Monday, January 23, 2012

Story design: Snowflake vs. Architecture

I've been reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. The book is extremely practical and I highly recommend it for any and all would-be authors. It talks about his six core competencies of successful storytelling.

Recently, I was rereading The Snowflake Method of Story Design by Randy Ingermanson and thinking about how the two fit together. A key point that Mr. Brooks makes is that the information he provides is not new, and it is the same sort of thing all other writing advice talks about -- but most other writing advice doesn't mention the whole picture.

So the Snowflake method has nine (or ten -- but Mr. Ingermanson doesn't do the tenth step anymore) steps. Here are how they relate to the terms Mr. Brooks uses:

1. Write a killer concept. Concept is one of Mr. Brooks "core competencies of story-telling." He has a lot of articles about concept, as it is very important to get right.

The recommendations for the wording between the two descriptions are significantly different. Mr. Brooks recommends phrasing it as a "what if?" question. Mr. Ingermanson recommends a one sentence summary no longer than fifteen words. The underlying meaning is the same: This is the most abstract representation of the story, and in exploring this we get the entire story.

2. Expand the concept in to the five key moments: opening, first plot point, midpoint, second plot point, ending. These are key transition points in Larry Brooks' story structure. His story structure is based upon a four act design. (Which is the same as a three act design with the second act split down the middle.) The opening is act 1, the first plot point is the transition between act 1 and act 2. The midpoint is the transition between act 2 and act 3. The second plot point is the transition between act 3 and act 4. The ending is act 4.

At this point each of these five key moments should be just a sentence. Mr. Ingermanson uses paragraph form, but I prefer a list.

It is important to note that Mr. Ingermanson uses a traditional three act structure with the setup, three disasters and an ending for this step. These "disasters" map directly to (and are placed so as to exactly align with) Mr. Brooks' first plot point, midpoint, and second plot point. He uses the same structure, but doesn't have an explanation as to why that is the best structure.

3a. Mr. Ingermanson is a big proponent of the idea that character is the most important part of a story. (He's wrong, conflict is the most important part of a story.)

The heavy focus on characterization, means that Mr. Ingermanson is taking care of theme by way of character arc. There is likely to be a clear theme present simply due to the rich characterization, even when it wasn't explicitly defined.

You  need to know your theme. Some concepts are instantly thematic on their own, others less so. In some cases a theme is implied by character background, setting, etc.

3b. For your main characters (at least the protagonist and antagonist) you need to start working on characterization. The character's development through her or his character arc changes as the act of the overall story moves along. You want to write three-dimensional characters but don't go overboard. It is okay to have one-dimensional minor characters.

To map with Mr. Ingermanson's snowflake design, you need enough characterization that you know the conflict each main character will be facing (inner and external) and can develop a short description of the character arc for the main characters. The characterization details can -- and should -- be brief at this point as we'll come back to fill them in later.

4. Take the five key moments written in step 2, and rough out one paragraph descriptions of each of the four acts. (The second through the fifth key moment goes -- perhaps in an enhanced form -- at the end of each of the four paragraphs. The first key moment can disappear in to the first paragraph.)

5. Go back to your characterization information and add more details. Fill more in. Add a richer back-story and a more detailed character arc. At this point a brief description of the character's arc can be expanded to four sentences describing what will happen in each of the four acts of the book.

Mr. Ingermanson recommends a page for main characters and a half-page for other important characters.

6. Now take each of the four paragraphs you wrote in step 4 and expand each out to a full page. With knowledge of character arc, you can include subplots and points of characterization.

7. Go back to your characterization information and fill out any/all additional information.

8. Take the four page synopsis created in step 6, and turn it in to a beat sheet.

Mr. Ingermanson strongly recommends a spreadsheet. Mr. Brooks does not particularly recommend a spreadsheet. (His provided blank sample is a simple list.)


Mr. Ingermanson uses different language when he talks about the concept in step 1. The specific recommendations about the language are different, but the meaning of the words are the same. In both cases it is a concise description which, when explored leads to the story. The other big difference is Mr. Ingermanson doesn't mention theme at all. Reading Mr. Brooks' advice on theme, it is clear that Mr. Ingermanson is implicitly covering theme. He may not be explicitly defining it, but if you looked for it in Mr. Ingermanson's works you would probably be able to find it.

The overlap is extensive. There is only one omission (theme) and it's the one that Mr. Brooks describes as something you don't need to actively concentrate on: if you use thematic elements it takes care of itself. You only need to be aware of it in as much as you can only steer the theme if you have a place to steer it toward. The rich characterization advocated by Mr. Ingermanson would pull in thematic elements for characters even when they were not inherent in the plot or setting.

The four that mostly overlap are the "elemental" core competencies: concept, theme, character, and structure. The last two that Mr. Brooks has are "executional" and are scene construction and writing voice. The executional competencies mean that none of the elemental competencies by-pass the need for well written prose. Mr. Brooks is very clear in that you need to master all six to get your novel published.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post! this was exactly the sort of thing I realized when I also saw that Randy and Larry's methods were very similar.

    What do you think about Story Physics? Larry'
    s latest book? do you think it's possible to add what he wrote in his latest book to the Snowflake method as well? if possible, it certainly would take the method here that much higher!