On the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story

It's Not Just Plot or Character That Drives Fiction

The hard thing about writing—or one of the hard things in the endless series of hard things about writing—is that there’s no one way to do it. Instead, there are infinite paths in the dark woods of fiction leading to infinite types of stories. It’s hard, a little scary, yet ultimately thrilling.

Despite this, there are countless articles that insist there are in fact only two methods of storytelling: plot-driven and character-driven. It’s understandable that writing guides and craft classes are reductive. Who would pay for a writing guide that said “lol who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” followed by 200 blank pages? Still, the plot-driven vs. character-driven binary has always made me wonder why those two aspects of fiction are the only ones allowed in the driver’s seat. Couldn’t a story be driven by voice? Couldn’t setting have a turn at the wheel?

My interest, as a writer and creative writing professor, is less in how we can analyze stories than in how writers can generate work. I’m interested in what devices—engines let’s call them, since surely the author is always the driver (even when they’re crashing their story into a ditch)—can supply power to the rest of story.

Character and plot are fine, reliable engines. You can put them in your novel draft and, with a good amount of luck, drive it to the bestseller list. But they are only two ways of powering a story. In my own writing, I typically find that plot and character are not enough and that my stories are inert until I find a different kind of engine—a thematic engine perhaps or a structure engine or a linguistic engine—that makes the thing get up and running.

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The External Engines of Plot and Character

If you are the type of person to click on a craft essay on Lit Hub, then you know plenty about powering stories with plot and character. I won’t dwell on these models, but I would like to quickly contrast how they (often) work in opposite ways.

In Robert McKee’s “screenwriter’s Bible” Story, he advocates creating a story around “the big-muscle movements of desire, forces of antagonism, turning points, spine, progression, crisis, climax—story seen from the inside out.” The plot is the engine of a McKee-esque story, the device at the core of the narrative that the machine is built around. McKee advocates writing short outlines of the plot beats first and only later adding the actual text of the work. (“Regardless of genre, if a story can’t work in ten minutes, how will it work in one hundred and ten minutes? It won’t get better when it gets bigger,” he writes.) The characters, setting, voice, and language are all fleshed out after you’ve built your plot engine.

As a writer and as a reader, I tend to be drawn to other, internal engines—“form engines” and “language engines.”

Writing with the character engine is often—though not always—the opposite process, writing “from the outside in.” The writer comes up with their characters and the situation first and then lets it play out on the page. If the character is your engine, you may spend significant time getting to know the characters before even really writing the story. Writing monologues in their voices or pages of backstory that will never go into the final text. If the characters are your engine, you may feel like Elizabeth Strout who said, “The people in this book were very real for me. They have to be for me to continue to write them. Otherwise, if they’re not, then they just get tossed on the floor—literally.”

Process wise, a story with a character engine often inverts the McKee plot engine story by revising down to the final shape rather than building up from the plot skeleton. MFA programs, NaNoWriMo bros, and craft blogs often advise writers to “vomit up” a first draft as quickly as possible. After that, you can see what other elements—plot, theme, structure—have emerged “organically” and the story can be edited down and polished, or rewritten from scratch using the best elements of the rough draft.

 

Powering Stories with Internal Engines

While the character and plot engines are the most common engines, they aren’t the only ones and, in a certain sense, are slightly strange since they both create fiction from something outside of what is on the page: from a separate outline or characters fleshed out outside of the book itself. They are often, to extend the metaphor, external engines. As a writer and as a reader, I tend to be drawn to other, internal engines—“form engines” and “language engines”—that power the story from within the text itself.

The form engine is probably easier to recognize. You can look at Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant “Especially Heinous,” a short story told in the form of 272 capsule reviews of (fictional) SVU episodes, or Alejandro Zambra’s amazing novel Multiple Choice that has no real characters or plot, but unfolds entirely in the form of a standardized test. Each chapter takes the form of standardized test questions, such as multiple choice or reader comprehension questions, while using this constraint to create meaning and feeling. If you are writing with a character or plot engine, you might impose a form later—shaping your story in the revision process—but with a form engine the form comes first.

There is a way to construct fiction through language—without preordained characters, themes, or plot.

The most interesting—and yet hardest to define—story-creating engine is, for me, the “language engine.” I’m thinking of stories where repeating syntactic structures, rhythms and sonics, or a bundle of semantic elements seem to be powering the story. Often these work through a process of repetition and difference—allowing these elements to grow, shrink, twist, and change—to both build meaning and shape the text. You might, say, choose a set of syllable sounds or sentence rhythms to power the piece, or else use a pair of concepts—like “up” and “down” or “light” and “dark”—or a cluster of associated words to drive the piece. A language engine doesn’t mean that characters and plot doesn’t exist. It means they arise out of and are powered by the language.

