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Exploring Storytelling Engines with John Seavey

Starting in December, John Seavey has been doing a very interesting series at his blog, Fraggmented, called Storytelling Engines, where he examines the storytelling ideas that make up various comic book heroes. Read on to read John’s description of the concept, as well as links to the installments he has done so far (Superman, the Defenders, Elongated Man, Spider-Woman and Man-Thing – I think that will give you an idea of the eclectic nature of the features).


Here’s John introducing the series…

Specifically, it relates to some comments I made some time ago about the construction and maintenance of “status quos”. I described the setting of an open-ended series, the status quo of the [comic/TV show/book series/movie franchise/add open-ended series here] as a “storytelling engine”, pretty much off-handedly, with no attempt to explore the idea. And as I think it’s an idea that merits some exploration, I’m going to follow up on it.

The idea is that when creating an open-ended series, you include a variety of different elements that act to help the writer in generating ideas for stories; each of these elements can be seen as a component in a “storytelling engine”. This is different, I think, from relying on intuitive creativity–the “hand of the muse”, as it were–in order to generate a setting that can sustain a large number of different stories, you do have to think with a certain technical air. (This is not to say that all writers have sat down and thought in terms of a storytelling engine, but then again, that’s part of the point; sometimes, writers have written a good story, singular, without necessarily thinking about what it did to their storytelling engine, and have found themselves stuck in an awkward position somewhere.)

So what elements make up a storytelling engine? The basic concept of the series, for starters; Doctor Who, to use a series we won’t be looking at later on, has as its concept “a mysterious stranger has a time and space machine.” Then from there, you layer on the main character, with his motivations and backstory (“an endlessly curious not-quite-human trickster, on the run from his own people who see helping people as a crime”), the supporting cast (“a young woman with more curiousity and guts than common sense”), the setting (“the inside of the time machine”, “modern-day London”, “a variety of alien planets”, “various Earth historical locales”), the antagonists (“a variety of evil aliens who seek to enslave or destroy people”), and the tone (“light-hearted adventure, with occasional forays into horror.”) Each of these, ideally, does something to help the writer come up with a story or move it along, and each of them could be changed in ways that help or hinder the writer. (For example, if the Doctor was “a heavy reader with no interests beyond enlarging his vast library”, the series would probably have to work much harder to get him involved in events.)

Each series has these elements, and each series evolves over time as different writers take a hand at the character. Over the next several weeks, I plan to show (using the wondrous “Essentials” series from Marvel and “Showcase Presents” series from DC, both of which present enough issues in a single volume to really be able to take a long view of a comic book’s development) some of the things that worked, some of the things that didn’t, and some of the tricks writers used to get a series on track.

And here are links to the various installments…

Storytelling Engines: Superman

Storytelling Engines: The Defenders

Storytelling Engines: Spider-Woman

Storytelling Engines: The Elongated Man

Storytelling Engines: Man-Thing

Make sure to check them out! Well worth your time!


This sounds awesome. I think Blogger has died, though, so the links aren’t working for me now.

And I’m dying to read the Elongated Man one. Because Ralph Dibny is the greatest comic book character ever.

It’s working for me now, Bill!

And I’d just like to say, because I have to say it somewhere, that I was utterly blown away by how good the ‘Showcase Presents: The Elongated Man’ was. Just a fun, breezy read, and my first real exposure to Carmine Infantino’s art–he does the fight scenes so well in EM, with great and dynamic uses of the hero’s powers. Other Showcases have been good too (I’m really digging Metamorpho’s tightrope between pop-art and pop-art parody) but the Elongated Man has been absolute tops in my book.

I really enjoyed all these pieces, John. Your blog is good stuff.

Thanks for the kind words–and if anyone’s wondering what the update schedule is, I’m doing the Storytelling Engines on Mondays, and Thursdays are my “regular” entries, which tend to be pot-luck (ie, not always comics. But given my interests, they’re usually geek-themed anyway.)

I thoroughly enjoyed John’s articles. Solid and interesting stuff. I just wondered though what is the difference between the concept of “story telling engine” and a premise?

I really liked this. This is good stuff for writers. I think I want to get into writing comics now.

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