Tag Archive: story editing

How to Straighten Your Story’s Spine

Sometimes I write a story where lots of exciting stuff happens, my protagonist is proactive and has a goal, and I’m hitting all the right beats (if you don’t know what those are, check out this post on the 15 Story Beats), yet the story still feels flat. What’s wrong? What am I missing?

The truth of the matter is often I’m not missing anything. I spend a lot of time developing my stories and I know all the story parts that I need to make a story sing, but effectively implementing those parts into a manuscript is a whole other challenge. In a manuscript, those parts can get out of whack or lost or muddy. So how do you fix it?

By doing something we screenwriters often call “tracking the story’s spine.” A story’s spine is the character arc woven into the plot; the two should always go together just like your vertebrae and your spinal cord. Tracking a story’s spine means making sure the protagonist’s transformation (arc) is addressed in EVERY SCENE of the journey (plot). Because after all, as I’ve said before (specifically in this post about character journeys), every story is about change.

So let’s get started…

To track a story’s spine, you need to know these 3 Basic Story Parts:

  1. What’s the Character Change?

  2. What’s the Inner Conflict?

  3. What’s the Big Story Question?

Part 1: In order to have a character arc, the protagonist needs to change. They have to start out one way (flawed and not the best person they could be) and end up another (flaw overcome and better because of the journey – that is if the story follows a positive arc; negative arcs are the opposite). For example, in my WIP the heroine starts out doing bad things like using people to try to get ahead. By the end of the story she needs to change into someone who doesn’t do bad things to succeed.

Part 2: Because of their character flaw, the protagonist will have an Inner Conflict. For a detailed explanation of what that is, read this post. In general, Inner Conflict is a desire for two things the hero wants (one of which is their outer Goal), but the catch is the hero can’t have both. So the whole story the protagonist must constantly choose between these two wants. Back to my WIP example, the heroine wants to be a better person (stop doing bad things like using people) but also wants a better life (her Goal is to escape the cycle of poverty by getting a college scholarship), yet she believes she needs to do bad things to achieve that. So yeah, she’s conflicted.

Part 3: The Big Story Question is the will/won’t issue based on the Inner Conflict. Basically, in my story the question is: Will the heroine get a better life? The writer must make the protagonist face that question in every scene, and alternate between scenes that make us and the protagonist think they WILL succeed, followed by scenes that make us think they WON’T. And this question always pivots on the protagonist’s Inner Conflict.

Not lining up the story’s spine is an easy blunder for writers to make, mainly because though we may KNOW the character’s arc, we don’t SHOW it in the plot. Note that I said “show” it, not “tell” it. You can’t solve this problem with internal monologue alone. The character transformation (arc) must manifest itself through actions (plot).

In conclusion, to straighten your story’s spine, check each scene for these 3 things and make adjustments accordingly:

#1 – Change. How does this scene influence your character’s arc? It can be a step forward or a step back, as long as something changes.

#2 – Inner Conflict. Which “want” is your hero leaning towards in this scene? Make sure to alternate this from scene to scene. After all, a hero who favours one desire over the other isn’t very conflicted.

#3 – Big Story Question. Does this scene ask the big, overall question? If not, your story has probably veered off course. Either cut the scene or revise it to make it relevant.

You can test your own manuscript, or a book you’re reading. I bet a million smiley face emojis that books that aren’t very engaging don’t have straight spines! Let me know in the comments what you find out. 🙂 Now I’m off to straighten my story’s spine…


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Back to School Writing Craft Refresher


It’s September 1st! Last week I blogged about how I was getting ready for a new year. To continue that theme, this week I’m brushing up on writing craft skills I acquired last year. Because everyone knows the first week of school is all about re-remembering what you forgot over the summer…

(Click on titles to read the full posts.)

Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

It’s always good to brush up on story structure. This post delves into 15 basic beats every story needs.

Is That A Scene?

Here’s a quick and easy flowchart to see if what you wrote really is a scene! Just answer YES or NO and follow the arrows.

How To Story Edit Using the Basic Story Beats

Knowing story structure helps so much in editing! Here are 6 questions to ask about your story to identify the weak spots. Even though I wrote this list, I must constantly remind myself about #3: Have I set up a protagonist who needs to change? I have a serious problem starting off with heroines that are too capable.

How To Write A Logline

Summing up your story in one sentence is such a valuable skill. Can you remember this simple equation to create a logline?

Does Your Story Have Stakes?

As stories evolve and plots change, sometimes we writers lose sight of the stakes. Here are 6 questions to ask to make sure your story has “primal” stakes.

Alright, are you ready? I am! Bring it on, new year!

For more posts from Heather, click here.


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Are You Over-Revising? Answer 2 Questions to Find Out

BuriedUnderRevisions-noirLast week I confessed the reasons Why I Haven’t Finished My Novel, and #1 is that I over-revise. To recap, that means when a story isn’t quite working, I change it in huge, drastic ways that make it a totally different story. Sometimes the main character even sports a whole new personality! My solution to this over-revising problem is to Take A Break. That’s what I’ve been doing this week whenever I get an epically large revision idea – I step away from the story for an hour or three. When I come back to it, I ask these two simple questions to test if my revisions are reasonable or overkill:


1. What is the emotional core of this story? Does this revision change that? If yes, I’m over-revising. The emotional core is the reason the character needs to go through this journey. It’s the inner lesson the character learns. It’s how the character changes at the end. Essentially, it’s the Theme (for more info read Does Your Novel Have A Theme?). If you change it, you get a different story. However, you can change plot points and not change the emotional core. But my problem is often my plot revisions do change the emotional core. To stop doing that, I move on to the next question…

2. What story problem prompted this revision? Can it be resolved without changing the story’s emotional core? My first instinct is to directly change the plot point where the problem rears its ugly head, when really I should look for solutions that don’t derail the emotional core. For example, in my current WIP my protagonist’s goal, though important to her, was hard to care about. My immediate response was, “Give her a different goal!” and ideas started flying. But a new goal changes the emotional core of the story and becomes a new story all together. So I stepped back and looked at ways to make her original goal more relatable and sympathetic without changing the story’s core, and found all I needed to do was revise the Set Up / Act I. Same goal + different set up = story problem solved. For more examples of story problems and solutions and how to find them, check out this chart: Story Edit Using the “Save the Cat” Basic Beats.

So there you have it – a little more detail into how to curb over-revising. Your trouble areas and instincts may be different than mine, but the important thing is to figure out why your revisions go off the rails and what questions to ask to stay on track.


Up Next from Heather… Where is the best place to write?

Click here to read more from Heather.


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