Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Spine Expansion Pack, Part II: The Path of Action, Revisited

At the beginning of this series of articles, I presented this diagram to represent the Story Spine:


Though it is designed to be clear and easy to understand, the truth is this diagram is not completely accurate. The Story Spine for a feature-length cinematic narrative not exactly this simple. The Spine of a feature length film should look more like this:



The difference is that the first diagram shows the Path of Action to be a single, straight, arcing arrow going straight from the protagonist's Problem to the protagonist's Goal. This representation is misleadingly simplified. A single long line seems to suggest that the protagonist needs only to take one broad action is order to pursue his or her goal, and that ultimately through persistence, that one action will be successful.

One single action from the protagonist might be enough to support short forms of storytelling, such as a folktale or an anecdote, but a cinematic narrative demands that the storyline take up ninety minutes or more of screen time. Watching a character continue to plow forward after one line of action, never changing or deviating from his or her original course, will quickly becomes a repetitive and even dull experience for the audience. What audience members call the “movie experience” is created by watching the protagonist's Path of Action continue to DEVELOP and ESCALATE throughout the course of the story.

DEVELOPMENT

Here is how a cinematic narrative usually works: The protagonist encounters the Story Problem. The protagonist then proceeds to take the SMALLEST action that they think will manage to achieve the Goal. The protagonist honestly believes that this first small action will be enough to fix everything.

But something gets in the way. Something blocks their path to the goal. In common screenwriting parlance, this is quite aptly called an OBSTACLE – something that literally creates a roadblock to cut off the protagonist's intended path to the Goal. The obstacle can come from the actions of another characters, or the introduction of a new element to the story, or perhaps the protagonist finds out that the situation is much more difficult than they originally imagined, or any number of things. One thing is certain about the obstacle – the protagonist cannot continue forward on the current path they are on, or else they will fail. The protagonist must choose to take a NEW ACTION. The hero turns down a new path that they hope will circumnavigate the obstacle and will still eventually get them to the Goal.

The obstacle in the protagonist's path combined with the decision to take a new action creates a TURNING POINT in the story's narrative. These turning points are represented on the diagram by the white circles that connect each line segment in the Path of Action. For more detail on story sequences and turning points, check out my November, 2008 article.

Now our protagonist is off in a new direction, taking a new action - on the second leg of the journey that the protagonist hopes will get them to their Goal. The protagonist now believes that he or she is on the right track, THIS is what will achieve the Goal. But before too long the protagonist runs in ANOTHER obstacle. Just like the first obstacle, it is once again impossible for the protagonist to continue along their current path. In order to achieve the goal, the protagonist must once again decide on a NEW ACTION. They must turn in a new direction and do whatever they need to do to get around this new obstacle if they wish to continue. We have reached another turning point.

The story continues on like this, action after action, turning point after turning point, as the protagonist weaves a crooked path that they desperately hope will eventually get them to the Goal they so strongly desire. The protagonist always has a plan in mind, but that plan is always being FORCED to change by whatever obstacles the Conflict puts in the protagonist's way.

One way to think about a character's path of action is to imagine yourself taking a road trip. You're going to drive from Dallas to Denver. Your GOAL is to get to Denver. So, you take what seems to be the easiest route to get you there by hopping on the interstate highway. BUT, right across the Texas border you find that there is a detour. You are forced to turn off onto a different highway to get you to Denver. Okay, this road isn't as good, but it will still get you where you're going – BUT, after a few hundred miles you find that this second road road is closed due to flooding. You now have to find a new road to bypass the flooding and get you to your destination. So you double back and find a small winding road through the mountains that will do that. BUT, after a few hundred miles more, you find that the bridge over the canyon is out. You now must find a new road, a little dirt road that's not even on the map in the hope that somehow it will get you to your Goal. Your path may always be forced to change, but your GOAL still remains the same. You want to get to Denver.

