Story Engines: How to structure powerful stories

A story engine is the why.

The engine is what keeps you in your seat, waiting to see what happens next.

If you don’t want the magic of tv/film to be tarnished forever then don’t read anymore… however if there exists a hunger within you to create fulfilling stories then this is exactly what you should be reading.

I have not found one great film that didn’t utilize one or more story engine… and I dare you to try naming one without these engines.

Why do we need the story engine?

If I picked you up and started driving, it would only be a matter of time before you demand to know where we’re going. Same thing with films, we can’t watch random events for too long before needing to know what the film is about or when it might end. The story engine provides you with a destination… even if it’s a vague one it’s better than nothing.

Without further ado, the 5 engines I have discovered through personal experience and reading:

1. Goal
2. Dramatic Irony
3. Ticking Time Bomb
4. Documentary
5. Dramatic Question

The Goal is the most simple story engine and can be found in most of our best films or television.

The Goal is an unfulfilled objective by one or more characters in the story.

Examples include- The Lion King (overthrow uncle and save the empire), Star Wars (blow up death star), Braveheart (free Scotland), and Up (landing the house at Paradise Falls).

Why this works- Basic human curiosity about if the character will succeed or fail. This has worked for villains in films but it’s more powerful if we love the character because then we’re more invested in their goal.

To make this work, you need to make the objective clear.

It does not need to be said verbally, you can easily show a highschool boy looking at the girl of his dreams. Boom, objective is crystal clear. You can take it even further by adding effects that convey this goal like maybe a soft glow around her, a slow mo walk down the hallway.

Cliched? Yes! I’m just using an example everyone is familiar with.

Please try to be original with how you present the objective in your story. A better example would be The Big Lebowski… the protagonist came home only to discover two thugs peeing on his carpet. “Not the carpet man.”

Turns out that the thugs mixed him up with another Lebowski so our upset hero goes to the actual Lebowski to demand a new carpet. Notice how our protagonist never said “I need to get a new carpet.” That’s a much weaker way to convey the objective, usually it’s much more powerful to use actions rather than words as seen here. (barging into the Leboswki house demanding his carpet damages paid for)

The mistake of peeing on the wrong carpet catapulted the whole story from a lazy dude living check to check into a hilarious murder mystery.

There’s nothing original about solving a murder mystery but the way this film gets to that goal is refreshingly original. It’s one of the many reasons why The Big Lebowski endures as one of the greatest cult classics.

Onto the next engine-

Dramatic Irony is when the audience knows more than the characters in the story.

This is a popular one for comedy and horror.

Examples include, Shallow Hal (we know that she’s fat but Jack Black thinks she’s a skinny babe), The Shop Around the Corner (a man and woman working together hate each other but are unknowingly writing love letters to each other), and You’ve Got Mail (two business rivals hate each other at the office but fall in love over the internet: basically a remake of above film).

I know that’s not many examples, this story engine is more common paired with other engines rather than the acting as the predominant one.

Why this works- Again curiosity is at play here… we want to know what’s going to happen when the characters inevitably find out the truth we already knew.

What’s going to happen when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan realize that they’ve been writing to each other? Will they love or hate each other?

One of my favorite examples of dramatic irony was in There’s Something About Mary. Ben Stiller got picked up by the cops for questioning about a murder but Ben Stiller thought they were asking him about the hitchhiker he picked up, quote below:

Ted: Look, I didn’t solicit any sex, OK? This is a huge misunderstanding. I was really going out to pee, I was walking to the bushes, I tripped over this guy – and suddenly all those cops and their helicopters…
Detective Stabler: Ted, Ted, it’s OK, we believe you. The problem is we found your friend in the car.
[Detective Stabler refers to the dead body found in Ted’s car, which unbeknown to Ted was left by the hitchhiker. Ted has no idea about the body. He thinks the police is going to charge him with giving a ride to hitchhiker, as the hitchhiker told him it was a felony in that state]
Ted: [smiles] Oh, the hitchhiker? That’s what this is about, the hitchhiker? Oh, oh, great. This is my luck – I get caught for everything.
Detective Krevoy: [pats strongly on Ted’s shoulder] So… you admit it?
Ted: Ah, yeah, guilty as charged. Look, I know you guys got a job to do, alright? And I’m really sorry. I did it, I admit it. You know, the guy even told me, the hitchhiker told me it was illegal.
Detective Krevoy: Well, uh, can you tell us his name?
Ted: Ah… no, I didn’t catch it. Can we cut to the chase, I mean, am I like in a lot of trouble here?
Detective Stabler: [nods] First tell us why you did it.
Ted: Why I did it? Ah… I don’t know. Boredom? The guy turned to be a blubber mouth who just would not shut up.
Detective Krevoy: [trying to control himself] Ted, this wasn’t your first time, was it?
Ted: No.
Detective Krevoy: How many are we talking here?
Ted: [confused] Hitchhikers? My whole life? Ah… I don’t know – twenty-five, fifty… I mean, who keeps track? Hey, you know, I know this is the Bible Belt and everything, but where I come from this is not that big deal, I mean…
Detective Krevoy: You son of a bitch! You’re gonna fry!
[exploding in rage due to Ted’s seemingly indifference to murder, detective Krevoy roars, grabs Ted by his shirt and repeatedly slams his head against the desk. Ted yells in pain]

