It Won’t Go By Itself

Where Did The Engine Go?

Okay, this is a mistake I keep running across, and possibly the most egregious of the mistakes in the “newby self published” stuff on Amazon.  So…

Listen to me, I am the voice that cries in the wilderness (or at least from behind a desk covered almost totally in cats.)

You can have a great character (or many.) You can have great settings.  You can even write fascinating scenes.  But your story won’t go anywhere if it doesn’t have an engine.

This is one of those rare problems in writing: one that as far as I can tell, I never had.  Mind you, I was once accused of having it.

Back then I had just met other writers, and while I – sort of – knew how to write, I had clue zero how to talk to other writers (yes, this too is an acquired skill.)  I did not know, for instance, that not everyone wrote the same way, and following the same process.  So I made no account for differences.

Back then I was in phase not much different from the current one.  I got the beginning of the novel.  From that I deduced the general idea of what was happening and what people needed.  THEN I wrote the novel.  Then as now, the lag time between first-scene appearance in head and writing the novel could be anywhere between two days to three years.  Then as now, that first scene hit with the force of a hammer between the eyes, and I had to get it down.

The person I was talking to was an experienced novelist.  Well, the most experienced I’d met up to the time.  She’d had one novel published eight years before.  In my innocent young-writer mind this translated as successful.

So I told her about the opening scene that had hit me “This woman notices someone following her.  No one else seems to see him.  One day she’s had enough and goes to talk to him.  He’s some sort of supernatural creature, I don’t know what yet.”

She – who worked from plot out, and therefore thought I was insane – told me “Your story lacks an engine.  There’s nothing to make it advance.”  This was true, insofar as that was not a story, yet, only a scene.

Yes, she kilt that novel.  She kilt that novel daid.  I had no idea, see, what she was talking about, and all I could think was “I’m doing something horribly wrong, and I can’t SEE it.  I’m the world’s worst writer.”  Not only didn’t I write anymore on that novel.  I didn’t write anything for three months.

And THAT was a mistake I made.  If you get ideas the way I do, don’t go imagining you need to have everything RIGHT up front.  However, by the time you’re writing the book, you should have an idea what the story is.  And that will give you an idea what the engine is.

The best way I know to explain this is with examples.

And the examples are from what you’d find at the back of a book.  Mind you, often this is the level of “outlining” I do to get a story idea to hold till I have time to deal with it.

So.  Imagine you read the following outline:

John has moved to Greece to study the classics.  While there, he adapts to local customs and has many interesting run ins with natives.  Occasionally, people try to beat him up for talking funny.

Is that a novel?  Uh.  At best it’s a travelogue.  John might be a fascinating character.  Scene by scene his run ins with natives might be side-splitting.  BUT the story has no engine.  There’s nothing propelling it forward.  Unless it’s a highly literary piece of work – why should people keep reading?

Frankly, having judged contests and mentored, what I see is a never ending collection of John eating breakfast, John mangling Greek, John seeing funny local customs.  IF you’re lucky, there will be the occasional episodic John gets in a fight and takes weeks to recover.  Here’s the thing.  Take John at the beginning and at the end of the novel.  Did he change?  No?  Did anything around him change?  (And if you’re going to defend the picaresque novel, read on.)  Did his actions make ANY difference at all?  Could you take what happened and scramble it around with minor adjustments (so, he hasn’t learned to like souvlaki at that third dinner.  Have him eat something else.)?  Well, then it’s not a novel.  All the parts are there, but they’re not working in concert.

“Well, oh, great one,” you say (about time you said it, too!)  “How do you give it an engine?”

Stop smirking.  Of course I can.  I can give it several engines, depending on what genre this is.  Watch me:

John has gone to Greece to study classics.  Finding a body on the site of some interesting inscriptions was not in his plans.  When the corpse turns out to be that of a colleague he hasn’t seen in twenty years, and who shouldn’t be in Greece at all, faced with the local authorities’ suspicion of him as the only foreigner around, John is forced to investigate – easier said than done given his lack of knowledge of local customs.

When John goes to Greece to study the classics, the least thing he expects is to fall head over heels for a dark haired local.  His courtship, fraught with cultural and linguistic missteps demonstrates that the course of true love never does run smooth.  Will he win the exotic beauty?

When John goes to Greece to study the classics, the least thing he expects is to fall head over heels for a dark haired local. Or is she a local?  She tells him her name is Diana, and glimpses of her at night seem to show her in a familiar aspect, dressed in the ancient way and accompanied by dogs, carrying a bow in the moonlight.  Is John’s love eccentric?  Is she playing the world’s most elaborate joke on him?  Or has he fallen in love with the ancient goddess of the haunt?  And if he has, what does it mean to the world at large that the ancient gods walk again?

Science Fiction:
When John goes to Greece to study the classics, the last thing he expects is to find an artifact made in alien metal and written in what looks like proto Greek.  The story it tells is the Iliad – if it had taken place among the stars.  With mysterious strangers trying to destroy the fragment and a beautiful woman trying to discredit it, John finds himself in the adventure of a lifetime, one that at the end of it might very well have him lost among the galaxies.

The beauty of this, is that you can take the first book – with all the funny incidents and events, and John being a general twit about Greece and the Greeks, and make it into any of these, by adding a plot line that follows the … movement line of any of these ideas.  He can have all his social faux pas and linguist malapropisms while talking to everyone who was around at the time of the murder.  He can sample local cuisine while talking to his lady fair.  He can even investigate the legend of Diana while eating and talking and strolling about the country side.

The engine of the novel is the thing that keeps us reading through all those incidents, the thing that makes us turn the page to see “what happens next” and “how will it end.”