ESCALATION

Like I said before, when your main character first begins down his or her path, they take the smallest action that they think will succeed in reaching their Goal. But when they encounter an obstacle, the character is forced to ESCALATE. The smallest action isn't enough. They must take a somewhat bigger action to get what they want. But when they encounter the next obstacle and the slightly bigger action proves to be insufficient, they must again go bigger, and bigger, and bigger. This escalation continues to the point of the climax, where the protagonist, after all previous actions have failed, must be forced to take the BIGGEST action possible. One enormous effort, all or nothing, everything they have on the line. When your character takes this ultimate action, only one of two things can happen. Either the protagonist finally defeats the conflict and achieves the goal, or they are completely and irrevocably defeated and any future chance of success is destroyed completely.

It is not only the character's level of action that escalates with each turning point, but also the character's level of DEDICATION to the Goal, and the RISK that the character is willing to take. When your protagonist takes that first small action to his or her goal, their level of dedication is not very strong and the risk is quite low. When they run into an obstacle created by the conflict, your protagonist has a choice: quit or escalate. With the decision to take a new, bigger action, the character also decides to become more dedicated to the Goal. As each action become bigger, so does the level of risk your protagonist must take. Dedication and risk continue to escalate with every turning point until the climax, where the protagonist has become so dedicated that he or she is willing to risk everything (quite often their lives and everything they care about) to finally conquer the Conflict and seize the Goal.

Look at Star Wars. When Luke Skywalker is first presented with the idea of leaving home to join the Rebel Alliance, he isn't too keen on the idea. His dedication is low. He would rather stay at home with his family. But, he then returns home to find it destroyed by Imperial Troopers and his family murdered. He now has no choice. He must dedicate himself to a new cause and take the risk of leaving home. In Chinatown, Jake Gittes shows about as little personal dedication to his cases as a detective could have. Until someone plays him for a sap. Gittes decides to find a little dedication and take a little risk to find out why. This ends up with him being roughed up by hired goons. At this point he could quit, but instead he decides to up his dedication and take on more risk to continue onward.

There's another thing. Notice that on the new Story Spine diagram that as the Path of Action advances, not only do the line segments become bigger and bigger (representing the protagonist's actions), but so do the green arrows representing the force of Conflict acting against the hero. As the actions escalate, so does the Conflict.

Obstacles don't just pop up in front of your hero randomly. These obstacles are the work of your source of Conflict (usually this source is the antagonist). The antagonist does not WANT your hero to achieve his or her goal. So the antagonist does things to STOP it. The antagonist is hoping that the obstacles it creates will be enough to make the protagonist quit for good. When the protagonist chooses to escalate in order to get around those obstacles, the antagonist must escalate as well. Whatever level of effort the protagonist makes to get their goal, the antagonist must continually bring more to stop it. A great conflict is a test of wills. Both sides are willing to push it to the very edge. In the end, the side who is most dedicated will win, and the other will be destroyed in the effort. This model works as well for stories without a real antagonist character. In these cases, the conflict created by the situation must continue to escalate and continue to force the main character into bigger and bigger actions.

Next Article: Things I Learned from Die Hard

Friday, October 23, 2009

The SPINE Expansion Pack: Part I

In my last article, I laid out what the Story Spine was, and the importance of each of its five elements in creating a story capable of successfully engaging an audience. Before moving on to another topic, I feel it is necessary to go a little deeper, in order to prevent a few potential misconceptions about the Spine which I have seen cause crippling problems in many of the scripts I have analyzed in the past.

