The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

“Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks

Like most writers, I came to writing through reading, and most of that reading was fiction, usually novels.

So, like most writers who write something else, I also wrote a novel. And as is usually the case with first novels, it was bad.

It took me some time to figure out why it was bad. It wasn’t the writing at the word, paragraph, or scene level. The conversations were fine, there was tension, the characters had character, and so on. Each scene on its own was usually at least decent, sometimes there were very good.

But the whole was unsatisfying. Beta readers told me this, though they couldn’t tell me why, but I could feel it myself. I’d felt it when I was writing it, most noticeably when I felt I had to keep writing after the plot was over, because some story-sense, built from reading thousands of novels, told me I hadn’t actually finished.

So I put it aside for a year or so, re-read it, and investigated. It turned out most of the problems were structural, and the most useful book I found on basic story structure was by Larry Brooks. I’ve read many similar books since, and while there are more complete books — maybe even technically “better” books, but none are as clearly written as Brooks’.

Of course, all such structure is something you can throw out later if you want. But as with all such rule-breaking, you first have to internalize why the rules exist and what they do.

Brooks’s book is about more than structure, and if you’re interested in the topic I recommend it. But I felt a synopsis of the structure was worth it even for people who will never write a fictional word, because what’s eerie is that once one reads stories this way, it pops up everywhere. Movies, TV shows, almost all novels. Our society has a specific narrative backbone, and it’s damn near universal in our story-telling. This isn’t an all-times, all-places backbone (the traditional Japanese novel, for example, does things differently), but within our society, it’s everywhere.

This is so much the case that when I recognize the first plot point (explained in a bit) now, I’ll check the page or word count or running time of the show. It’s supposed to come at 25 percent, and it’s almost always within one percent of that.

We think in stories, they structure our brain at least as much, and perhaps more than the other way around, so how stories are structured matters.

The standard story structure, per Brooks, has four acts (others use three, with the second twice as long, it’s the same thing.)

It has the following key moments:


The first act is where you set up stakes. You introduce your main characters and you introduce the world they live in before it it is changed at the end of the first scene. This is where the author tries to get you to care about the character, so that when things change, you want to go along for the ride. Fail to introduce the stakes properly, and all the problems later on won’t matter. In my novel, a lot of the emotional stakes were based on a threat to the protagonist’s family, but I didn’t introduce them well, so why would readers care?

The other thing is that, in terms of character or world change, this shows the world as it was before things went bad. Perhaps your protagonist is a doctor who thinks her job is great, her life is great, everything is great. That’s all going to change, but seeing what she had before she realizes her husband is cheating and the hospital is harvesting organs matters: What does she want back? What does she begin fighting for?

The Opening Scene

In the first scene, something that matters happens, and it’s usually something which will have huge consequences later. This can be dramatic; perhaps the protagonist is fired, or finds out their spouse wants a divorce. Or, it can be minor; the boss wants them to go on a business trip or the spouse says, “Perhaps we should try couple’s therapy.” At the start, it’s not clear how much this will matter, how it will matter or why.

The Hooking Moment

This often happens in the first scene. In the first novel of the Expanse series it is a woman locked in a closet as her crewmates are experimented on and turned into biological body horrors, for example. It is the, “What’s this story about?” moment. For a movie like “Top Gun,” it’s just a scene of cool fighter jets. For “Mulan,” it is the Great Wall being scaled by enemies. For our doctor, it might be noticing that all the autopsies on her healthy ER patients are done by the same doctor, and wasn’t she laughing with the doctor’s husband, their heads very close together?

This is supposed to be within the first 20 pages of a novel or so.

An Optional Inciting Incident

This is where the protagonist becomes involved. Our doctor goes to the morgue to check on a patient who was the daughter of a friend and who she thought would survive that car accident, and the body is already gone. She finds two other bodies already gone. She remembers other patients she thought would live, finds out their bodies had been removed quickly too. She decides to investigate, but still thinks it’s probably some administrative snafu or at worse, someone covering their ass.