See how a simple misunderstanding can amp up the comedy. How boring would this scene be if Ted was simply pleading with the cops that he wasn’t the murder. Instead of that the writers used dramatic irony, showing us the information that the cops know but not Ted, resulting into a hilarious scene… later in the film is another hilarious scene propelled by dramatic irony.

Poor innocent Mary has no idea about the true nature of Ben Stiller’s ‘hair gel.’ Dramatic irony at its finest.

Dramatic irony can also redeem some the most complex story structures out there like American Beauty. The reason why this film’s structure endures as a rarity or oddity is because there’s no clear goal presented in this film. How did they pull it off? Let’s look at the first narrated line of the film:

“My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood; this is my street; this is my life. I am 42 years old; in less than a year I will be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I am dead already.”

Now we know that our protagonist will die, but how and why?

It’s crazy how much more invested we get into a film from one simple voice over.

With horror, dramatic irony can amp up the suspense even more than the scariest monster.

Hitchcock understood this quite well and would torture the viewer by revealing key information that the characters on film are completely naive to. He would put a bomb in a hotel room and then show the protagonist walking in, completely unaware of the ticking bomb. Not just walking in but talking on the phone as the tension builds and builds and builds to the breaking point.

Speaking of bombs…

The Ticking Time Bomb is a time frame.

What I mean by time frame here is an event/outcome/expiration date that the audience expects to occur. The more stressful the time frame the better.

Examples include, Speed (can’t go under 50 miles per hour), UP (get to paradise falls before the balloons deflate), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (aging backwards frames the story), Armageddon (asteroid incoming to earth), Back to the Future (get back to the future before the time window closes), Donnie Darko (28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds :), 12 Angry Men (jurors forced to declare the defendant guilty or not guilty), and Inception (as soon the car hits the water the dream world is aborted).

Christopher Nolan (easily one of our generation’s best directors) knows the power behind this story engine and has used it in every one of his successful films. Look at Inception, the whole second half had a big fat ticking time bomb in the form of the car hitting the water. The suspense is drawn out as the car moves inches and inches closer to the water and failure. But let’s not forget about the infamous sequence in The Dark Knight with the Joker making his escape while the good guys rush to save Dent and Rachel with only seconds to spare.

I will never forget the shock that washed over me when Batman runs in to see Dent instead of Rachel and that inferno rising up, killing off a major character. Ticking time bombs are great but surprises are the best kind of gasoline to fuel this engine.

Why this works- Once again, curiosity serves as the backbone of this story engine… with a time frame the outcome is explicitly clear because we know that the story will eventually reach that point. Obviously, the higher the stakes the stronger.

I’m afraid to report that this particular story engine is the most common ‘fix’ for stories without a strong engine. It’s common because it’s easy and it works.

Look at Bridesmaids, the incoming wedding is the event that we’re waiting for but other than that the film doesn’t have a goal or dramatic irony. Even the ticking time bomb here is weak, there’s no real urgency or timeline towards the wedding. I’m not calling it a bad film, I thought it was quite funny and the characters were well fleshed out. It made about 169 million (USA)… The Hangover pulled in 277 million.

I’m willing to bet that The Hangover was a bigger financial success because it had stronger story engines.

Goal? Find Doug.
Dramatic Irony? As seen in the first scene, it’s suggested that they were not able to find Doug. (yes I know that the characters knew this information but what makes this dramatic irony is because it was a flashforward, we as an audience know that scene will happen but the characters don’t know it yet)
Ticking time bomb? 2 days to the wedding!

I think they were both equally funny but The Hangover has stronger rewatchablity in my book because the story structure trumps Bridesmaids.