Here’s an exercise I sometimes conduct in class (which I borrowed from my professor Rebecca Curtis) that might make this idea more concrete.

Language engine exercise: write a first sentence on the top of a piece of paper. “My mother always said she wanted to die by the ocean” or whatever comes to mind. Circle the two or three key words—mother, death, ocean—and then write between 10 and 20 words you associate with those words:

water, dry, drink, father, waves, desert, children, swim, splash, pool, sea, thirst, towel, sun, sunscreen, etc.

Now write a story where each sentence uses one of the words on your list. This way, you’re a constructing a story through the language that is on the page, expanding and changing their meanings, rather than from a pre-planned plot arc or character arc. Here’s a quick example of how that might go:

My mother always said she wanted to die by the ocean. But it was my father who drowned at sea. My mother got the phone call while I was slathering on sunscreen. We were sitting by a motel pool in the desert. The dry sun splashed over us. “Your father is dead,” my mother said, wiping her tears with a towel.

In revision, you might tone this down. You don’t need “wet” and “dry” language in every sentence. And if you were writing a story instead of an exercise, you would pull out new phrases and words, new associations, to power the story, keeping it growing and expanding. The point is that there is a way to construct fiction through language—without preordained characters, themes, or plot—that can produce a different type of story.

I think any element of fiction can be an engine.

The idea of an engine powering the story is that you can rev the engine whenever you are stuck. You can use it to generate other elements of the story. Let’s say you’ve written two pages and the mother and son are driving out to California for the body. What happens next? The answer to this plot question might be in this wet and dry language. The car starts leaking fluid and stalls out in Albuquerque? The mother, a lush, gets drunk to numb her grief? A hurricane rolls in and they seek shelter?

 

An Attempt to Explain this Messy Process at Work

I realize this might all still be a bit vague, so let me try a real-world example from the most recent short story I finished. Last year, I had a vague story idea about a parent who gets a clone of their child in a divorce settlement. I wrote down a few sketches of ideas and a fragment of a scene where the father can’t schedule a playdate for his toddler because the other parents have already scheduled a playdate with “the other Timmy.”

That was it.

I tinkered with the story for a while trying to build a narrative from the bitter and sad divorced father character. It wasn’t working. The character, for whatever ineffable reason, was not powering anything else in the story. Trying a worldbuilding engine—making it a kind of Black Mirror dystopia, say—didn’t work either. I left the document alone.

A year later, I was reading about “Otto Rank,” a psychoanalyst who famously wrote a book about doppelgangers. I remembered the old story idea and knew instantly that the child should be named Otto, not Timmy. The allusion to the author of The Double is nice, but more important was how the word “Otto” was itself cloned. A mirror of ot | to. My character’s wife has one Otto and he has another Otto.

Wait, no, she has “the original Otto.”

I scribbled in my notebook.

“The original Otto.” That phrase becomes the story’s engine. It produced not only a series of phrases “either Otto” “not Otto” “the other Otto,” but also, somehow, an entire mood. My original sketch of the story had a bitter and cliché main character. Now, I realized, the story’s tone needed to be quizzical and confounded. The form (fragments) and style (elliptical) and POV (third person limited) all came out of this phrase although—as is the way of writing—I couldn’t tell you how or why exactly. Another writer using the prompt “original Otto” would surely have written an entirely different story.

The story just worked now. It had power. It was generating meaning. And, most importantly, it was being written.

 

Revving Different Engines

I think any element of fiction can be an engine. I saw Zadie Smith speak once about how her process for writing a novel is revising the first chapter over and over until the voice was perfect. Once the voice (engine) was in place, the rest of the book would quickly chug along. Edgar Allan Poe was advocating for something like a mood engine when he said, “a short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” In Stephen King’s On Writing he argues against plot-based writing and in favor of something like a situation engine: “A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question,” he says and gives the examples of “What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot)” and “What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo).”

Stories can be—and normally are—created with multiple engines.

Setting, POV, theme. All of these can be centered in a story and used to power story creation.

What interests me in thinking of stories as powered by different engines is that it emphasizes that the same stories can be told in different ways based on what is powering them. This is true at the macro level—the major events and concepts—but also at the most mundane level. Let’s say your protagonist, Billy, goes into a Denny’s for breakfast. What does Billy order? If you’re humming with a character engine, perhaps you’ve figured out a relevant backstory (“Billy ordered the blueberry pancakes, which always reminded him of the blueberry bush at grandma’s house before she died of cancer”). Billy might order something different if the engine is atmosphere (“Billy sat in the dirty booth and sipped his burnt coffee while a fly circled his runny eggs like a buzzard”) or a linguistic conceit like “up and down” (“Billy looked up at ceiling as he gobbled down the short stack”) or a plot engine (“As Billy ate his Grand Slam breakfast he realized, yes, he would join back up with his ragtag team of lovable losers and win the baseball tournament against the rich and snobby cross-town team!”)

