. I learned a lot, and I think my writing will be better for it. If you can swallow the irritation, it’s worth reading.

  2. I’m in the hate category, for two different reasons. The first is that he just markets too darn much. It’s a constant state of sell, sell, sell — at full volume. I felt like I was reading an infomercial.

    The second issue is that the book has a very negative and sarcastic attitude to pantsers with phrases like “Good luck with that” — as if the book expects pantsers to fail because they haven’t come over to the True Way of Outlining. Honestly, why alienate part of potential readership by dissing them? It’s one of the few writing books that I didn’t get a single thing out of, and it didn’t have to be.

    • YES. I agree with both of your troubles.

      I did, however, get a lot out of it. I don’t think I’ll be able to resolve my dislike of his style with the information he imparts–on the other hand, I learned something, he got paid, so I guess it evens out in the wash.

  3. I feel like I’m going to be playing a Devil’s Advocate by saying I liked the book. Reading it has changed how I understand story structure and read books/watch movies. He also validated a process I use in generating story ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with everything he says about the other writing styles. I think his attitude and style of writing should serve as a reminder to all of us that not everyone will like what you say and how you present it.

    • Definitely. Many of my problems with his book would not have existed if he didn’t take such an acerbic, even judgmental tone. You’re absolutely right that we should all keep attitude in mind as a part of voice. While we may not be able to please everyone, perhaps we can strive for (near) universal politeness.

  4. Thanks for linking my blog! And mentioning me! 🙂

    I must say that I loved every inch of the book. He was right that “The Writer” mag is more for beginners. I loved it a while ago. Then about a year ago, I realised they published the same type of content and it wasn’t very *deep* stuff.

    I understand all the “cons” you had, but I loved that he was so honest. 😀

    • You and he are totally right about “The Writer.” I love it — I do — but I never read it anymore. It’s a beginner’s magazine, and about a year ago, I too realized that I just don’t need or get any use out of it anymore. I’ll probably cancel my subscription this year. *sigh* I mostly just have fond nostalgia for it at this stage. But it’s like he was dissing the My Little Ponies or something, insulting a part of my past. 🙂

      By the way, thanks for discussing this book on your blog! Despite my complaints, it’s going to be a huge help for me.

  5. See it’s a post like yours that gets books sold. I bought the book because of another post. I started it but haven’t finished. Now I’m back to writing proposals and think I can procrastinate a bit longer on them if I finish the book.

  6. I own the book but haven’t read it yet, mostly because I have been in a conference seminar he taught and I can only say that I’ve been thankful that it was only 90 mins long because he literally could not stop tooting is own horn and overselling his book. It drove me nuts! I think he has a lot to offer writers, but for me, he gets in his own way with the salesmanship crap to the point of irritation. When I finally do read it, I have a feeling I will have a love/hate relationship with it as well.

  7. I’m actually really struggling with this book right now. I’ve owned it and Story Physics for over a year but I just hate the way you feel like you’re reading a high pressure sales pitch from cover to cover.

    There is so much useful info in here, but I hate the writing so much I have struggled for the last year to get even half way through it. I wish there was a cliffs notes version out there that I could read without all the hypey stuff!

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