Another example of the ticking time bomb serving as a slight fix would be Forrest Gump... We know he’s on a bus bench but why and when? This question is what keeps us watching in the beginning but the middle and ending is sustained by one of the most exclusive story engines out there, the documentary.

The Documentary story engine is spectacle and/or fascination.

I don’t suggest trying to pull this one off until you’ve mastered the other story engines because I’ve seen many film attempt but fail, and even fewer succeed under this one.

It is however extremely tempting because most of the best films include this engine.

Put simply the subject matter/character/location/content is so interesting that we keep watching.

Think about it, why do people watch Shark Week? There’s no goal, dramatic irony, ticking time bomb, it’s just… interesting.

Why this works- You can probably guess it… Pure curiosity.

This story engine works the same way most documentaries work, it’s a glimpse into a new world that appeals to us.

Examples include, City of God (slums and gangs of Brazil), Forrest Gump (the character of Gump), Trollhunter (Troll culture/lore), There Will Be Blood (rise and fall of Daniel Plainview), Boogie Nights (Dirk Diggler’s career), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the mental institution/characters), 2001: A Space Odyssey (whole film lol), Requiem for a Dream (the spiral into drugs), A Clockwork Orange (Alex’s transformation), The Godfather (the Corleone family), The Social Network (inception/rise of facebook) and Taxi Driver (who can forget Travis Bickle?)

Pretty much all character studies run on this story engine and that’s why I don’t like most of them… only a few really pull through like Taxi Driver and The Wrestler. Personally, I think the best character studies are the ones that are sustained by a great story. (story comes before character for me)

City of God has been my favorite film for 4 years now. I don’t say that lightly and have seen more films than anyone I’ve met… it has no goal, dramatic irony, time bomb, or even a real dramatic question. It is simply a visceral experience that throws the viewer around as the city evolves from paradise into nightmare.

This story engine can’t really be taught and it’s much more subjective than the other engines. What I mean is that the other engines like goal/dramatic irony/ticking time bomb is universal… but the documentary engine is reliant on what the viewer is interested in, taste-wise.

Not everyone can stomach children killing each other like in City of God, but individuals like me were blown away by the complex parable of love/greed/betrayal/drugs/paradise/hell in Rio de Janeiro. (not to mention the best editing I’ve seen in any film)

Another example of the documentary engine is my 3rd favorite film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nearly the whole film takes place within the halls of the mental facility. What makes it an incredible ‘documentary’ is the depth of each character and the insanity that follows with the clash between the staff and patients.

I’m sorry that I can’t give you much of a formula with this engine… my best advice is to simply create a story that you personally would LOVE. Make it better than your favorite films, and yes, easier said than done :)

Last but not least-

The Dramatic Question is a unresolved question that has weight.

There’s a huge difference between ‘I wonder when my mom will pick me up’ as opposed to ‘I wonder where my mom ran away to?’

The latter carries much more weight. Let’s look at some examples- How I Met Your Mother (who is the woman that Ted ends up happily ever after with?), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (will the world get into a nuclear war?), Lost in Translation (will Murray’s relationship with Johansson become more than just platonic?) Twilight (will Bella pick emo Edward or hunky Jacob?), The Usual Suspects (who is Keyser Soze?), Good Will Hunting (will the math prodigy use his gifts or not?) and The Truman Show (will Truman find out about his artificial world?)

The dramatic question fuels most chick flicks. The question is (usually) either which guy will she pick? (Sweet Home Alabama, Twilight) or will they end up together? (In Vegas, The Proposal, Annie Hall, How to Lose a Guy in 10 days)

I’m sure you can do better. Try to make the dramatic question more original than the above structure like The Truman Show.

Why this works- c-u-r-i-o-s-i-t-y! Have you ever been asked a question and didn’t think about the possible answers? Didn’t think so.

What’s interesting to me about this engine is that you can easily pull off characters without a goal. Look at Good Will Hunting, the protagonist (Matt Damon) has no idea what he wants to do with his life and that’s refreshingly normal. We were all there once right? If you want to see more on why this film works, I strongly suggest reading this deep analysis.

I’ve read scripts that try to ‘break the mold’ by being more ‘real’ than Hollywood but the ironic thing is that they unusually fall flat on their faces. I’m not saying don’t try to break the norm… I’m saying do something original but you must have a strong engine to fuel the story. Out of all the engines, I think the Dramatic question is the least exploited and also offers the most flexibility for story structures that break the norm.