Clichés aside, you can rev a different engine when you’re stuck in your story and get different results. And by revving the same engine, you’ll be powering the story in a specific way that will help it feel unified.

I would like to stress that I’m focusing on generating stories as a writer, which is not the same thing as reading or analyzing fiction. It is quite possible for a story powered, in the writing process, by a setting engine to, when it is finally published, read like a character-driven or situation-driven story. Anyone kind enough to read my “Either Otto” story (it is in the latest issue of Epiphany magazine) may find that the conceptual idea or the characters stand out to them far more than the repeating language elements. And they wouldn’t be wrong to think that. The idea of story engines isn’t that the engine supplants the other elements of the story. The idea is that they power them, helping the writer generate the elements and making the story cohere.

The engines can also be turned on—if this does not stretch the metaphor too much (is using “stretch” here mixing the metaphor? Writing is so hard!)—in revision. When you are looking through the manuscript, you will likely find that the parts that need to be cut or rewritten are the ones that are not receiving power from the story’s engines. In my Otto story, I wrote several sections about the father character’s job that I cut in revision because, while they were thematically tied into the story and fleshed out the character, they weren’t connecting with my language engine. They were inert on the page.

In an idea-driven story, the paragraph that digresses into an unrelated concept may need to go. In a plot-driven story, the chapters that interrupt your plot beats may need a revision. If a section isn’t hooked up to your engine, maybe it doesn’t fit in the story at all?

 

In Which I Confuse Things Again at the End

Of course, the writing process is more complex than this. Stories can be—and normally are—created with multiple engines. My Otto story was powered by that language engine, but it also has a theme engine (doubling) that produced a different set of ideas, events, and sentences. Even if you have one big engine powering the story itself, there may be countless tiny engines each powering different paragraphs of a short story or chapters of a novel.

Stories are made up of many things.

I’d also here like to stretch this metaphor to the point of breaking and say that the larger the machine, the more engines it requires to make it move. A language engine may be all you need to produce a perfect piece of flash fiction. A character engine and a theme engine humming in sync might power a short story. Yet a novel will likely need at least a few primary engines, all working together to produce power, meaning, and interest enough to sustain a story through hundreds of pages.

It is also probably fair to argue that some engines are capable of powering larger machines. While I think the “plot-driven or character-driven” binary is wrong, plot engines and character engines—I’d probably add theme engines to this pair—have an easier time running a novel than form engines and language engines. The reverse might also be true. It’s quite possible that the more constrained form of short fiction—especially flash fiction—has an easier time functioning with a form engine than a plot one that may overpower it and cause it to short.

The idea isn’t that any element is better than another, only that different elements can be centered in the story to create different stories.

I find this engine metaphor far more useful than the “plot-driven or character driven” binary or the even-less-useful “planners” or “pantsers” binary (I’m sorry but latter word will always mean middle schoolers who yank down other kids pants in the hallway) because it shows that the types of processes for creating a story are varied. As writers, we should always be searching for new ways of conceiving of, writing, and editing stories. Even if there’s a story element you love, you should strive to think of different ways it could work. There’s a whole world of fiction beyond the three-act structure and Freytag’s pyramid that we tend to focus on. Quite literally. Other countries have produced entirely different traditions of story structure, such as the four-act (and non-conflict-based) Kishōtenketsu plot structure.

For years, the writer Jeff Jackson has tweeted different images with the phrase “possible novel structure.” What would a novel structured as an iceberg casting a shadow on the sea look like? Isn’t a vine wrapped around barbed wire so much more interesting than a pyramid?

This essay began with a comment I made on social media about how I typically can’t write a short story until I figure out the linguistic device that is going to power it. Other authors chimed in with agreement, or saying how something other than plot or character powers their work. For example, the author Amber Sparks said, “When I write, I might have an idea about character or plot but I usually have to find the right structure (is it a list? A menu? A series of photographs? Of flashbacks?) to actually sit down and write the thing.”

There are writers who may always be structure-driven or character-driven or situation-driven. And there will be other writers who will use a different engine for every story. But if your fiction is feeling inert, I’d suggest swapping out your engine. You don’t even have to like the idea of “engines.” Pick your metaphor: new tools, new cooking methods, new looms. Just know that whatever is powering your story is as valid as anything else as long as it is powering it. Look for whatever thing gets you to the main thing: actually writing the thing.

Lincoln Michel
Lincoln Michel
Lincoln Michel is the author of Upright Beasts and the co-editor of the forthcoming crime anthology Tiny Crimes. His fiction and criticism appear in Granta, The New York Times, GQ, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.





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