I created the Story Spine in 1991 and, over the years, I’ve been thrilled to watch more and more people use it, teach it, discuss it, and even modify it in order to make it their own. One of my favorite modifications is the addition of “And, the moral of the story is…” at the very end. Over time, however, some of its permutations have become less powerful, I think, than the original due to a missing link here or a different word there. So, I’m happy to present it here in its original 8-line format along with a brief analysis, a couple of interesting examples, and some tips on how to best make use of it.
To see how it works, let’s find the Story Spine in two famous movies:
Once upon a time there was a superhero named Mr. Incredible who was forced to live as an ordinary man in a society where superheroes were outlawed.
Every day, he grew more and more frustrated with his stifling, boring life.
But one day, he accepted a secret superhero job from a mysterious stranger.
Because of that, he fell into the diabolical trap of this mysterious stranger who turned out to be Syndrome, a super villain with a long-time grudge against Mr. Incredible.
Because of that, Syndrome was able to capture and imprison Mr. Incredible.
Because of that, Syndrome could now put his master plan into motion by setting a giant, killer-robot loose on civilization.
Until finally, Mr. Incredible escaped from his prison and foiled the villain by destroying the giant, killer-robot.
And ever since then, he was loved by all and able to be a Superhero again.
The Wizard of Oz
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Dorothy who was carried by tornado to the magical land of Oz.
Every day, she journeyed toward the Emerald City in order to ask the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz to help her get home.
But one day, she got to Oz and she met the Wizard.
Because of that, the Wizard told Dorothy that he would only help her get home if she killed the Wicked Witch of the West.
Because of that, Dorothy encountered many dangers and was finally successful in destroying the witch.
Because of that, the Wizard agreed to take Dorothy home in his hot-air balloon.
Until finally, on the day of their departure, Dorothy ran after her dog, Toto, and missed the balloon.
And ever since then, Dorothy learned that she always had the power to get home on her own, which she did.
How to Use the Story Spine
The Story Spine is both a practice technique for learning how to tell a well-constructed story as well as an outlining tool to help construct a story. Practice with it by simply making up a bunch of different Story Spines as quickly as possible. It’s fun! It’s easy! You can rattle off a dozen as you’re waiting for the bus. Pretty soon, the well-constructed story structure will become instinctual. As an outlining tool, it is very helpful when you have a bunch of great ideas for a story but are not quite sure how they all fit together. By fitting them onto a Story Spine you’ll be able to see what you’ve already got in terms of your structure and, from there, you’ll be able to start filling in the missing pieces.
A Final Thought
Notice, in my examples above, that when stripped down to the Story Spine, the movies in question lose many of their characters and much of what makes them so brilliant and memorable. That’s because the Story Spine is not the story, it’s the spine. It’s nothing but the bare-boned structure upon which the story is built. And, that’s what makes it such a powerful tool. It allows you, as a writer, to look at your story at its structural core and to ensure that the basic building blocks are all in the right place. Now, of course, turning your Story Spine into a story is a whole different topic and it’s one that I dig into rather thoroughly in my book How to Improvise a Full-Length Play, the Art of Spontaneous Theater. I hope you’ll read it. And, please don’t let the title scare you! While it’s written for improvisers, it offers a thorough understanding of dramatic structure that is equally applicable to authors, playwrights and screenwriters.
About Kenn Adams
Kenn Adams has over twenty years of experience teaching, directing, and performing improvisational theater. He is the Artistic Director of Synergy Theater and the author of the book How to Improvise a Full-Length Play, the Art of Spontaneous Theater. Kenn is also a playwright, ghostwriter, and story-doctor.
What you’ve got is not a spine but a formula. The “spine,” the way you build it, might better be considered as ribs.
What is the spine? To cite Aristote: What give a story unity is not as the masses believe, that it is about one person, but that it is about one action. The actions proper, he would have us understand, are the events that contribute to the oneness, the universal action that unites the multiplicity.
The confusion of formula for spine is akin to that of “the ‘morale’ of the story” (as Kenn puts it) with “moral.” Even so, stories with an moral are passé.
A director in the theater or on a movie set might say to an actor “You’re not saying the line right; you’re forgetting the spine,” which is to say “You forget what the story is really about.” Finished stories are a metaphor, trope, for a universal action.
Formula is, as Kenn says, easy; the action that gives a story unity can be difficult for the maker to discover and the audience to realize but if the craft is at least equal to the vision, you have art.
Actions that give stories unity are such things as anger (THE ILIAD), love or some lack of love, loss of innocence, an inability to forget or give (“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”), lack of manners (Eudora Welty’s “Petrified Man”), the search for identity, seeking home . . . any action that is archetypal, that is, an action that is indicative of the condition of Man. Remember, too, the journey outward is the journey inward.
Maybe a way to look at it that works for real artists is that you have a spine and ribs and you create a felt experience by hanging flesh on the bones.
My gratitude for this wonderful tool, Kenn. http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/a_simple_exercise_to_help_you.html
Tool . . . formula–the same: mechanical arrangement of the deck off cards.
sorry about the double
Just reading the Spine description set the stories in my head to whirling and trying to order themselves……thanks. And now to the sorting!
Isn’t the inviting incident in the wizard of oz the tornado and Dorothy killing the witches sister? Every day she was incontent on a farm until one day a tornado swept her off to oz.
Okay. What about this one? 1. The main character is introduced, and he’s an amnesiac. He *has* no routine. The dire circumstance *is* his amnesia. It is unclear if he will come out alright in the end. 2. He begins to establish a routine, but his amnesia keeps forcing him to break it. Breaking his routine *becomes* his routine. 3. He embarks on a quest to resolve his amnesia. 4. He succeeds or fails, and as a result, he lives or dies. The desire for “routine” becomes unimportant in the face of greater needs. Doesn’t really fit this paradigm…
A good basic tool for beginning writers to help them with story structure. There are instances when the main character may not be introduced first. Beginners should understand that.
Yes and — watch YouTube on “How Star Wars was saved in the edit” to explore turning the spine into something compelling.
Thank you for sharing this. The stories in my head started forming structure as I read it!