1. The Story Spine is SINGULAR
Every plotline can only have ONE Story Spine. The main plot must revolve around your protagonist facing ONE problem and pursuing ONE goal. This is how you make a story strong, clear, and easy for an audience to follow. Your body works because it has only one spine. If you had more, you would be a disjointed mess. One of the best pieces of advice on writing I have ever receiving was that key to writing a great script is to create “a simple story with complex characters.” Having a strong, singular spine is the method by which one achieves this.
One of the surest ways to turn a story into a dense, complicated, hard to follow mess is to try to force your protagonist engaged in multiple, competing lines of action at the same time. You can't do two things at once. Don't try to give your protagonist two separate plot problems or two simultaneous goals. Don't have your hard-boiled cop be trying to take down the mafia and catch a serial killer. You can't have your medieval warrior struggle through the entire film to to both kill the dragon threatening his town and fight off the invading English Army. One might think that adding a second set of problems and goals would increase audience excitement just by the fact that there is more going on at once. In truth, the result is the opposite. Instead of increasing the excitement, it spreads the excitement thin. Story #1 winds up gets sapped of its energy and momentum every time it gets put on the shelf to change gears to Story #2, and vice versa. Meanwhile, both stories will suffer from underdevelopment in both plot and character since they simply do not have the time for it since they are forced to share their screen time with one or more other stories. Focus your main plot on a single problem, a single goal, and a single path of action. Save Story #2 for your next script.
This singularity also applies to each of the five elements in the Spine. There should only be one Main Story Conflict. Remember those two movies in the Batman franchise directed by Joel Schumacher, Batman Forever & Batman & Robin? Terrible, weren't they? The story was all over the place. The conflict was weak. This is because in each movie, instead of create a strong, singular villain for Batman to face off with, there were two. Two villains, both given equal weight. The story was split. Two villains also gave Batman two different goals- and the entire story suffered for it. Had the writers chosen to make one villain the head villain, and the other one the subservient henchman of the other, the stories could have been saved since there would still be only ONE main conflict that the both of them were a part of (as seen in many action movies where there is a strong villain and a loyal henchman).
As with Stakes, there is some flexibility in the singularity rule. Multiple things can contribute to Stakes, but it is always best if these things are all in some way related, and like I mentioned with the villains, there should be ONE thing contributing to the stakes that stands out as the biggest and most important.

2. For every plot, a Spine must be
Okay, you might be saying to me right now, 'Wait a minute. I've seen lots of movies where the protagonist has more than one goal. I've seen warriors who are both trying to kill the dragon and marry the princess. I've seen detectives who are not only trying to find the killer, but also fix their family problems. I've seen movies where the hero fights aliens AND tries to overcome his alcoholism.'
Now we've come upon the distinction between main plot and subplot. What I said before is that every PLOTLINE can have only one spine. Your subplots are separate plotlines. And in order for your subplots to be strong and effective, they need their own Story Spine too. Your hero's main story goal may have to deal with slaying the dragon, but there also needs to be a problem, goal, path of action, conflict, and stakes involved in his separate romantic subplot involving the princess as well.
Subplots do a lot to help a story in general. They add depth and dimension to a story that would otherwise be too thin with the main plot alone. They give opportunities to develop your characters and theme in ways that might not be possible within the swiftly-moving action of the main plot. What is important is the ability to to tell if you have a singular main plot and subplot that supports it, or if you have two main plots that steal attention from each other (two main Story Spines instead of one).
Subplots are often described as “smaller” stories. However, subplots are usually more like interior stories. They most often deal with personal struggles and relationships, while the main plot is an exterior story (the main story on the surface), involving physical conflict and direct action. Nothing can have two exteriors, that just wouldn't work. But an exterior and an interior can co-exist in harmony.
The key to a good subplot is that it is separate from the main plot, yet at the same time connected. The subplot does not take away from the main plot, rather, it adds to it. There is a symbiotic relationship between the Story Spine and subplot spine. The actions that take place in one work to influence the other, thus the spines work together to help bring about each other's resolution. Here is a link to a good article that uses the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids to present this interaction (separate yet connected) between the spine of the main plot, and that of the subplot.