The First Plot Point

This is where, because of action the hero takes, everything changes. In “Thelma and Louise,” this is when they decide to make a run for Mexico. It’s not when Louise kills the would-be rapist, it is when they decide what to do in reaction to that killing. It’s a completely different story if they go to the police and say, “That guy tried to rape her, so I shot him, shit.”

With our doctor, this is when, after bringing up her initial findings with her supervisor and being given a story and told the supervisor will handle it, she chooses instead to follow the truck leaving the hospital after her next accident victim dies when they shouldn’t have. And she saw the driver talking to her husband.

The first plot point is where the protagonist chooses to leave the old world. If the doctor just dropped it, she could keep her marriage and labouring under the assumption that she was doing good at the hospital. She could keep her life. But because she doesn’t drop it, she will probably lose everything. All she has to say is, “This is not my problem.”


Act 2 is where the protagonist does all the reactive things one would do. If you know of a crime, you go to the police (or have a damn good reason not to). You tell your boss. You file for UI. You play the game by the rules, expecting the rules to work.

You are reactive and it doesn’t work, but you do the reasonable things, including trying to hand off responsibility to the authorities, which is what reasonable people do.

The First Pinch Point

This is just a scene where you see the antagonistic force in full fury. If it were a book or movie about a storm, you might see another ship smashed and sunk by the storm, see the victims screaming for help and be able to do nothing for them. Sometimes, we see this through the protagonist’s eyes (often as they hide, unseen by the villain and helpless to intervene); other times we may see it through the villain’s eyes or the eyes of a victim. Sometimes the protagonist is the victim, as the enemy forecloses on their business, buys their mortgage, and forces them out of the house, even as the husband says, while he clings to the villain’s arm, “She’s promised to be a good mother to our children.”

The more awesome or hateful the villain, the greater the stakes, the more the reader or viewer cares, so long as you don’t push into melodrama.

The Midpoint

Brooks’ definition is when “new information enters the story squarely the middle of it that changes the contextual experience and understanding of the hero, reader, or both.”

This is when you find out what wasn’t known before. The hospital isn’t just selling body parts, your husband is involved because his mother has a rare disease that requires transplants every year, and without them she’ll die. (Robin Cook’s Coma is a different version of the organ stealing story, as an aside.)

The midpoint in “Thelma and Louise” is when their money is stolen and Thelma robs a store to get more money. Up until then, everything was reversible. Killing a rapist is something they might get off on, but the robbery? No.

You can see the definition of the midpoint as information which is a bit slippery. Thelma’s money is stolen, that’s information, but how she reacts to it is what matters. They’re criminals now.

Third Act

In general terms, the first act is “who / what things were,” the second act is “reacting to the new world by doing all the expected things,” and the third act is “going on the offensive after all the usual things don’t work.”

Going to the cops and hospital authorities didn’t work, our doctor will have to try something else. The protagonist overcomes a lot of their issues at this point, and starts acting in ways that might actually succeed. If fear was an issue, the protagonist starts acting brave. If lack of initiative was the issue, the protagonist stops waiting for other people to act. If lack of planning was the issue, they plan. If not accepting help was the problem, they go get help.

A Second Pinch Point

As with the first pinch point, this just shows how dangerous the antagonist is. Perhaps the antagonist gave the mother-in-law the disease in order to secure her husband’s cooperation. Now, he gives it to one of their daughters.

A Second Plot Point

As with the first, this is new (and final) information injected into the story. No new information or characters will be introduced. The Titanic sinks, the cops have Thelma and Louise surrounded, our doctor finds proof that the villain has been infecting the loved ones of those whose cooperation he needs.