Ok. One last thing then you can go write that Oscar-winning screenplay.

The most sucessful films utilize more than one story engine.

Examples below:

Original Star Wars saga
Goal- Defeat the Empire. (strong)
Dramatic Irony- Yoda/Ben doubting if Luke is the one (weak)
Ticking Time Bomb- Only one shot at death star (medium)
Documentary- The whole star wars universe! (very strong)
Dramatic Question- Will Darth Vadar ever redeem himself? (strong)
The Truman Show
Goal- Go on vacation (medium)
Dramatic Irony- He has no idea the world is watching him (very strong)
Ticking Time Bomb- More and more clues that his reality is man-made (medium)
Documentary- It’s a world we’ve never seen before (strong)
Dramatic Question- What will happen when/if he finds out? (very strong)
Lord of the Rings saga
Goal- Destroy the ring (very strong)
Dramatic Irony- Frodo doesn’t know extent of evil for half of 1st film (weak)
Ticking Time Bomb- destroy ring before Sauron kills everyone (strong)
Documentary- elves, hobbits, dwarves, amazing battles, etc etc (very strong)
Dramatic Question- will good prevail over evil? (medium)
12 Angry Men
Goal- Find the defendant guilty or not guilty (medium)
Dramatic Irony- None, we know exactly as much as they do (very weak)
Ticking Time Bomb- Must reach verdict by the end of session (very strong)
Documentary- Layers of each character and the trial is slowly peeled away (strong)
Dramatic Question- Guilty or not guilty? (very strong)
The Matrix
Goal- Break into the office building to extract the item (strong)
Dramatic Irony- Morpheus and Trinity discuss Neo’s destiny without him knowing (weak)
Ticking Time Bomb- Must escape from Matrix into real world before it’s too late (very strong)
Documentary- Anyone who has seen this film knows how crazy it is (very strong)
Dramatic Question- Is Neo the one? (strong)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Goal- Erase ex girlfriend from mind forever but then becomes winning her back (strong)
Dramatic Irony- The men erasing the memories of the comatose Carey do not know that he wants to stop the prodecure (very strong)
Ticking Time Bomb- More and more memories are erased as he spirals backwards (strong)
Documentary- A machine that erases memories? Watching a relationship in reverse? (strong)
Dramatic Question- Will all the memories disappear? Will they end up together? (very strong)
Goal- Find and record the biggest troll of all (strong)
Dramatic Irony- This is ‘found footage’ so we know the tape was found but not the outcome of the characters (strong)
Ticking Time Bomb- Must accomplish goals before the government stops them (strong)
Documentary- It’s shot like an actual documentary and one of the best ones (very strong)
Dramatic Question- Will the public find out about the trolls? (medium)
Goal- Land house on paradise falls/save Russel (very strong)
Dramatic Irony- The bad dogs are ordered to capture Kevin (medium)
Ticking Time Bomb- Must accomplish goals before balloons deflate (very strong)
Documentary- How many films have flying houses and talking dogs? (very strong)
Dramatic Question- Will Kevin be saved? Will Carl get his house there? (medium)
The Wizard of Oz
Goal- Get back home (strong)
Dramatic Irony- The witch sends off flying monkeys towards them (weak)
Ticking Time Bomb- Must find the wizard before the witch kills them (medium)
Documentary- World of Oz (very strong)
Dramatic Question-  Will they make it to the Wizard? (medium)
Eleven Eleven
Goal- Get the girl of his dreams (medium)
Dramatic Irony- Opening shot is a flash-forward of the boy on a cliff (strong)
Ticking Time Bomb- 3 days until the scene of him on the cliff (medium)
Documentary- Whimsical, fairy-tale like day/locations (medium)
Dramatic Question- Why is he on the cliff? (strong)

Feel free to post your favorite movie in the same format as above in the comments section, I’d love to add more examples.

That was long. Go and make beautiful stories!

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3 comments on “Story Engines: How to structure powerful stories

  1. Wow, these articles are brilliant, Austin! A big thank you for your work, leave you to it and I’ll just carry on reading.

  2. Rachel Davies on said:

    Really practical advice. I’m writing a book at the moment – I’ll definitely be reviewing the strength of the story based on the points you’ve raised here.

  3. Donald Scott on said:

    would you please tell me what make and model of hearing aids you have. I am profoundly deaf been wearing aids since I was 6years old. now 78 iwould like to be a ble to use the phone.please advise thank you

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