3. “STORY SPINE” means “PROTAGONIST SPINE”
Alright. I don't want to confuse you. Or seem like I'm contradicting myself. So, I'll try to express this the best way I can. First, I said that the Story Spine had to be singular. Then, I said that each subplot had its own singular story spine. But guess what? There are more spines. The protagonist has his/her spine to follow. But the other characters have spines too!.
Before things get too complicated, back up and take another look at my previous article. Notice that all five of the Spine's elements are described in terms of their relationship to the PROTAGONIST. The protagonist's problem, the goal the protagonist sets, the path of action the protagonist takes, the conflict that seeks to prevent the protagonist from his/her goal, the stakes the protagonist faces. The “Story Spine” is in fact the “protagonist character's spine”. The two terms are synonymous. It is because the traditional Western film narrative focuses its entire attention on the actions of a central protagonist, the protagonist's character spine and the spine of the story are one in the same.
But, notice that in films with well crafted characters, the protagonist is not the only one with a problem, goal, path, conflict, and stakes. Though the narrative pays them less attention, all important characters should have these elements in their lives as well. When writers on screencraft say that every character should have their own wants, needs, things they are after, what they mean is every character must possess their own, separate (and singular) CHARACTER SPINE. A character spine is the one thing that makes your supporting characters into dimensioned, active, true to life human beings - with their own lives and their own reasons to exist. Character spines are the difference between having an antagonist who is a snarling, clich├ęd cardboard cut-out, and one who is an active, flesh and blood human being (or whatever type of being your antagonist is). A character spine is the difference between your supporting characters just being living props that exist solely for the convenience to your protagonist, to having a world populated with motivated individuals who do what they do for good, strong reasons.
Let's look at one of the most famous antagonists, Darth Vader. What is his character spine? 1. Vader's Problem: A Rebel army threatens the Empire's dominance in the galaxy. 2. Vader's Goal: To find the location of the Rebel base and destroy their army for good. 3. Vader's Path of Action: Among other things, to capture Princess Leia and force her to give the location. 4. Vader's Conflict: Members of the Rebel Alliance are doing all they can to stop that from happening. 5. Vader's Stakes: If he succeeds, his power in the Universe will be solidified for good. If he fails, it might mean the Empire's complete destruction.
Like subplots, character spines should be both separate yet connected in some way to the spine of your protagonist. The spines of all your supporting characters must in some way work to either assist or conflict with the protagonist's spine. Otherwise, if they have nothing directly to do with the protagonist's spine (read: the MAIN STORY SPINE) why are these characters in the story?
Character spines can apply even to the smallest of characters - though this spine doesn't need to be developed to such a large degree. Say you have created a one-scene bit part of a surly file clerk whom your protagonist is trying to get an important file from. If you give the file clerk a character spine it could potentially turn an otherwise dull scene into something dramatic. Observe:
1. File Clerk's Problem: The protagonist is making him do something he does not want to. 2. Goal: get the protagonist to go away. 3. Path of Action: whatever strategies the file clerk chooses to get the protagonist to leave. 4. Conflict: The protagonist refuses to go away. 5. Stakes: If he fails, it means a whole mess of work he does not want to do, or possibly get him in trouble with his supervisors. The ensuing battle between the two conflicting character spines is what will make this scene entertaining.

Friday, October 9, 2009

It's the SPINE, STUPID!

I'm going to share with you a magic key to the craft of screenwriting.

The sad thing is that it should not be a magic key. Or a big secret. It is a concept that has been at the very heart of the art of storytelling since the caveman days. Yet, in nearly every book on screenwriting that I have read, the authors either seem to be completely ignorant of it, or they dedicate only a few vague, mumbling paragraphs to the concept, suggesting that they do not understand it themselves.

It is called THE STORY SPINE

The central importance of the Story Spine to any form of storytelling, and especially screenwriting, simply cannot be understated. It is what unites every element in a story, what focuses and gives meaning to events, and what creates the forward momentum that advances the story to its ending. More importantly, the Story Spine orientates the audience to understand where the story is going, why things are important, and why they should invest their time and emotions into finding the story's outcome.

In my experience as a script analyst, I can honestly say that over 90% of the poorly-written scripts I have read could have been vastly improved if only the writer understood the Story Spine.

Let me repeat that:

Over 90% of the poorly-written scripts out there could be vastly improved if only the writer understood the Story Spine!

So many books on screenwriting spend a bulk of their pages on Three-Act Structure. But, Three-Act Structure is merely a method of organizing plot. It has nothing to do with what a story true needs to be well told. I have seen several attempts at screenwriting that followed the Three-Act model to a T, yet they were still unbearable to read because the writer did not know how to construct a functional story, thanks to the lack of a Story Spine.

A Story Spine is the difference between your script being a STORY, and it just being a collection of arbitrary events. The Story Spine is what makes events a STORY. Without a Story Spine, a story does not exist.

Let me repeat that:

Without a Story Spine, a story does not exist.

Let me repeat it again:

WITHOUT A STORY SPINE, A STORY DOES NOT EXIST!!!

Am I making myself clear on how important this concept is by now?

A complete Story Spine is made up of five equally important parts:

1. The protagonist's main STORY PROBLEM,
2. The protagonist's STORY GOAL that, once achieved will overcome the problem,
3. The protagonist's PATH OF ACTION to get to that goal,
4. The MAIN CONFLICT that stands in the way of the protagonist achieving his/her goal, and
5. The STAKES that constantly push the protagonist against the conflict in order to get to the goal.