The Fourth Act

This is the shortest act. The rule is that we gain no new information or characters who matter. If the character has a flaw, she either overcomes it and wins, or fails to overcome it and loses. (You can die and win, of course.) The protagonist is the catalyst; their decisions drive the climax. This doesn’t mean they necessarily “wield the blade,” but if someone else does, it is because the hero made it possible. If the police swoop in, it is because the hero convinced them. If someone else kills the villain, it is because the hero made it possible for them do do so, and so on.

The Final Resolution Scene or Scenes

Whatever is the most important point, it is resolved. The ship survives the storm to stagger into port, or it tragically goes down. In “Titanic,” Jack sacrifices his life to save Rose. In “Thelma and Louise,” having finally become free and brave, they decide they’d rather die free than be arrested — and if they are going to die, it will be by their own hands. Our doctor shows those who were blackmailed to cooperate with the organ harvesting by their loved one’s diseases the proof, and they form a vigilante mob to take down the villain.

Note that character growth isn’t always “good.” Perhaps our doctor’s psychological issue was a need to always play by the rules, trust the law, and never hurt anyone, and it is only when she decides that she is the law and is willing to whip up a lynch mob that she can win.

Concluding Remarks

This is pretty different from what I usually write about on this blog, so hopefully readers found it useful. I will suggest that it’s more political than it seems, and that it’s worth looking for this story structure in the fiction you consume, of whatever kind. Then look for it in the narratives given to you about politicians and public figures.

The world doesn’t actually operate this way, but we often feel that it does or should. Often, that is used to manipulate us, but stories can also be a source of great power if one takes a role and plays it well, one will find others fall into their roles.

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  1. Guest

    Interesting. I have a terrible memory for plots and characters etc, so I can’t apply this to what I’ve seen or read before since I remember very little. But maybe this is why I find so much of it feels predictable and rote. If I start a book at the book store, if it seems any good I will skip ahead to read the last few pages before I invest money or more time in it. I can usually tell from the trailer if a movie is worth seeing. I don’t mind plot spoilers *at all*. I’m much more interested in how well the story is told and I feel like suspense and plot twists are cheap gimmicks. So it would be interesting to reread my favorites and see its because they conform to this pattern or if they break it.
    One of my favorite novels was Immortality by Kundera where he deliberately gave the plot/action in non chronological order to prevent anyone from adapting it to film. But that doesn’t mean that what he reveals about the characters doesn’t fit this scheme.

  2. Frank

    Thanks for this: “Of course all such structure is something you can throw out later if you want. But as with all such rule-breaking first you have to internalize why the rules exist and what they do. ”

    It is well put and has very general applicability.

  3. nihil obstet

    The interesting story-telling development of our lifetimes has been the rise in series that constitute an ongoing story. It’s most obvious in mystery novels (or maybe I just read mostly mystery novels to notice it there). There were series in the early days — Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, and the like. But each book in its series was a standalone. It might occasionally refer to the detective’s actions in a previous work, but that’s about it. Now, series like Rebus, Robicheaux, Wallander have the development of the detective as a major issue. The individual work starts without having to set up Act I in a way that circumscribes the story to come.

    And then there’s the development of the television long form story, with similar characteristics. A TV series used to run about 39 episodes per season, with little or no reference from one episode to another. Thirteen of the 39 episodes were rerun during the summer, and all were subject to be syndicated to local stations if the series was a hit. And then the mini-series hit, first I think as a long story, and then as a world with individual problems going on, a kind of really good, upscale soap opera.

    There have been multi-book series that were specifically linked linked as one story, from something like Trollop’s Palliser novels to trilogies like Galsworthy and John Dos Passos. The interesting thing is that they tend to be rather explicitly political. The TV long form has not generally identified itself that way, but the use of the extra time to link action to situation brings in more explicitly political themes. I keep hoping we’re seeing a movement towards more awareness of manufactured narrative.

