What is a “Story Engine?”

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.

Earlier: Reading “The Boys From Brazil”

Later: On writing a series for 30 years