Storytelling Engineers

The word ‘engineer’ is derived from the Latin words ‘ingeniare’ and ‘ingenium,’ meaning “to contrive, devise” and “cleverness,” respectively. An engineer must design a structure–one that is both beautiful and practical–all while considering the thousands of complex factors and conditions that must be fulfilled at the building’s completion.

In that he is not so different from a writer.

Marc Wolvesheir opened my eyes to this comparison in his own blog, Engineers Do Write. Writing, and, in fact, most forms of art, is widely viewed as a talent rather than an acquired skill. This leads people to believe there is no road to improving one’s natural writing ability, and ultimately results in an almost metaphysical vibe to the entire art. Even worse, new writers are expected to immediately ‘hit it big’ or risk being criticized for wasting their time, writing for ‘fun.’

I once heard this phenomenon exemplified by contrasting it with the expectations placed on a person, say, playing a sport. Most would agree that playing basketball in your backyard is a perfectly acceptable, even healthy pastime. No one would go up to someone casually shooting hoops and ask, “So, when do you plan on playing in the NBA?” Yet, when it comes to writing, this reaction seems to be considered not only the standard, but even the expected response.

Much of this, I assume, comes from the remnants of the past generation’s mentality, during which writing was a vastly different beast, to be tackled in a vastly different way. Writers were taught to write from within, channel the Muse, etc. While much of this still applies, the art seems to have, at least in my opinion, evolved into something much more structured, with several differing approaches that have all been shown time and time again to result in success. The work of the previous generation’s greats has been analyzed, picked apart to find exactly what gave them the ability to withstand the test of time. Tried and true formulas have arisen, strategies that, when used correctly, can effectively produce the same effect in your own writing.

We live in the time of the engineer. Stories can now be intentionally made to play on human emotions, resonating in ways that were often seen as accidental in years past. Today we can structure novels down to the level of word choice, choosing carefully what we know will prompt the desired reaction in the reader. This was all available in the past, and was undoubtedly utilized by many successful authors, but only recently has it become the general mindset of storytelling.

This shift in our approach to the writing craft also serves as a rebuttal of the widespread beliefs mentioned above. Writing is an art like any other, and yet it is also a science. Just like one wouldn’t expect to sit at a piano for the first time and produce a Bach-caliber symphony, one shouldn’t expect to master the art of storytelling without putting in several hours of hard work. Talent does play a part, but it is by no means the whole of it. True writing skill can only be built through continuous practice of doing just that: writing.

Even if you can only spare a couple of minutes a day, every word written is another stone added to the structure of your storytelling ability. The feat is all the more attainable now that we have the ability to learn precisely what it is that makes a story sell. We can maximize those few minutes by focusing on the writing aspects we feel weakest in. We can dissect our story’s many layers to discover exactly what is dragging it down. And, above all, we can use this information to successfully build the story we want to build.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing simply as a hobby, and if that is what you wish to do, what are you waiting for? Go to a room, sit down, and get that story that’s been stalling your sleep down on paper. As a general rule, however, I will assume that most of you are, like me, on the path towards being a published author. That doesn’t mean those of you writing for fun will find nothing to learn. Ideally, this advice will resonate with writers for fun and writers for profit, newer writers, and experienced ones–and all those in between. Hopefully, I can share with you some of what I know, learn from your comments, and together we can travel the paved road to becoming true storytelling engineers.