  4. ejf

    Beautiful. And a reminder that A LOT of what is sold to us is based on a well threaded story or tale. Hook me and I’ll buy the toothpaste. Shock me with the danger of encroaching black and brown masses and I’ll enlist in our defenses. That will be a horror show of its own. But hook me on how to destroy that horror and I’ll sign up and reverse course.

  5. bruce wilder

    The power of story to overwhelm any kind of factual analysis is no where more evident than in the writing of narrative history. The best narrative history is, of course, circumspect about such facts as have been estsblished, but in the sequence of one damn thing after another, somehow a narrative can be found that connects events, papers over missing data, and feels morally satisfying.

    Lots of people read the zeitgeist of our times and actually try to predict the future, based on clues “in the narrative”. On one level, it seems perfectly plausible, and on another absurd, to presume that history turns on macguffins in the “plotline”.

    The hold narrative has on us is no where more evident than when we feel we need a story to give meaning to events before we feel that we “understand” what happened.

    But there is no doubt that, for example, Shelby Foote, a novelist, wrote a great history of the Civil War, employing the techniques of narrative to make sense of the biographies of his cast of characters.

  6. I have found several books have very interesting approaches to story.

    First is Lajos Egri‘s The Art of Dramatic Writing. Egri is concerned with stage plays. Importantly, plays are not like film and they are not like novels. In the first instance, a play is almost entirely restricted to dialog without edits. In the second, novels tend to focus on the interior life of characters. The action in a play, in contrast, is almost always exterior and spoken.

    Egri argues that at the heart of every play is a premise: basically, a universal truth that the play aims to demonstrate. This is done by defining characters whose essential natures are fundamentally incompatible. The job of the writer is to place these characters in a situation where their conflict comes to the surface and forces some kind of resolution. For example, in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the desire for freedom of Nora, which she realizes during the play, must come into conflict with the conventional paternalism of her husband, Helmer. No compromise is possible. The incident of the loan and the blackmailer serve to force the confrontation between the two of them. Similarly, in Antigone, the conflict between two principles of law – the law of god and the law of man, embodied in Antigone and Creon – must come to a head.

    Second is Brian Macdonald‘s Invisible Ink. It’s an easy, enjoyable read. He covers much of it on YouTube. Macdonald shares some of Egri’s approach, such as the importance of premise, which he calls the armature. His target audience is working writers, so much of what he says is along the lines of important tricks. For instance, he emphasizes the importance of what he calls “clone” characters: that is, characters who highlight aspects of the protagonist through similarity and difference. For instance, Captain Renault in Casablanca is a clone of Rick: he externalizes Ricks cynicism, and provides a contrast when Rick rediscovers his faith. If you look for them, these characters are everywhere.

    Third is Reading for the Plot, by Peter Brooks. He develops an academic theory of plot. Much of it is hard going. I don’t follow it all, but his overview of different theories is well worth reading. He suggests that plot is repetition. From this perspective, the detective story has the archetypal plot. First the criminal commits his crime: we walks here, he breaks that window, he steals the candlestick, etc. Then the detective goes over the scene, retracing many of the criminal’s steps. Finally, the detective reconstructs the original events, bringing the story back to its beginning. This repetition can be metaphorical. In many instances the plot consists of an initial failed sequence by the protagonist, followed by a successful sequence. Star Wars does this with the two visits to the Death Star. Northrop Frye’s analysis of the Bible in The Great Code is similar: the New Testament recapitulates much of the Old, but with redemption at the end. Another element that seems counter-intuitive at first is Brooks’s contention that plot is all about desire. (Maybe there’s a connection to Buddhism here. Dramatic stories entail suffering.)

    Fourth is an eccentric but brilliant book, Impro by Keith Johnstone. This book isn’t even about plots: it is about theatrical improvisation. He doesn’t talk about plot, but in practice he demonstrates how it can emerge from character. I don’t think I can capture Johnstone’s genius, except to say that many readers have found this to be a life-changing book. It is about character, human relationships, myth, ritual, identity: and some of it is very, very funny. And the status play chapter is all politics.

