Tag Archive: story spine

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…


Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/how-to-straighten-your-storys-spine/

X is for X-Ray

BLAST_XWhat does “x-ray” have to do with writing craft? I didn’t choose it just because I needed an “X” word for the #AtoZChallenge, or because I already used “x-rated” for last year’s post (X-Rated: Should YA Books Have a Rating System?), but because all writers need to be able to check the spine of their story. Hence, we need to x-ray our novels to see the bones.

Stories are about transformation, a journey that changes the hero. In screenwriting, “checking the spine” means making sure every scene in the story informs and affects this change. I do this at the outline stage when I have all my scenes laid out and summarized into paragraphs. If you don’t outline, you can make a scene list based on your draft, writing one line for each scene.

3 Tips for X-Raying Your Story

  • Check for spine scoliosis. Is there a bend in your story’s spine? A place where you went off track and lost sight of the hero’s journey? Straighten it up by making sure every scene contributes to the journey.

  • Look for slipped discs. This is a scene that, though it began as a crucial point in the plot, now (after many revisions) has slipped out of the main plot and is hurting your story. Either bring it back to where it used to be or cut it out.

  • Assess bone density. Is every scene solid and dense and packed with intrigue regarding the hero’s journey? Look for weaknesses, like scenes without active goals or conflict or stakes. If just one of these is missing, it weakens the entire story spine.

2 Examples of Straight Story Spines

These are supposed to be short posts, so I’m not going to break down an entire novel for you and show you how every single scene informs and affects the hero’s journey, but take my word for it that THE HUNGER GAMES and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS both do this extremely well.

1 Link for more help

I talk in more detail about how every scene needs conflict, stakes and change in this post: 3 Things that Keep Your Story on the Road (not the Goat Path).

Well that’s it for me in this Blogging A-Z Challenge! Robin has the last two letters! Coming up:

Y is for Young Adult

Z is for Zymurgy

It’s been a blast! 😉


Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/x-is-for-x-ray/