Six Core Competencies

Larry Brooks at ran a holiday special last December that I took advantage of, and I thought I’d share (over the course of the next umpteen posts) some of the details I learned from him and his book. I’ll talk more later about what I learned from the feedback he gave me. First, I want to start with an introduction of Mr. Brooks and some of the concepts he teaches in his his book, Story Engineering.


Story Engineering is about the Six Core Competencies: the six things necessary to building a successful story. If one (or more) of these things is missing, or poorly done, the story won’t be great. So it makes sense to study them. Here they are:

1. CONCEPT – This is the main idea behind the story. Sometimes it develops from a “what if” question (like what if an ordinary boy learns that he’s a wizard, or what if a hobbit takes a journey to dispose of a deadly ring). Sometimes it comes from a newspaper article, or a dream, or a statement overheard from a stranger. It doesn’t matter where this seed comes from. What matters is that it’s powerful enough to sustain an entire novel.

2. CHARACTER – Without a great character to root for, the reader won’t become engaged in the story or have a powerful emotional experience (that’s Randy Ingermanson’s phrase, but it works here beautifully). As Larry says, “we don’t need to like him… but we do need to root for him.”

3. THEME – I’ll admit, I’m not an expert on theme. I’m not quite sure I understand it. But according to Larry, every great story must have a theme, “what your story is illuminating about real life.”

4. STRUCTURE – Yep, even Pantsers will admit this. Novels need a structure. Larry says there are “expectations and standards” regarding structure, and novelists who wish to see their works in print are wise to follow those standards.

5. SCENE EXECUTION – “A story is a series of scenes with some connective tissue in place,” says Larry. These scenes also have guidelines. A great novelist will master them.

6. WRITING VOICE – As a writing teacher, this is the hardest of the core competencies to teach. Voice comes through practice – it’s what makes Stephen King’s works read so very differently from Norah Roberts. It’s the author’s unique spin, the syntax, the sound. Larry believes that voice can get in the way of a great novel, and that less is better than more. I’m not sure I agree with him, but this is his list, and voice is definitely a part of storytelling.

There you have it. Without these six pieces, you can’t have a great story. I’m going to go in-depth on these core competencies over the next however many months it takes to thoroughly discuss the wisdom in this book. It was exactly what I needed to get my eighth book written, and my entire ninth book is based on the things I learned. I now wish to share them with you. 

So stay tuned! There is a lot of great stuff coming.


2 thoughts on “Six Core Competencies

  1. it took me two days but I finally read through your entire blog. It has opened my eyes to a whole new way of writing. thank you so much for this.

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