    Finally, an odd example. The reason I read all of those was my interest in pen and paper roleplaying games. RPGs are not deep literature. Real-time improvised collaboration among multiple people requires stereotypical characters and situations so that everyone already knows who’s who and what’s what. One often-recommended practice is the importance of setting the stakes for player characters, then raising them to increase tension towards a climax. The best example I have seen of this kind of plotting, driven by simple characters with increasing stakes, is the 2010 action TV show Nikita. Deadwood or The Wire or Buffy this is not: but the plotting is incredibly tight, no more so than in the first season episode All the Way. Speaking of Buffy, the show’s practice of metaphorical parallel tracks – inner demons and actual demons – shares a lot with Brooks and Macdonald.

  7. Ian Welsh

    Impro is one of my favorite books. I consider a work of genius, a genuine GREAT book. It’s about far far more than theater.

  8. Mark Pontin

    So, thanks. I never heard heard of Keith Johnstone and his work before. It sounds interesting and a worthwhile investment of my time.

    To be clear, though, Johnstone apparently wrote two books: IMPRO: IMPROVISATION AND THE THEATER and a follow-up IMPRO FOR STORYTELLERS. You guys are primarily talking about the first one?

    Also, a sidenote: I glanced at Johnstone’s wiki and it had some quotes. Including this: “Please don’t do your best. Trying to do your best is trying to be better than you are.”

    One takes his point.

    Still, I was amused by the fact that it’s the absolute opposite of something Miles Davis — himself an interesting fellow — once said, to the effect that, “I think of a note. Then I don’t play it and think of what someone better than me would play.”

    Whatever. Either strategy can work depending on the context and who you are at that moment, I suppose.

  9. Impro for Storytellers basically a how-to and a collection of improvisation exercises. If that’s what you want to do, it’s useful. In contrast, Impro, as Ian says, transcends theatre.

  10. Mark Pontin


  11. Bill
    This interview with Keith Johnstone was just posted on youtube

  12. Temporarily Sane

    Engineering seems a strange metaphor for the creative story writing process. I wonder if writers who are widely considered ‘great’, e.g. Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Rushdie, Nabokov, Borges, Kafka, Melville, wrote their stories like this? It’s a method that might work reasonably well for genre fiction and plot-driven stories written primarily to entertain, but it seems unlikely that a rich, multilayered novel that explores multiple existential themes in creative ways can be planned out completely logically and put together like an engineering project.

    Like Ian found out, it’s a lot easier to write a good essay or non-fiction work than it is to write a novel. I’ve seen a lot of writers in Reddit and StackExchange forums looking for tips and advice on how to write a “great novel.” I think writing really great fiction is like being a great musician; not everyone can be Miles Davis and skills at that level contain a kind of magic ingredient that can’t be simply be taught and learned by anyone of they put in enough hours.

    The idea that ‘anyone can learn anything if they just try hard enough and practice a lot’ is a conceit that didn’t exist before “science” took over western society and became the “solution” for everything. It apparently never occurred to the guy who wrote the engineering stories book that writing is an art, not an engineering problem.

    Today you even get people who unironically say who needs philosophy when you have “science.” There are sciences and there is the scientific method, but there is no such thing as Science. What people like Steven Pinker refer to when they talk about “science” is Scientism, which is a secular religion or an ideology disguised as a universal system of unassailable truths.

    The rise of neoliberal technocracy and computer science to the hegemonic ideologies of the day has greatly impoverished imagination and language and given rise to the delusion that the universe, including human beings, are nothing more than really complex engineering projects that will eventually be “solved” and then humans will become gods. It’s complete nonsense.

    As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said “When all possi­ble scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”

  13. Dan

    Would you say this is just the modern western individualistic way of telling stories? Tends to be about resisting restraints, authority, and ultimately mortality.

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