Don’t be a Story Engineer

Hammering NailsI confess to a flaw and a conceit: working as an electrical engineer for over a decade, I’ve looked at story the wrong way.  Relying on my technical professional experience, I approached a story from the outside, bringing tools in to solve my stories’ problems.

Hammering away at the plot

Technical people are adept problem solvers. Looking at a situation, the engineer brings logic, checklists, tools, and rules to create a something. So when the technically-minded person wants to write a story (or for that matter, create any kind of art), they bring templates, and checklists, and rules, and software, and a logical sensibility so as to design a plot that they hang a character on like you might hang a coat on a hanger.

And when the story is finished? The story engineer has created something that isn’t true to the character.

Why? Because the story engineer went about creating art from the outside-to-inside. But a good fiction writer knows that a great story is created from the inside-to-outside.

Looking inside the character

Writing a story from the outside-to-inside means that a writer is relying on everything–that is, software, plot templates, checklists, and rules…everything–but an intimate, or inside, knowledge of the story’s protagonist. The story engineer, writing from the outside, hopes to sew together scenes that logically make a great story. The rules say to put plot points at A, B, and C. Then, tack on a character. Problem solved!

But human nature and story characters don’t follow rules. Not really. Like humans, characters are complex creatures full of paradoxes at various levels of the self. Outside or inside, these plotted creatures contradict themselves.

Character is plot; plot is character

Just listen to how the technically-minded analyze art. Most likely, they break a story up into components and give each one a grade. If the story seems weak, fix a component. Use more tools. Improve the grade. Too bad for the story engineer, the story character, not these abstract components, is probably to blame for everything.

Now, ask the technically-minded to analyze themselves. He or she squirms and looks away. If you get a response, it may only be at surface level. The story engineer prefers to talk about solving problems. The technically-minded won’t–or can’t–reveal their private selves.

Relying on tools has the same effect; it won’t truly reveal the character. You see, at the heart of a good story is a character and desire. (And digging deeper, the writer might discover the character’s need.) A story plot incites this desire and, by story crisis, reveals the protagonist’s true self. All because story and character blend together. One needs the other to function well. Only the author can reveal what’s in the hero’s heart.

And what’s in the character’s heart, what’s inside the protagonist’s private and true self, is what makes the story events interesting. Starting from the inside and working outward, the character moves through story scenes that will progress and turn and reveal this true self. But If the character isn’t understood, the scene is uneventful. If the scene isn’t true to the character, the character isn’t revealed.

Because my father beat me, I kill cats

Using zero-dimension motivations to drive a protagonist and relying on archetype characters is a poor way to approach a story’s creation. Again, this is an outside-to-inside approach.

Motivations, such as an abusive parent, that solely drive a story won’t offer the main character any dimension, any contradiction, any complexity. It’s not true to human nature. The reader won’t feel that the motivation is a true causal effect because we all know that people are more complex than only existing as a vessel for a single past event. In fact, readers will be disappointed by the story and may want to argue the motivation. And nobody likes to listen to someone blather on and on about a parent problem.

Archetypes are cliché and have zero or, at best, one dimension: the strong warrior that crushes heads and maidens’ hearts; the amazon that fears no man or beast. This is all at the surface level, in characterization (zero dimension), unless the barbarian warrior blubbers at the site of new born kittens (a clichéd single dimension). But I bet readers have seen something like this a million times and it’s uninteresting. It has no dimensional story effect.

Be true to your character

As I write more fiction, I’m learning to dig deep into my characters.  Does she preach sobriety to school children during the day, but get in drunken brawls at night with her husband’s mistress? Does he have an acute fear of death, but works in the daytime as a sky diving instructor? And what are his social values? What are her personal values? (This leads into story genre, but that’s for another discussion.)

There are lots of questions about a character that a writer must answer. This should be the starting point of story creation.

The writer has to dig deep into how a character behaves in various social and friendship interactions. At these times, the protagonist wears a mask. So how does the private self contradict these outside personas? And when and how does the plot rip off the character’s mask? The writer needs to understand the character from the inside, building the story toward the outside.

But if you approach storytelling from the reverse, expect trouble with the work. If you write a story starting from the outside, you’ll probably not be able to pull a character’s mask off without scarring the reader. Don’t be a story engineer.


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