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What is a story engine?

Have you ever wondered why certain TV writers and creators seem to have a magic touch, effortlessly selling one hit series after another? The secret to their success lies in the story engine – a powerful tool that consistently produces engaging and compelling stories.

But what exactly is a story engine?

Despite being a relatively new concept in the world of television writing, it is often misunderstood or overlooked. While foundational concepts like Tragedy, Intention, Obstacle, and Conflict have been around for over 2000 years (shout to Aristotle and the dramatist OGs) the story engine has only gained prominence in the last 20 years or so.

In this post, we will explore the inner workings of a story engine, and provide you with a simple blueprint to create your own for your next series. By understanding the power of a well-crafted story engine, you too can inspire confidence in executives and create a series that captivates audiences.

Story Engines: What They Aren’t

Writers often mistake a story engine for a logline, theme, or character arcs. They are related to your story engine, but they are not it.

A logline summarizes the story’s central premise and conflict. It is a brief, concise summary of the premise of the show, usually consisting of one or two sentences. It should communicate the essence of a TV series and attract viewers and investors.

The theme conveys the underlying message or idea of your series. It is often a universal or timeless concept that resonates with people across cultures and time periods.

Character arcs describe the progression a character undergoes throughout the show. A character may overcome a personal flaw or weakness, overcome a major challenge or trauma, or discover a new aspect of themselves which changes their POV.

So, what exactly is a Story Engine?

The Essence of a Story Engine

A Story Engine is not the story of your series, it is the framework which produces the stories for your series.

A story engine is like the engine in a car – it’s the driving force that moves the story forward and keeps it on track. It’s the underlying idea or concept that shapes the narrative and provides a sense of direction for the characters and the plot.

In its simplest terms, the story engine is:

The underlying narrative structure that drives your series.

 

A strong story engine should:

  • Clearly present the hook
  • Be simple and easy to understand
  • Provide a sense of direction and purpose to the narrative
  • Be flexible enough for writers to spin off many stories

While it’s helpful to know what a story engine is and what it’s supposed to do, creating one can be a daunting task. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for creating a successful story engine, as each TV show is unique and requires its own approach. In my program we spend an entire unit discussing and developing story engines for the series our writers are creating. But if you’re looking for a quick primer, let’s dive in.

The Story Engine Blueprint

Influential screenwriting teachers from William Rabkin to Naomi Beaty agree that a clear story engine is vital to setting up your series.  Despite some disagreements about what an engine entails, most would agree that it consists of four components:

1. Central Character

You need a central character to drive your story forward. Your protagonist (or dual protagonists if your series is a two-hander like Hacks) should have clear personalities and motivations that drive the story forward. Having a strong central character who connects the audience to the story is crucial to the success of your series.

2. Central Goal

A clear and well-defined goal for your protagonist gives the story direction. The audience should feel progress and resolution as the story progresses toward its goal. The Central Goal is the power plant that propels the series.

3. Web of Conflict

To achieve their central goal, the protagonist faces internal, external, and interpersonal conflicts. This web of conflict should be intertwined with the protagonist’s central goal, providing a sense of progression and resolution.

4. Unique Arena

An arena is a setting or environment that provides the backdrop for a story. Storytelling and character development are easier with a clearly defined setting. It adds depth and richness to your series, making it more memorable and engaging.

It is one thing to talk about these four points in theory, but we can learn a lot more when we see them in action.

CASE STUDY – ATLANTA

Overall, the photo captures the vibrancy and energy of Atlanta, while also raising thought-provoking questions about the art of storytelling and what makes a compelling story engine.

  • Central Characters: Earn Marks and his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles
  • Central Goal: Achieving success in the music industry while improving their lives and supporting their loved ones.
  • Web of Conflict: Overcoming obstacles in music industry, dealing with personal and professional rivalries. Competition, societal expectations, personal challenges.
  • Unique Arena: Atlanta’s distinctive culture, history, and atmosphere, plays a role in shaping the narrative and experiences of the characters.

