The Spine of the Story


Here we are, getting set to plunge in on our first draft.

The Golden Gate bridge. Our story's spine should be as simple and as strong as this.

The Golden Gate bridge. Our story’s spine should be as simple and as strong as this.

But what do we do before that?

We said a couple of weeks ago that our first question to ourselves, pre-pre-first draft, should be:

“What’s the genre?”

Okay, great. Let’s say that we’ve done that. We know our genre. Our story, we’ve determined, is a sci-fi action-adventure. Or maybe it’s a love story. Or a Western combined with a supernatural thriller.

Good enough. We’ve got that covered.

What’s next?

For our answer, let’s refer back to Paul (“Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull”) Schrader’s excellent guidelines for pitching:


Have a strong early scene, preferably the opening, a clear but simple spine to the story, one or two killer scenes, and a clear sense of the evolution of the main character or central relationship. And an ending. Any more gets in the way.


Ah, “ … spine to the story.”

Let’s call that our second question to ourselves.

“What is our story’s spine?”

(Myself, I think of this in slightly different terms. I think of it as “Beginning, Middle, End.” “Act One, Act Two, Act Three.” “Hook, Build, Payoff.“)

No worries, it’s all the same thing. We’re asking ourselves “What’s the backbone of our story? What narrative architecture supports our tale from beginning to end?”

For our purposes now [pre-pre-first draft], this doesn’t have to be much. It can be as simple as this:

Ahab sets out after Moby Dick. Ahab chases Moby Dick around the globe. Ahab catches up with Moby Dick and fights him to the death.

Or this:

Harry and Sally are best friends but not lovers. Harry and Sally begin to realize that they’re in love with each other. Harry and Sally become friends and lovers.

Why can this part of our pre-pre-first draft (our Foolscap file) be so simple? Because all we really need to assure ourselves of at this stage is, “Will this idea work as a story? Does it have a beginning, a middle and an end? Does it go somewhere? If we can write enough strong scenes adhering to this narrative spine, will a reader be hooked at the start, have her interest held through the middle, and feel satisfied emotionally and intellectually at the end?”

That’s the job of the story’s spine.

If we can answer yes to all the questions above, that’s all we need at this point.

The Terminator comes back from the Skynet machines-versus-humans future to kill Sara Conner (who will be the mother of John Conner, the brilliant rebel leader who will fight Skynet in the future). Sara Conner and Reese (a fighter sent back in time by the embattled rebels in the future) flee from the Terminator as they themselves fall in love and plant the seeds of John Conner. Sara and Reese battle the Terminator to the death and, for the moment at least, defeat him.

That’s a great spine, a strong and sturdy Act One, Act Two, Act Three. If we’ve got that much at this early stage, we are doing great.

So, to recap …

Our pre-pre first draft now has established answers to two questions. One, “What’s the genre?” And two, “What’s the story’s spine?”

That’s a lot.

We’re rolling now.

We can feel very good about ourselves because we’re working as professionals and not as amateurs. We’re laying the groundwork for what is to come—the stable, strong foundation of the edifice. We are setting ourselves up to succeed and not to fail.

Next week we’ll address Question #3 of our pre-pre first draft—a subject we’ve examined before:

“What’s the story’s theme? What is it about?”





Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.



  1. Lise on July 13, 2016 at 7:00 am

    Thank you for this post. My biggest challenges in writing pertain to story arc. I write good dialogue and great shot descriptions/transitions, yet my plots are often weak. I also do a fair amount of non-fiction writing, which is not necessarily fully story based. Your clear direct tips here will help me with a script I need to re-write. This was a huge help.

  2. Michael Beverly on July 13, 2016 at 10:16 am

    I happen to watch the last few episodes of the Game of Thrones, season six, a couple weeks ago.

    Steve, you mentioned something about this in regards to George R.R. Martin working out his personal demons (with Tim & Shawn).
    Anyway, I went back to the reading the first book of the series and became addicted, then started watching the show, as well as reading half way into Clash of Kings (book 2).

    My experience so far has been very enlightening as I read for both vicarious pleasure, but also to learn/study/absorb.

    This spine you talk about, in the Song and Ice series, there are many spines that get woven together like braided hair, and it’s fascinating to watch them come together into one coherent story.

    Since next week is going to touch on theme, a subject that we all love to wrestle with, I thought about the (many) and strongest themes in George R.R. Martin’s stories.

    A bastard with honor can become a king.
    Vengeance is good, but a two edge sword.
    Joy can become ash, as out of ash, joy can spring.

    There are many others as well, it’s as if he wrote a dozen novels and then shuffled them together like cards. As soon as you get completely enmeshed with one character, he changes to a new POV and before you know it, you’re following a dozen stories and rooting for as many characters to either rise or fall, depending…

    The over all theme to the Global Story, while I haven’t finished yet, obviously (as I don’t even think it’s been written yet):

    Winter is Coming.

    I think this theme is THE THEME. I mean of everything.

    Everything in this world comes to an end, the good and the bad, the heroes and the villains, love, hatred, honor, loyalty, there is no escape from this theme.

    The second theme underscores the first, and it is the theme we avoid by creating stories, myths, legends, and heavens:

    There is only one God and his name is death.

  3. Scrivener on July 13, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    The exhortation to simplicity was more helpful than you could know. Thanks.

    Oh, a little PS if anyone is interested:
    Apple has approved Scrivener for iOS for the App Store.
    Release date: 20th July
    Price (US): $19.99
    Requirements: Any iOS device that can run iOS 9.0 or above (iPad, iPad Pro, iPhone, iPhone Plus, iPod Touch).

  4. Jacquie Rogers on July 29, 2016 at 6:45 am

    A note to those, like me, who have been waiting eagerly for Scrivener for iOS: if you have problems syncing to your Mac once the iOS version is installed on your iPad/iPhone, try downloading the latest update of Scrivener for Mac. It took me several hours, lots of expletives, and a good root through the Scrivener User Forums to discover why mine wasn’t syncing!

    All running beautifully now; I’m heading off next week with my iPad loaded with two ongoing Scrivener projects for a four-week jaunt by motorbike round Europe. Hope to come back with much writing progress made!

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