Finding the Spine
When it comes to fixing broken scripts, your story’s “spine” is key. Avoiding story “scoliosis” — a crooked tale of missteps and detours — is the name of the game.
The spine of your story is defined as what happens to your hero as we chart his transformation from the start of your tale to its finish. The demarcations of growth that hero goes through IS the story. And tracking how he changes is your main job.
A quick 5-question checklist to make sure your story spine is straight includes:
1. Who’s your hero? Not always easy to answer — especially if you’re penning a “buddy movie” or an ensemble piece, but until you know, how will you be able to “follow the bouncing ball” that is the point of the tale?
2. How does this story begin and how does it end? To show growth you must “snip the ends” properly to show an Opening Image and a Final Image that are opposites. But is this the biggest change it can be?
3. What’s the problem? Not only does your hero have to have a whole bunch of personal “things that need fixing” but so does the world he lives in. And how will those problems eventually get fixed?
4. What is the tangible goal and what is the spiritual goal of your story? This is the A Story and the B Story, better known as the “wants” and “needs” of your hero, and finally…
5. What’s it about? This is the theme… and without knowing what that is, you will get lost along the way.
These five simple questions aren’t always easy to answer, but all address the key question: What’s your story spine? If you have answers, you are more likely to tell a better story — and not stray into the weeds.
- JD Scruggs
Hmmm. Five awesome points as always, but what is that I smell? Could it be a couple of ingredents from the 50 point list? Mouth watering, getting hungry.
- Steph in ATL
I really enjoyed the “finding the spine” segment of the Master Board Class, Blake. Thanks for the review–a nice checklist for me as I’m counting down the days to a writing retreat where I’ll take a break from writing fiction and begin my first script. I feel like I’m getting ready to build a house and am gathering my tools: Save the Cat book? Check! Blake Snyder’s beatsheet? Check! 40 scene cards? Check! Final Draft software? Check! Notes from the Master Board Class? Check! I’m optimistic and excited!
But meanwhile, back to my fiction deadline…
I think my problem is that since I’m a panster, my first draft spine is more crooked than (fill in your own joke here.) However, I do much better on the edits and my newly discovered 40 scene cards are going to help much more.
Blake, I saw you at the RWA conference in San Francisco and have recently purchased Save the Cat and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies. I have been so blown away I had to blog about you this week–and many of my RWA friends have commented on how wonderful you are, too. (I mention Michael Hauge, but don’t worry–you’re my favorite. Really.)
- Sarah Beach
Oh good! Just the necessary reminder of the points I need to address on my morphing story! I need to redo these points, to figure out what the blasted thing turned itself into!
I was able to answer those questions for my script so I feel like I’m on the right track. I’m working on my second draft. Great tips!
I find myself again saying thank you for pointing out the obvious to me about the flaws in my script. I am getting so many great idea’s, as well as a lot of help from not only you; but the people on your STC Forum. (big sigh of relief) Thank you, for always wanting to help us little people, who have not quite found our voice in this very large room.
A lot of nice words is said about you Blake, at The Rouge Wave (http://www.rougewave.blogspot.com/).
- David P
Another useful technique in finding the spine comes from chapter 7 of Jeff Kitchen’s book Writing a Great Movie. He calls it Reverse Cause and Effect. Start with your Closing Image and ask “what caused this?” Once that has been determined, ask “now what caused this?” And so on, backwards through the entire story, all the way back through the Catalyst and Opening Image. This exercise sets up the chain of cause and effect that will become the spine of your story – and may very well end up on your 40 note cards as the story outline.
Personally, I start with the germ of the idea and establish the logline. Then, character establishment – who are these people and why do I care about them? Then, I use the BS2 to map out the general movements of the whole story. Once I have that down, I’ll use Reverse Cause & Effect to make sure the story spine is healthy. This ensures that the story will not be episodic.
Once all of that is in place, I use Blake’s STC software to develop the scene cards, balancing plant and payoffs, etc. It’s an ongoing process of refinement, but it sets up a firm foundation for the script. Once I’ve taken the time to do “all that work” I find that writing actual pages is a whole lot more productive.
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This is what I tell my writer friends all the time. It doesn’t matter if u have loads of great puzzles and challenges for a hero if they don’t relate to what’s going on inside the hero and the theme of the film. theme and content have to work hand in hand on multiple levels and for, usually, more than one character.