A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a seminar on television screenwriting, and I learned a new term which has made me sit back and seriously think about the kind of writing I enjoy. That term was story engine.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of writing. I am not, I fully admit, a very good human being; I don’t know much about the lives of other people, I have trouble understanding the motivations of other people, and I definitely don’t really grok too well the day-to-day motivations of contemporary people. For me, having a good framework on which to hang a story is utterly essential.

Most people understand, to some extent, the elements of fiction: Plot, Theme, Character, Point of View, Style, and Tone. “Plot” is the basic conflict: what happens, and why. Theme is the underlying justification for the outcome, the reason this story is worth telling and reading. Characters are the people who exist in the story.

Recently, I added a new term to my arsenal: Premise. The premise is different from the plot or the theme; the premise is why the reader would be interested in the first place. The premise is a promise the writer makes that the reader will enjoy this story. Premises are simple: Star Trek visits strange new worlds. Game of Thrones is full of sexy people in a nasty fantasy world. Law and Order sees justice done. Harry Potter sees awkward teens strive against vast, oncoming evil. Honor Harrington sees a powerful military woman going up against ever-greater threats to herself and her kingdom. Miles Vorkosigan sees a brilliant, honorable and ambitious man grindingly using himself up as he tries hard to drag his backward planet into the greater galactic civilization.

I like premise, because it solves a major problem. If you know the premise of the story and you’ve lost your way somewhere in the middle of the novel (the infamous “muddle”), ask yourself what your premise is and why this part of the book isn’t serving it well. “Keeping the promise of premise solves the muddle in the middle” has become part of my mantra about writing. Both Star Kingdom and Honest Impulses were well-served by this idea.

Story Engine is a term that resembles, in a way, the plot, but also the premise, and also the theme. It encompasses the characters the way plot does, but like a plot, is is often driven by what the characters need.

The basic idea of story engine is that the writers on a television series do not know what happens next from episode to epsiode. The writers know where the show starts, but they also need to know what direction it’s headed in, and what powers it. Earlier I wrote about Grillo-Marxuach’s notion, “When you start a series, be able to say what it is, but even that isn’t enough.

Modern television is no longer single-episode, with resets; characters and situations are expected to change and grow as a series progresses. The story engine is the pressure behind those characters and situations. In Game of Thrones, the story engine is about ambitious, violent people positioning themselves for survival in the face of an oncoming ecological disaster. Harry Potter is young people wanting to live and love as a powerful authoritarian evil threatens them. Honor Harrington is about a honorable woman serving an honorable nation as violent ambition threatens both. Charlie Stross’s Laundry Series is about a well-meaning but heavily bureaucratic government agency dealing with the rising tide of Lovecraftian horror as the stars slowly come into alignment. Kit Rocha’s Beyond series is about members of a sexy-but-violent Mad Max-style gang trying to do the right thing as outside forces align to crush them. The Journal Entries have always been about people discovering, assessing (or reassessing) their own self-identities in encounters where their romantic, sexual, or affectionate needs are on the line… in spaaaaace.

Writers are often told, “You can’t know the theme of your work until you finish it. Then you can decide if the theme is something you want to put in front of an audience enough that you want to re-write it.” That can’t work for a long-running series. You have to know the theme up front. You know to know what compels the characters, and what you as the writer want to say with your characters and their situations.

Story engines are dangerous. The story engine for Battlestar Galactica (2004) was “Humans struggle to survive in a massive, broke-down fleet of ships as they are relentlessly pursued by a robot civilization bent on their destruction.” Not every episode involved a Cylon attack, but in every epsiode character’s emotions were driven by the knowledge that an attack could happen at any moment. The problem with this story engine is that it has no definitive ending, and we famously now know how problematic that was.

On the other hand, if you have a hit series and your engine has a definitive ending… what do you when the studio asks for more? Stranger Things had this problem: what do you do next when [redacted] and the tear in reality is repaired? What next? Open another one? Lather-rinse-repeat?

And not every series needs a story engine. The MCU doesn’t have a story engine. The Infinity Stone arc is a story engine, but not every movie fits into that arc. Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Spiderman: Homecoming, Dr. Strange and both Ant Man movies fall outside that arc. They may have characters who contribute to the arc later, but their stories are not driven by or pressured by circumstances that involve the Tesseract or any other of the Stones.

A story engine pushes from behind. It’s something that hits all the central characters where they live, and leads into multiple cycles of “minimal response/ pushback/ deal with new reality/ crisis closes in/ resolution,” all of which must also feed into the greater cycle of the series. This is probably why the story engine of so many series deal with “an existential threat to all mankind.” Most of the examples I gave have that: MCU Infinity Stone, Battlestar Galactica, Harry Potter, Honor Harrington, Game of Thrones, Miles Vorkosigan, all deal with the end of life as we know it on a planetary scale, because that’s something about which every character can get invested. Something smaller, like The Good Place, is much more personal: the conceit is that every character has a reason for where they are and there’s a mechanic for them moving on.

