If you pile on too much weight, whether it’s a tree limb or a story’s spine, the structure won’t withstand the burden.
Story spine? This term from the screenplay world is equally useful to both screenwriters and novelists, explaining how story builds from the fusion between longing and action. The article “Classical Screenplay Structure,” from the Screenplayology site, defines the protagonist’s driving desire as a Super-Objective, a passion that motivates the journey from inciting incident to climax:
the Spine is the unified thread of actions taken on the part of the character in pursuit of his or her Super-Objective. Together, the Super-Objective and Spine offer the screenwriter a path of adherence to Aristotle’s prescription of plot unity.
Of course Aristotle’s three unities (time, place, and action) translate only indirectly to film and fiction. Many novels span planets, across centuries. And although a play without subplots might seem exquisitely coherent, contemporary audiences both expect and enjoy subplots. The Poetics best assists contemporary writers when applied to the spirit, rather than the letter, of its laws.
Tip: Strong story structure originates in an inextricable meshing of plot and character.
In Kate Wright’s excellent blog on “The Five S’s of Screenwriting, she clarifies that
Spine begins with discovering what your story is about through character behavior. It is about creating a unifying depth within your story, character by character, action by action, sequence by sequence, layer upon layer. The surprise is that once you discover what your story is about on a profound level, there are an infinite number of insights and details you can infuse into the material through character behavior, actions, and images. The challenge is to discover this unifying idea or principle that synthesizes what the story is about in simple terms.
Have you identified the driving force of your novel? That’s the start of its spine, a backbone both sturdy and flexible enough to support all the images and examples most novelists long to include. Solidify the fundamental structure, and you get to indulge yourself a little (though just a little!) more.
Karina Wilson’s column on “Screenwriting: The Emotional Spine” analyzes the fusion of individual units into a powerful whole:
The spine has three main functions in a vertebrate: strength, flexibility and communication. The emotional spine of a screenplay serves those same purposes. It provides strength, joining the separate elements of plot and character, and connecting the three acts. It provides flexibility, especially within characterization, allowing people to twist, to be flawed, erratic, make bad decisions and U-turns–as long as they remain connected to the spinal cord. It permits the communication of messages, particularly within subtext and meta-narrative, running deeper than dialogue, or a single character’s arc.
Each portion of that backbone must fit and contribute. Obvious as this sounds, most writers at least occasionally get lost in word choice at the expense of the deep structure.
How to remedy that? Susan Kougell suggests literally picturing a human spine and hanging plot points on that. Some may find this a bit metaphorical. The idea, though, is to fashion a spine sturdy enough to support all the characters, details, and description. No vertebrae can be weak or absent. The story shouldn’t stoop over or suffer from osteoporosis, a pitiful core, or a flabby middle.
For many of us, weighing down the offshoots comes more easily and feels more fun. But that makes for a misshapen tree or novel. Build a mighty trunk, capable of supporting a blizzard of snow—or words. It’s all about the spine.