Storytelling Engines: Haunted Tank
(or "New Word Of The Day: Receptaic")
For all the talk I've put in on what a storytelling engine is (forty-three columns and counting), I really haven't talked so much about what a storytelling engine isn't. Which isn't too surprising, I suppose, given that it's a topic with a practically unlimited number of options (it's not, for example, a sort of bicycle, a piece of fruit, or the sensation of having sand still in your bathing suit three hours after you've left the beach)...but 'Showcase Presents: The Haunted Tank' does provide an interesting case study in the difference between a storytelling engine and a storytelling formula.
For those unfamiliar with 'The Haunted Tank', the idea is pretty simple. A tank crew fighting in World War II is piloting a tank that's haunted. (I know that's a lot to take in, but stay with me here.) Specifically, it's haunted by a the ghost of a Confederate general, who gives cryptic yet helpful advice that the tank commander (the only one who can actually see and hear the ghost) deciphers, usually just in time to save his life and the life of his men.
Now, notice what the storytelling engine does here. It doesn't provide a setting with a wide variety of stories; the story is limited in time and space to "tank combat in World War II". The cast is the same four men (and one ghost), and although there's a cast change at one point, there's really no supporting cast to speak of. The goals and methods of the group remain static, the personalities of the men really don't create a team dynamic that generates stories, and in short, the storytelling engine really limits itself to the point where there's only one basic story to tell: While fighting German armies in their tank, the crew gets a cryptic warning from the ghost, which they decipher just in time to stave off defeat and kill a few more Nazis. A few details change, but it's a very limited engine.
That, in short, is a storytelling formula. It's a storytelling engine that only has one story. Instead of being a set of tools to help the writer think of new ideas, it's a set of limits that prevents the writer from coming up with new ideas. A "formulaic" series is one that has such a tightly restrictive engine that when you've read one story, you've more or less read them all. This isn't automatically a bad thing; certain audiences are looking for "slight variations on the same story" sometimes, and come to a book like 'The Haunted Tank' not looking for a challenging story, but a comforting one. The danger is to the writer, really; it's hard to keep up your enthusiasm for a series when it has a tightly formulaic storytelling engine.
Obviously, any storytelling engine has limits to how many stories it can tell (except possibly 'Doctor Who'.) Every series has been labeled "formulaic" at some time or another, by people whose tolerance for limits on their storytelling engine vary from those of the writer, editor or publisher of the series in question. But a truly open-ended storytelling engine is more like a recipe than a formula, a set of guidelines to be experimented with rather than a set of rules to be followed. (If something that follows a formula is "formulaic", then something that follows a recipe is "receptaic". Or so someone with a grounding in Latin told me.) Recipes beg for experimentation--just look at all the different ways to make "chocolate cake" out there, each one finding new ways to present a classic dish. But any reader has to recognize the need for some limit on a storytelling engine, or otherwise, you're not really making use of it. Nobody wants to order chocolate cake, and get an omelet.
And 'The Haunted Tank'? That's a Hostess Cup Cake. Whether you like them or not, you'll always know what you're going to get before you even take the wrapping off.