Anime, with its definitive long-form arcs has long has story engines. Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex, a police procedural about an elite team of detectives, even did a masterful job of interweaving stories driven by the engine with single episodes that highlighted one or more members of the team. Chobits had the engine of Chi and Hideki trying to figure out if Chi is fully conscious and, if so, who she is. (A theme I’ve gone to time and again myself, and then several times successfully inverted, most recently in Honest Impulses.) Evangelion famously had a monster-of-the-week pulse while the engine pushed Shinji deeper and deeper into the mysteries of who his father, Rei, and he really are.

You don’t need a story engine for a short story or a novel. But if you’re going to dive into writing a long-form serial of any kind, you’ll want to think hard about having one then. The deeper problem will be the idea that you don’t have a definitive ending; that way lies the disappointment of Battlestar Galactica and Evangelion. Have a place where you want your characters to be when it’s all over, even if, for some of them, that’s six feet under.

After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter how powerful the engine is that’s taking you there.

I recently read Ira Levin’s 1974 thriller, The Boys from Brazil, mostly because I had a silly idea for the Bastet universe that has since grown into something else entirely.

The one thing I was hoping for, and the one thing The Boys from Brazil is emphatically not, is a technothriller. It is, instead, a very Jewish thriller, in the sense that Levin concocts a genuinely horrifying milieu for Jews, and then sets the 60-something hero racing against the clock to stop his even older but better-kept foe from succeeding.

Ezra Lieberman is a Nazi Hunter, and he learns that Josef Mengele has dispatched assassination teams to six countries to murder 94 retirement-age low-level civil servants, all men. Information gathering was primitive in 1974 compared to today, but Lieberman has a friend at Reuters sift through death reports to locate deaths that match that description. He meets with several widows and their children, and then realizes it is not the men who have anything in common, and not their all-suspiciously-younger wives, but their sons, only children, all 13 years old, who all look similar. Not similar: exactly alike.

Josef Mengele has created 94 clones of Adolph Hitler, and distributed them to 94 couples who couldn’t otherwise have children. He then intended to make sure those 94 adoptive fathers died during their 13th year to ensure the “traumatic experience” that made Hitler Hitler was repeated in the boys’ lives.

As I said, this book is not a technothriller. Mengele has a chapter where he walks us through the remains of the laboratory, which is now a burned ruin. Levin tells us nothing about the techniques used. Which is actually to the better; we don’t need to know and, in 1974, cloning was a huge conversation in the popular and SF press. Levin, startingly for the time, refuses to buy into genetic determinism, and accepts that it’s likely the boys will not be anything like Adolph Hitler, and even if they are, they’re not going to be as successful as Hitler. As Lieberman says in a conversation later:

“I say in my talks it takes two things to make it happen again: a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: The Hitler, the conditions, and the people to follow the Hitler.”

And don’t you think he’d find them?”

“No, not enough of them. I really think people are better and smarter now, not so much thinking their leaders are God. The television makes a big difference. And history, knowing… Some he’d fine, yes; but no more, I think— I hope— than the pretend-Hitlers we have now, in Germany and South America.”

On the one hand, I, and most biologists, do agree with Levin’s view that biological determinism cannot result in clones having the same desires or talents as their progenitor. aOn the other hand, as we’ve seen today, Levin was incredibly, sadly wrong: not that many people joined the NSDAP (The Nazi Party), but enough did that the complacently satisfied and silently cowed population allowed the Nazis to overrun a fractured, defensive democratic opposition.

Which is where we are today: a loud and committed authoritarian populace, making up no more than a quarter of Americans, is attempting to silence and destroy the factured, defensive democratic opposition. That opposition is committed to the elevation of the United States as an intellectual and moral powerhouse, something Trump and his people cannot do as it is literally not in their nature, but is so factured on questions of tactics and outcomes that it has struggled to unify in the face of Trumpism.

The one thing that blows my mind about this book is that Josef Mengele is the villain of this book, presented as a mass-murderer who’s willing to commit murder even today to accomplish his goals. But the fascinating thing is that when Levin wrote this book in 1974, the real Josef Mengele was still alive. He was hiding out in Brazil, and his real life was far more boring and mundane than the burgeoning Nazi revival project depicted in the novel. But what was he going to do? Come out of hiding to protest that the book was a maligning, slanderous misrepresentation of his life and work?