Now let’s put together these four components into a simple two-sentence Story Engine statement:

Story Engine Statement: The story engine of “Atlanta” follows central characters Earn Marks and his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles as they strive for success in the music industry while overcoming obstacles in personal and professional rivalries, societal expectations, and personal challenges. This is set against the backdrop of Atlanta’s distinctive culture, history, and atmosphere which plays a crucial role in shaping the narrative and experiences of the characters.

CASE STUDY – YOU

The photo raises thought-provoking questions about the art of storytelling and what makes a compelling story engine.

  • Central Character: Joe Goldberg, a charming yet dangerous stalker
  • Central Goal: Joe’s continuous search for an idealized version of love and his efforts to escape the consequences of his actions
  • Web of Conflict: Characters who suspect Joe, law enforcement, and Joe’s own troubled past
  • Unique Arena: New York and Los Angeles literary worlds; social media plays a significant role

Let’s combine these elements into a two-sentence Story Engine statement:

Story Engine Statement: The story engine of “You” revolves around the charming yet dangerous stalker Joe Goldberg, who is on a continuous search for an idealized version of love and tries to evade the consequences of his actions while facing conflict from characters who become suspicious of him, law enforcement, and his own troubled past and inner demons. This is set against the unique arena of the literary world of New York and Los Angeles where social media plays a significant role.

CASE STUDY – HACKS

The photo raises thought-provoking questions about the art of storytelling and what makes a compelling story engine.

  • Central Characters: Deborah Vance, a legendary comedian and Ava Daniels, an ambitious millennial comic writer
  • Central Goal: Ava and Deborah’s mutual journey toward professional and personal growth.
  • Web of Conflict: Changing dynamics in the entertainment industry, personal setbacks, and creative differences between mentor and mentee.
  • Unique Arena: Professional comedy world of Las Vegas, and later, the country.

Let’s combine these elements into a two-sentence Story Engine statement:

Story Engine Statement:  The story engine of “Hacks” revolves around Deborah Vance, a legendary comedian, and Ava Daniels, an ambitious millennial comic writer, as they embark on a mutual journey of personal and professional growth while navigating the changing dynamics of the entertainment industry. This is set against the professional comedy world of Las Vegas and beyond.

Use these three examples to develop your own story engine and express it in a sentence.  Story engine statements are most definitely not intended to replace your logline, but simply to provide you a simple way to talk about your story engine before during or after your pitch.

Before leaving the topic of story engines, let’s debunk some of the most widespread myths about them.

Story Engines: Unravelling the Truth

Myth: There is only one correct story engine for a successful TV show.

Reality: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to story engines. TV shows can utilize a variety of story engines, and the key is finding the right one for the specific show, genre, and audience.

Myth: The story engine must be complex and convoluted to be successful.

Reality: Complex and convoluted story engines are not necessary or desirable. Story engines that are simple and straightforward are more effective, engaging, and easier to pitch.

Myth: Story Engines hinder creativity.

Reality: By providing a framework for exploration and experimentation, a story engine allows writers to create a cohesive and compelling narrative. Creativity can be enhanced by it.

Summing Up

In this post, we explored the power of story engines in creating successful TV shows. We learned that a clear and well-defined story engine is essential for giving the protagonist and the story a sense of direction and purpose. We examined the four components of a story engine – central character, central goal, web of conflict, and unique arena – and looked at case studies of how they work in popular TV shows like Atlanta, You and Hacks. 

So before diving headfirst into writing your pilot, spend some time thinking about your story engine. Consider the four essential components: central character, central goal, web of conflict, and unique arena. Then, use the case studies and story engine blueprint as a guide to create your own. Remember to keep it simple, focused, and flexible enough to produce multiple stories while providing a clear direction for your series. Do this and you’ll be setting your show up for success from the very start.

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