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GUEST POST: Using a Story Engine

One thing that is really important to writing, but is rarely discussed, is the “engine” that makes stories work. What is the engine? I first heard about it here. In today's "Guest Post: Using a Story Engine," Jon Tobey dives deep.

In short, it’s a theme, character trait, or plot device that comes up repeatedly, usually in a series, that drives the plot. It’s the way a certain character always responds to a situation, or the way the writers always set things up so that the same characters face the same issue over and over again without growing or solving it. Samantha never (quite) gets found out in Bewitched. Nothing at all ever happens in Seinfeld. I mean, it’s the whole premise of the pilot. They tell you what the engine is going to be. In MASH each of the players has their very own way of coping with the unending terror and stupidity of war that is consistent and at odds with some of the other characters: Hawkeye is a wise-cracking lovable drunk; Klinger is posing as a transvestite to beat the system; Frank is sucking up to make in the army what he could not be as a doctor, etc. Hogan’s Heroes never escape, and they don’t want to because they are very successful soldiers just where they are. This is why they call situation comedies “situation” comedies, the same unchanging characters face new situations. But the engine never changes. Woe to you if it does. Are you familiar with the term “jumping the shark?” This came from breaking the engine of a long and popular series, Happy Days.

In Modern Family, the engine is usually 3 parallel subplots between the 3 couples: Claire and Phil, Jay and Gloria, Cam and Mitchell (although other pairings are also used). At the root of it, they are all dealing with the same topic in a given episode. That helps them pack a lot in.

One of my favorite shows, Survivor’s Remorse, has a brilliant engine that took me a few episodes to catch on to. The dialogue in the show revolves around issues, often issues particular to Black Americans, and they suck you in by first introducing the views of a very sympathetic character, and the pitting of her or him against an antagonist who gives a very reasoned version of her or his side. At first, you are like “Yeah, give them a piece of your mind, Character A!” and then you are like “Ooh, now that I see it from your side Character B, Character A is a dick!” And then they peel back another layer and you do it all over again.

It is brilliantly effective. In one episode, a female character sets up a modeling shoot and hires a particular woman for it. When she goes to the shoot, another model has replaced her choice. It turns out she chose the first woman because she was dark-skinned, and the replacement was light-skinned. She feels that light-skinned black women get much better treatment and more opportunities, and was trying to make a statement with her choice. The replacement model informs the shoot organizer that the original model had a chance to shoot for Vogue, and therefore was actually making the intended statement on a much larger stage. Neither character gave in, the dialogue was heated without ever losing its intelligence, and I was informed on an issue I’d never been aware of in a very entertaining way. That’s writing. I’m surprised more people don’t know this show.

Engine image
Jon Tobey's Story Engine Highlights the Successful Workings of Well-Known Stories

Another of my favorite engines happens in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. As a writer, these are some of my favorite movies. The stories are so complex and well-told. I will watch them practically any time they are on and I’m still catching new details. It took me a couple of times through to catch the absolutely brilliant engine in these movies: Captain Jack Sparrow always tells the truth and nobody ever believes him. This literally drives every scene in every movie. In fact at least once, he actually says this, and yet it’s so artfully done that this engine slides right by you, which I think is important for an engine.

Another “engine” that took me a few times to catch was in Deadwood, which I used to record and watch the reruns back-to-back with the original show just to catch all of the dialogue. And that is because one of the engines in Deadwood was the language. It took me forever to realize it’s written in blank verse/iambic pentameter.  To have such crude and colorful dialogue written in high Shakespearean verse, well, that is some damn good writing. And it explains why Swearengine used a certain three-syllable pejorative so frequently – it was necessary for the rhythm! I wonder if that would’ve flown with my mom when I was a kid. “But mom, I’m not swearing, it’s poetry!”

Engines are particularly important in a series: Watson will always make the wrong deductions and be corrected by Holmes; Robin will always beat the Sheriff of Nottingham; McHale will always get one over on Captain Binghampton; Simon Guest will always use saints as aliases; but it can be equally interesting when the engines change. Nero Wolfe was famous for his many peccadilloes, such as never leaving the brownstone. So when he does leave the brownstone, our attention is definitely captured.

One of the biggest and best of these is the James Bond character, who in 50 years only showed the briefest traces of humanity (The Spy Who Loved Me comes to mind), the engine was that he was the coolest of the cool, the best of the best, indomitable against the worst the world had to throw against him. His hook was that he never changed. But in recent years his character has been completely remade – everything from explaining his mysterious childhood to making him old and vulnerable. This has revitalized an essentially two-dimensional character enough to take attention from the parts of the engine which have not changed – there is always some villain scheming for world domination, with some femme fatale in the mix, etc.

But they can also show up in a simple story (one of my all time favorites: “And one time, at band camp…”). In my story Mertrout, I used simple repetition: A woman asks a man a question about his heart’s desire, he tells her, she becomes that thing, he is not satisfied; she does it all over again. I use this engine something like 8 times in 3000 words, plus the title to drive home this message that this woman is making this guy’s dreams come true by transforming herself into trophy fish. Did it work for you?  In Big Two-Hearted River, by Hemingway, the engine is the constant rising and falling, everything he describes is either going up or down. Most recently in Falling Awake, my original closing line of the story lacked punch. It lacked closure. It wasn’t until I tied it back to the engine, the role memory played in his happiness, that it worked. It was just a couple of words, but it changed the story.

What is your engine? What drives your story? Is it some endearing relationship? Is it some situation which almost but never quite gets resolved? Is it some character trait that becomes part of the plot (I’m thinking High Plains Drifter and related movies as an example)?

When you see or read something you particularly like and are deconstructing it, ask yourself “What is the Engine?” Often times you will find that is what you love (or hate in shows like Seinfeld and The Office, which I cannot even watch) about the story. The hook that makes it work and brings you back. Once you find your own hook in your stories, it will be much easier to spin them out and connect them together.

Jon Tobey is a short story writer who has been published over two dozen times. He is currently editing several of his novels. He won OWAA's funniest article in 2020 and has been a runner up in the Traver Awards. His main milieu is fly fishing noir, into which he folds the genres of romance, comedy, horror, science fiction, magic realism, mystery, ghost stories and anything else his fevered brain can come up with. He thinks about story theory a lot. You can read his musings on Storycrafting here 

This post was originally printed on his blog,

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The Author, Jon Tobey

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