Mengele died in 1979, and it’s fair to say he died badly: paralyzed by a stroke while swimming, he died of drowning, unable to save himself.

The book ends with one of the 18 boys whose fathers were successfully killed by Odessa. The boy is already a talented artist who loves to draw comic books and already knows about storyboards, and he dreams of being a filmmaker someday. As he draws a crowd scene for the movie he’s plotting, he hears

… the people cheering, roaring; a beautiful growing love-thunder that built and build, and then pounded, pounded, pounded, pounded.

Sort of like in those old Hitler movies.

I just loved Effie Calvin’s new Inyatha book, Daughter of the Sun. It’s light, fluffy, silly-and-knows-it, D&D-inflected PG lesbian romance, which is totally a thing, and my thing, and I can’t help but hope that Effie Calvin puts out another one soon.

Poor, utterly clueless Orsina is a young paladin with magical evil-detecting tattoos on her arms, sent on a quest to find and locate a vaguely defined Great Evil™. She finds a lesser evil— Aelia, the Chaos Goddess of Poor Decision Making— has taken over a small town. Orsina vanquishes Aelia in the first chapter, running her through the stomach with her blessed sword. There’s some running and chasing thereafter, but eventually she and the townsfolk corner Aelia in a barn and find a body to put to the pyre.

A day later, Orsinia finds a somewhat airheaded woman bathing naked near a lake, recovering from a mostly-healed stomach wound and trying to clean her sword-cut dress, absolutely soaked in blood, and decides that the woman was the victim of domestic abuse and needs help. Aelia is so wounded and drained of power that Orsina’s evil-detecting powers don’t register her. Thus Orsina and “Elyne” start their adventures together.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out what happens next. Orsina trusts those tattoos too much, so Calvin has some hilarious scenes where Elyne is naively dropping clues left and right about her true nature and Orsina just doesn’t pick them up at all. There’s a really nice twist toward the end about Orsina’s quest that I admired, too.

It’s just adorable from beginning to end. Not quite sweet enough to give you cavities, but close.

Calvin’s writing style is light-hearted and generous. Her theology is a little weird and I’m not sure it works all the way through, but it’s fun in the way the Greek or Norse gods are fun. There are so many loose Gods wandering around the mortal plane, but if one low-level paladin is regularly vanquishing them left and right and banishing them to their plane “for ten years,” then there must be a host of gods, like, a thesaurus of them: if Aelia is the Goddess of Caprice, is there also a Goddess of Eccentricity, and a God of Whimsy, and a God of Kink, and a Goddess of Vagary, etc. etc.?

The world of Inyatha is still a queer paradise: there are men, women, “neutroi,” and maybe enbies, and people marry each other for love rather than hardware compatability reasons. Orsina has two dads, who we get to meet.

Aelia’s adventures as a mortal are fun. She makes a good foil for human foibles. It’s completely PG. There are a few lovely kissing scenes, but that’s about it. I loved it all.

Kit Rocha’s Beyond Shame is a very sexy, very hot introduction into a series about… well, that’s still much in the air.

You see, there is a City, filled with technological and educational wonders, ruled by a stringent moralist council straight out of 1984. There are clans within the city, and strict rules about who can fuck whom and when and where. Surrounding the city is a vast undercity, the Districts, a place of crumbling buildings and street gangs fighting to secure their territory, and the City only involves themselves when gang wars threaten its stability. Further out are the Farms, where people work themselves to death.

Nicole, the daughter of a City councilman, was cast out of the City for the crime of being excessively horny. (No, literally, that’s the catalyst moment of her arc.) She finds herself in the district of a gang lord named Dallas, and soon finds herself in the hypermasculine arms of Dallas’s right hand man, Jasper.

And then there is a lot (and I mean a lot) of incredibly hot, well-written, teasing sex. It was love at first sight between Jasper and Nicole, but neither is any good at monogamy, and Jasper knows Nicole doesn’t know herself so needs time to explore, so there are threesomes and foursomes scattered throughout, lots of bondage play, and Jasper and Nicole don’t really go "all the way" until very late in the book because both characters are figuring out what they want.

From a writer’s perspective, this is an awesome book on the fine romance art of mask and essence, only part of the mask here is Nicole’s head-first plunge into the kinky, sexually liberated world she always thought she wanted, then wasn’t sure she wanted, then realized it was exactly what she wanted (of course; did you think the book would go any other way?) as long as she got her man™ along the way.

It’s just super-hot.

The book’s sexual orientation is the same as pre-Internet porn shops: girl-on-girl is hot, guy-on-guy is not. The men are manly, manly men, all burly muscles and grunting. Jasper and Dallas are portrayed as "exceptional" because they’re able to think through their testosterone poisoning, unlike many of the men around them.