Of course, some minor points in addendum – the action should rise, and the stakes should get higher.  What do I mean by that?  Well, at first the authorities are suspicious John murdered the other guy, then they take him in to question him, then they start following him.  At the end of this he could/should be on the run, trying to get the real killer, before he experiences Greek prisons.  A similar dynamic should apply to the others.  Think of this as moving an engine up through the gears to climb a mountain.

You should avoid having too many of the same kind of scene – hurt-comfort, peril, redemption – or scenes that feel the same: scenes that take place in a boat for instance, are unusual enough that if you have too many will feel like the same scene.

Your character should be affected by each rising point of action.  I.e. try not to have them make the same mistake ad nauseum, unless there’s a reason they lost all memory.

And now, you say, what about picaresque novels?  They violate a lot of these rules, they have no rising action (or often don’t) and they often have similar type of scenes.

The best known picaresque novels are Leslie Charteris’ the Saint, though Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, etc, have a similar feel.  And to an extent some mystery series feel like picaresque novels – like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series.

The picaresque novel (I’ve linked to the wiki definition) as far as I’m concerned is a novel of man at odds with his world.  There is something about your hero that is so odd that it puts him at odds with the world/society.  The novels are often episodic in nature, consisting of a series of events/adventures that do not rise in action.  (In Rex Stout’s case it would be the series, not each novel.)

So, do these novels lack engine?  No.  The engine is the character.  You need to have an extraordinary and extraordinarily strange character.  These novels resemble nothing so much as the stories of gods and heros our ancestors must have told around the camp fire.  EACH individual segment still follows the rules – rising action, something accomplished, etc – and each segment illustrates the extraordinariness of the character.

In other words, John, no matter how nice, brave and courageous he is, won’t be enough.  John needs to have one characteristic: the saint’s cunning; Master Li’s intelligence; Goodwin’s doggedness and Wolfe’s amazing intelligence and erudition – and this characteristic needs to come into conflict with its world, over and over and over again.  Whether your character emerges triumphant, or he’s the perpetual underdog, yet he must be tested over and over, and each episode must be amusing enough to keep the reader going past the break.  A purely picaresque novel is a difficult thing to write and this is often combined with a more traditional format (as Hughart did.)  Do not think this is the way of addressing the lack of engine in your story.  It’s more the way of tuning your engine if you are a virtuoso.

Now go make sure you have an engine to keep your story running.



  1. Yes. I very often find myself having to clearly define the big fat main problem the protagonists have to solve. And then figure out how they’ll solve it. And then what they do (possibly happily ever) after, where I can get back to all those cozy little subplots I was having so much fun with and clear up a few of them.

  2. An engine? You mean Vlad wanting to kill any number of people who piss him off – and incidentally have much larger armies than he does – isn’t enough?

    I’m in trouble…

    1. Yes. Usually if you visualize the back of the book and there is a MAJOR event/question/solution, you don’t go wrong.

      And, Mike? Thanks. 😉 (Don’t know if you got email.)

  3. You might want to talk about velcro, too.

    What do I mean?

    The daily drama on TV here in Japan has just about convinced me that along with the “engine” — the overall story question or problem — you really need Velcro. Lots of little hooks to keep the reader or the audience intrigued and excited.

    Let me explain. NHK, our public channel, has a daily drama that they run. It’s just 15 minutes a day — for six days each week, 6 months long. They run it twice in the morning — one in the middle of the morning news! — once at lunch time, just 12:45-1:00, and once in the evening, from 6:45-7:00. They also rerun the whole week on Saturday morning in case you missed something.

    They’re usually launching pads for new actors and actresses, and are pretty well done, usually.

    As you might expect, the ones in the past have usually had a daily “cliffhanger” right at the end of the 15 min episode. Whether it’s someone picking up a ringing phone and saying “What?” or something more worrisome, such as the pregnant woman going into the delivery room, there’s been a whole lot of “come back tomorrow to find out what happened!” Fairly often with a big cliffhanger on Saturday to get you to come back Monday.

    However, the daily drama this time seems to have taken a different approach. It’s about a young teenage woman in the shantytowns of Tokyo right after World War II who wants to become a doctor. The setting, her family, everything seems very realistic, but we’re in the fifth or sixth week, and it’s just not very interesting, despite all kinds of problems and difficulties.

    When I started paying attention, I realized that they aren’t doing a daily cliffhanger. In fact, most daily episodes end with today’s problems being resolved. Boring! Today’s episode started with her friend saying she couldn’t marry the man she was interested in, and our heroine retaking the tests she had failed. Then the heroine runs out of the test she is taking to tell her friend to go ask him! And… the teacher says that she has failed, running out of the test like that. Her friends beg for the teacher to give her another chance! And… the teacher agrees, and says that she has good friends. Then the narrator tells us that the friend asked the man to be patient and he agreed, and the heroine passed her test. And end with a comic bit about a cow.

    There’s no reason to watch on Monday! And there were all kinds of chances there, to have us wondering whether the teacher would give her another chance, to show us the friend asking the man to be patient — and leave us wondering whether he will or not, or even to have the heroine facing another test! Or bring up some other surprising challenge — or even just a letter, telegram, or phone call to tease us.

    Anyway, the contrast between the fairly obvious daily cliffhanger that most of the shows have had and this “no suspense” format has made me appreciate Velcro. The many tiny little hooks, in each scene, chapter ending, all throughout the book that keep me reading to find out what happened next. Even with a “engine” providing the pull or push for the overall story, it’s the little hooks everywhere that keep the story going.

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