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ASNE Online Ethics Tool

Posted, Mar. 1, 2005
Updated, Mar. 3, 2005

QuickLink: A77897

Tool #46: Storytellers, Start Your Engines
Good questions drive good stories.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Good stories need an engine, a question the story answers for the reader.

Who done it? Guilty or not guilty? Who will win the race? Which man will she marry? Will the hero escape, or die trying? Good questions drive good stories.

This narrative strategy is so powerful it needs a name, and Tom French has given it one. He calls it "the engine" of the story. French defines the engine as the question the story answers for the reader. Most newspaper reports lack an engine because they reveal the answer before the reader knows there is a question.

In my newspaper today, a reporter writes a story about a man hired as a greeter at a new Wal-Mart. It is an amiable local story:

Charles Burns has been waiting for weeks to say three words:

"Welcome to Wal-Mart!"

When the doors open this morning at St. Petersburg's first Wal-Mart Supercenter, Burns' face will be one of the first that shoppers see.

He is the greeter.

But because the story is written the day before the opening, we never get to see Charles Burns in action. He never greets anybody. As a result, there is no engine, not even a simple: "How did his first day of greeting go?"  or "What was the response from the first customer?" or "How did the experience match the expectation?"

In the same edition, there is a much more serious international story about tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka:

In the pediatric ward of the town hospital here, Sri Lanka's most celebrated tsunami orphan dozes, drools and, when he is in a foul mood, wails at the many visitors who crowd around his crib.

His identity is unknown. His age, according to hospital staff, is between four and five months. He is simply and famous known as Baby No. 81, the 81st admission to the ward this year.

Baby No. 81's awful burden is not in being unwanted, but in being wanted too much.

So far, nine couples have claimed him as their own son. Some among them have threatened suicide if the baby is not delivered into their arms. Countless other parents who lost their babies to the tsunami have also rushed in to see if Baby No. 81 is theirs. The national newspapers have carried almost daily narratives about his fate. The hospital has been so mobbed that for a while, the staff hid the baby in the operating theater every night for his own protection.

This story, which first appeared in The New York Times, has a supercharged engine. If you are like me, the engine took the form of questions such as these: What will happen to Baby No. 81? Will we ever learn his true name and real identity? Who will wind up with Baby 81, and why? How will they determine the true parents?

To its credit the story raises questions of its own, not just on what might happen next, but on the story's higher meaning:

Could it possibly be that nine couples honestly believe Baby No. 81 to be their flesh and blood? Could it be that childless parents are looking for a boon amid the disaster? Could it be that a photogenic baby boy has inspired a craving that a girl would not have?  All these theories circulate on the streets of Kalmunai.

Tom French believes that a story, especially one with sub-plots, can have more than one engine. This certainly works in film narratives. In the movie "The Full Monty," a group of unemployed factory workers tries to make money by becoming male strippers.  The engine is something like "will these odd-shaped men go all the way -- and how will their women react to them?" But here's what makes the story more special: Each man has something powerful at stake and is motivated by his own particular engine. Will the overweight guy restore the spark to his marriage? Will the skinny guy lose custody of his son? Will the old guy find a way to pay his debts?

When Jan Winburn was an editor at The Baltimore Sun, she helped her writers create a cast of characters for their stories by asking the question "Who has something at stake here?" The answer to that question can lead to the creation of a story engine:  "Will the loser of the contest still get her wish?"

I think of Tom French's "story engine" as a distant cousin of what Lajos Egri calls the "premise"of a story. "Everything has a purpose, or premise," he writes. "Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time.  The premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there."

Every play must have a premise, argues Egri. For "Romeo and Juliet" it is "Great love defies even death." For "Macbeth" it is "Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction." For "Othello" it is "Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love."

The premise, as described by Egri, takes the question of Tom's engine and turns it into a thematic statement. It can easily be converted back: "Will Othello's jealousy destroy him and the woman he loves?"

Tom French makes a distinction between the engine of the story and the theme:

To me, the engine is this raw visceral power that drives the story and keeps the reader engaged. How the writer uses that engine -- the ideas that we explore along the way, and the deeper themes we're hoping to illuminate -- is a matter of choice. A good example: "Citizen Kane." Its opening scene sets up one of the most famous story engines of all time, what is Rosebud? Yet the movie isn't about the sled, or even particularly about Kane's childhood. Still, the reporter's quest to unlock the riddle of the dying man's last word drives the story forward and keeps us watching as Orson Welles explores deeper themes of politics, democracy, America, etc. The mystery of Rosebud drives us through what's essentially a civics lesson on the real nature of power. There are other things holding our attention as well -- fabulous writing and acting, compelling characters -- but Rosebud is what gets us going and holds the whole thing together.

Finally, we should note that some stories are driven not by "what" questions, but by "how." We know before the opening credits that James Bond will conquer the villains, but we are driven to know how.  We imagine that the affable Ferris Bueller will not be punished for his truancy, but we delight in knowing how he will escape detection.

Reports must anticipate the reader's questions and answer them. Editors will be on the lookout for holes in the story where key questions are left unanswered. Storytellers take these questions to a narrative level, creating in the reader a curiosity that can only be quenched by reaching the end of the story.

Bug - Writer's Toolbox

1. Review a collection of your recent stories. See if you can find some story engines, or at least potential story engines.

2. Begin looking for stories that capture your attention. Does the story have an engine? If so, what is the question that story answers for you?

3. Look for engines in films and television narratives. Does an episode of "I Love Lucy" have an engine?  How about an episode of "Seinfeld," which is supposed to be about "nothing"?

4. As you read newspaper reports, look for under-developed stories that might benefit from the energy of an engine. 

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Orson Welles' last name as Wells.

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