The setting, though… There’s a subplot that isn’t resolved in book one (naturally) about how Dallas’s district is getting too rich and neighboring ganglords may (or may not!) be conspiring with the City to take him down. Nicole, being the disowned and exiled daughter of a councilman, may (or may not!) be making the political behind-the-scenes bit more complicated.

If I have one quibble, it’s with the details about the wider world. There’s not enough here. Rocha is 100% 54321 when it comes to the beds Nicole finds herself in, but not so much about the wider world. Some places, like the bar Nicole works at, are fairly well-described, but a disastrous outing to "the Market" could have used a lot more grit to describe the state of the roads, the decay of the buildings. Several scenes have this quality of happening in a grey, poorly-defined room, and I felt Rocha could have spent just a little more time telling us. Nicole is a perfect character for this, being the classic fish-out-of-water, and it was a missed opportunity.

That’s not enough of a quibble to stop me from reading the next one, though!

"You’re far too self-aware to fall victim to the Brain Eater."

That’s what my therapist told me the other day when I was angsting about watching yet another of my favorite artists fall victim to their own id and swerve deep into unpleasant territory. And what with the Louis CK discourse of the day, this makes me immensely sad and a tiny bit paranoid about dipping my toes back into writing.

The artist was Higi Shou. Shou famously wrote Prism, a shoujo-ai series about high school girls. It’s corny and touching and surprisingly sensitive, the dialogue is amazing, and if it veers off into teenagers having sexy times well, teenagers do that and it’s not actually played up as being titillating for the reader. Shou also got busted because his swipes were a little too photo-realistic; in many cases it seems that he was picking a wham moment out of his Tumblr collection and tracing it, and tracing photographs is a huge prohibition in comic art. He disappeared from the comic scene. The other day, I saw his name on a new series and looked. I wished I hadn’t; Shou is now doing hard-core loli.

Louis CK’s latest comedy set apparently includes an attack on the student activists from Parkland who have taken being shot at and transformed it into activism. They’ve done something, and they’ve earned a kind of moral penumbra that he finds… what? Offensive? Annoying? Trite? He then pivots to complaining about people choosing their own pronouns, and how that annoys him as well, and his audience laughs because it annoys them too.

John Scalzi describes the Brain Eater as a form of envy that ultimately takes over the whole of a person. Scalzi wrote that the Brain Eater happens when a mid-list writer envies what top-list writers have, and start to ascribe their failure to break into the best-seller list as someone else’s fault. "I’m brilliant!" the artist shouts, "So why don’t I get the accolades while JK Rowling owns her own island?" Even great writers fall victim to it, as Alice Walker’s recent downfall reveals.

Envy is the worst of all sins; unlike arrogance, greed, gluttony, lust, anger or sloth, envy has no upside and there is no time when envy can be satisfied. But if we’re going to ascribe envy to Louis CK, or Higi Shou, how would you do it? A lot of felons, at least the ones incarcerated for violent offenses, are narcissistic or sociopathic, and a lot of them believe that everyone is just like them, it’s just that the system is against them, or they just got caught, or dumb luck. Maybe CK and Shou really believe that the majority is just like them, they just haven’t been caught yet.

But what if it isn’t envy? What if it’s arrogance? "Hiding my feelings hasn’t done me any good, so I’m gonna let my freak flag fly!" And part of their feelings is that it’s okay to punch down. They’re both straight males at the top of the food chains in their respective cultures, they’ve been told they’re apex predators, they feel constrained that they’re not allowed to act like one, and there’s no reward anymore for being noble about anything.

For CK, it’s certainly sloth. "Kids these days" is about the laziest comedy trope you can go with. I think part of the problem is that there are only two routes for a man like Louis CK: bitterness or redemption. And redemption requires contrition and repentence. More than that, it takes work. To continue as a comedian, Louis CK has to dig deep into himself and find something funny to say about how being an asshole isn’t funny, and that takes more than one or two rough drafts.

Which brings me back to the beginning: what would I write about? I don’t have many freak flags I haven’t flown yet, which makes me wonder if I’m a bit tapped out. I could pander to the Furry audience, and I do have a couple of stories set aside where Ken & Aaden teach Wish about [redacted], but I like stories with premise and theme to them, and as I said earlier, these days my themes are anger and disgust at a world gone awry, hurtling into the abyss.

I think, if I write much in 2019, I’ll try to write either deeply personal stories about people being nice to each other, or I’ll try to hit the noblebright and hopecore high points instead. (I know people call it ‘hopepunk,’ but I don’t think the -punk suffix works here; maybe I’m just an aging fuddy-duddy and that’s the Brain Eater talking.) The world needs more hope and nobility. Here’s hoping we get it.

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