Before you start writing your next story, consider reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. In the following excerpt, you'll discover the elements of storytelling and how to achieve success in writing! Get an overview and definition of what the six core competencies to writing are, and how you can use them in your next story.
Defining the Six Core Competencies
There’s really nothing new under the sun when it comes to writing. But there is a multitude of ways to approach it, to define it, and then learn it. The search for understanding is simply a need to wrap your head around it all.
The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling is a developmental model that allows you to do just that. It separates the major categorical elements of storytelling into discreet, easily understood buckets of information and criteria, all of which are then poured out as a rich, seamless story that actually works.
Consider a chef preparing a gourmet dish as an apt analogy for writing a story. First, the chef acquires all the ingredients called for in the recipe. There are basic principles to follow (eggs Benedict, for example, doesn’t fly without eggs, ham, an English muffin and hollandaise sauce); still, there is room for the chef to play with the recipe to make it his own creation. But never does the chef consider violating the basics—you can’t serve the egg hard-boiled, for example. The chef understands all this as he assembles the ingredients, and knows there is a time and place to pour those ingredients together. The egg boils separately as the ham fries and the sauce is mixed, with the English muffin waiting under the broiler.
Separate functions all waiting to become a sum in excess of their parts. At a certain point, and in a certain way, all of these ingredients are combined and garnished to become the dish in question. And yet, lest the chef get too irresponsibly frisky, eggs Benedict always starts with eggs. The cook doesn’t begin the process intending to whip up some spaghetti and take a creative detour toward eggs Benedict while the sauce boils. To some degree, the only the thing the chef can mess with here are the spices.
Writing a story is very much the same thing.
There is no element, no aspect of the storytelling process, that doesn’t belong in one of the six buckets of Six Core Competencies. Genre is a subset of concept. Setting is a subset of scene execution. Backstory is a subset of character. Subplot is a subset of structure, and unfolds in context to concept. And so on.
Like that eggs Benedict recipe, notice how each of the story ingredients—concept, character, theme and structure—despite how separately they may have been developed, are poured forth from their categorical mixing bowls to become one. For the story to work they must relate to and appear in context to each other, regardless of which bucket they once called home. Theme and plot relate to character arc. As does structure. Concept relates to theme in that concept sets the stage for the theme to announce itself. And so on, again.
The value in separating the core competencies into separate buckets is that we can then clearly understand the definition and criteria for each, which are unique and therefore demanding of fully differentiated understanding, as well as how each relates to the others. If you approach storytelling without this separation of disciplines, the process you end up pursuing is like trying to define layered and esoteric essences and experiences such as chaos or love.
Unless you’re a poet at heart, good luck with that.
One of the reasons writers get confused about the separate core competencies is that, within a story that works—and as consumers, that’s what we spend our time reading so we don’t see a lot of works in progress from other writers—the lines between these skill sets blur. As a story development model, the Six Core Competencies is a checklist that must be addressed and completed before a story will work. The checklist begins with the highest level criteria: Are all four of the essential categorical elements of the story in play? Are all four strong and compelling? It not, the story won’t compete at a professional level. And of course, if you don’t execute them with both of the two requisite implement skill sets, the same outcome will ensue.
From there the long list of criteria gets more specific.
Every successful story meets those criteria to some extent, even if the author had no idea he was manipulating six different skill sets and flavors of creativity. And that’s fine, as long as it gets onto the page. Which it certainly can. It’s possible to learn how to play the piano by ear or to fly a plane by feel, but it’s a lot harder to keep from crashing. If you want to learn how to tell a story, and tell it well, and if you’ve been frustrated with getting your head around the process, then I encourage you to give this creative paradigm and its process a try.
Why This Model Excites Writers
Many writers, especially those who have struggled with storytelling or with understanding their rejection slips, tend to recognize the value of the Six Core Competencies approach very quickly. Even before they try it. Why?
Because it offers hope and clarity. It illuminates a path, a strategy, an expectation and a recipe for dramatic success. It answers the most basic and frustrating of questions: How do I know what to write, and where do I put it in my story? The Six Core Competencies model makes those answers accessible, and does it without smacking of formulaic writing, any more than a recipe smacks of formulaic cooking.
Often it is those writers who have been banging their organic-oriented head against the storytelling wall for decades that become the most ardent supporters of this approach after they’ve tried it for themselves. Because at last they are free to apply their vast creativity within a structure that works, rather than one they believe they are allowed to make up on their own.
The Six Core Competencies do not define or offer a formula. Rather, they define structure driven by criteria for the elements that comprise it.
To attempt to write a story any other way is to seek to reinvent the storytelling wheel. And that’s just not gonna happen. At least if you expect to publish.
You could write a book about each of the core competencies.
In fact, virtually every book about writing—other than the “how-I-did-it” books like Stephen King’s On Writing—is, in fact, just that. But only when you consider them in context to each other do you have something that can liberate you from frustration, at least over the course of a workshop agenda. Even if you’re the most organic and non-linear-thinking of writers, there’s something in this model that can help you.
Here then, at the most introductory level of definition, and in no particular order (because there is no order), are the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling:
1. Concept—The idea or seed that evolves into a platform for a story. Best and most empowering when expressed as a “what if?” question. The answer leads to further “what if?” questions in a branching and descending hierarchy, and the collective whole of those choices and answers becomes your story.
2. Character—Don’t leave home without one. Every story needs a hero. We don’t need to like them (contrary to what your high school composition teacher told you), but we do need to root for them.
3. Theme—Yes, it’s like putting smoke into a bottle, but it can be done. Not to be confused with concept, theme is what your story is illuminating about real life.
4. Structure—What comes first, what comes next, and so forth…and why. And no, you can’t just make it up for yourself. There are expectations and standards here. Knowing what they are is the first step toward getting published.
5. Scene execution—You can know the game, but if you can’t play it well you can’t win. A story is a series of scenes with some connective tissue in place. And there are principles and guidelines to make them work.
6. Writing voice—The coat of paint, or if you prefer, the suit of clothes, that delivers the story to the reader. The biggest risk here is letting your writing voice get in the way. Less is more. Sparingly clever or sparsely eloquent is even better.
That’s it. There’s nothing else under the writing sun, because anything you can think of that pertains to developing and writing a story aligns under one of these categories. Notice that the first four are “elemental” while the last two are “execution-driven” skill sets. You need to master all six of these to write a publishable story. Period, end of paragraph, take that one to the bank. If one is weak, the story won’t succeed as well as it could, and it’ll probably earn you a rejection slip. If one is missing altogether, then the rejection slip is a done deal.
The bar is high. But now you have a ladder.