Matthew Gatland

Story Engine

May 22, 2022

A few years ago I read an article about the NBC TV series “Timeless”. I don’t remember anything else from the article but the term “Story Engine” stuck in my brain.

The “Story Engine” was the thing that made it easy for writers to come up with a new story for each episode each week. In a medical drama, this could be a new patient arriving. In a “moster of the week” format this would be a new supernatural monster. In any case, it gives the writers’ room an easy way to start writing each episode.

I used to fantasize about writing my own time travel story.

Most time-travel stories don’t work when you think about it. They have themes and morals and work as stories, but when you actually think about what’s happening on a physical level it always breaks down.

One example is a Star Trek movie where a character takes a pair of antique glasses back in time and leaves them behind. It’s implied that the glasses will stay in that timeline and that they become the same glasses that the character had at the start of the story. It’s a loop, see? This doesn’t make physical sense because objects age over time. A pair of 100-year-old glasses that is left on a planet for 100 more years becomes a pair of 200-year-old glasses. These can no longer be the 100-year-old glasses we saw at the start of the story because they are not 100 years old.

If it was a baby left for 100 years instead of a pair of glasses, it would be easy for the viewer to see how silly the concept is. But we’re not as good at judging the age of a pair of glasses, so the idea of immortal glasses makes “story sense” and the viewer accepts it.

But Not Me!

My Time Travel Story was going to be hard sci-fi, with time travel that didn’t rely on authorial tricks. It would follow consistent rules in an uncaring world.

But the problem was this: once I gave my characters a time machine, I didn’t have anything for them to do. There was the mystery of figuring out how time travel worked, but that could be solved by making a few 5-minute jumps into the past and future inside a lab. I didn’t know what my characters would do after that.


The concept of a “story engine” blew my mind. Timeless was designed so that it would be easy to come up with new adventures. From memory, the premise is that the villian time-travels to a Major Historical Event every week and the heros go there and try to stop them. And they meet a famous historical figure and save the day. Easy! And then in Season 2 the premise very slightly changes, to keep things fresh. Cool!

So yeah. Everything I know about writing network TV shows, I learned from that one article about the story engine in Timeless.