All five parts must be present in order to have a complete Story Spine. If one part is missing, your Spine is broken, and a real story does not exist. The five parts of the Spine are like the parts of an engine. If you remove one, it stops working altogether. It doesn't matter how strong the other four parts of your Spine are, they can never overcome the absence of the part that is missing.

The Story Spine can be visualized using this diagram:


1. THE STORY PROBLEM

At their heart, stories are all about problems. At the beginning of every well-told story, something disrupts a character's life in such a way that they cannot go on functioning the way they have so far in life until they do something about that problem. Without a Problem, the character would never have a good reason to do anything, everything in life would stay the same and there would be no story. It is this Problem, constantly looming over the character's head and threatening to ruin their life that, first, starts the story, and afterwards is the force behind every event in the story from that point on.

I've read a number of scripts where the writer neglects to give the protagonist a Story Problem. Of all bad scripts, these feel the most pointless and dull. I call them “Zombie Narratives,” or “Wandering Protagonist Scripts.” They basically amount to a main character wandering arbitrarily from place to place, situation to situation -for no real story reason- accomplishing nothing of importance because there is no REASON for them to accomplish anything.

Whether the problem be something big and physical (alien spacecrafts attack the Whitehouse), or something small and abstract (a character feels unhappy about his/her life and wants to know why), the Problem must be something that the character believes they MUST do something about, NOW.


2. THE STORY GOAL

Once a character recognizes that there is a problem in their life, and feels compelled to do something about it, they must decide on some sort of end goal that, once achieved, will overcome the problem and make life better again. Everything from that point on will be about the character attempting to achieve that goal. Whether that goal be some specific action involving a physical journey (“to travel to Mordor and destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom”), or something less physical that the character wishes to achieve but may or may not know how (“to find happiness,” or “to find their place in the world”) the goal must create a question in the audience's mind as to whether or not the character will achieve it and overcome the problem. This question CANNOT be answered until the story's final climax. Once this question is answered - either the character achieves the goal or they irrevocably fail - the story is over. A story starts when there is a Problem, and it ends when the character reaches the Goal. These two elements make up the beginning and end points of the Spine.

I like to call the bad scripts that fail to create a Story Goal “Emo Whiner Narratives.” These scripts involve characters who have a problem, who recognize that they have a problem, but never decide to take action to do anything ABOUT the problem. Instead they just whine, and complain, and talk endlessly about troubled their lives are. It gets tiresome very quickly, and furthermore, the plot never manages to develop, or move forward, simply because the character never, ever gets out of the first stage of a Story.

3. THE PATH OF ACTION

If the Story Problem is Point A on the left end of the Story Spine, and the Story Goal is Point B on the right, the Path of Action is the line that connects them. Once your character recognizes that there is a problem, and decides on a goal that will hopefully overcome that problem, the character must then proceed to TAKE ACTIONS that they think will help achieve their goal. A bulk of any given movie's screen time is made up of characters following their Paths of Action (this includes everything that occurs between the plot's inciting incident and the climax).

Success must not be easy for your protagonist. It must be earned. The Path of Action contains all the trials and hurdles the character must fight and overcome in order to get what they want.

The most important things about the Path of Action is that it NEVER STOPS MOVING FORWARD towards the Story Goal. The Path of Action is a journey to an ultimate destination. Your character must at all times, in every scene, be involved in something that is somehow related to achieving the story goal. A story is just like a shark, if it stops moving forward, it dies. The moment you pause your story, stop pursuing the Goal, or go off on tangent material unrelated to the spine, the story tension dies and the audience becomes bored or distracted.

This is where most poorly-written scripts falter. And it usually happens in one of two ways. The first are “Lazy Narratives.” In a Lazy Narrative, the protagonist has a problem, and a goal, but never bothers to take much strong action towards achieving that goal. They are usually passive characters, reacting to situations that are thrust on them rather than taking action and making themselves the agent of change. Often these scripts are incredibly slow-moving and dull, with only a few scenes that involve the character taking any kind of relevant action. The rest of the script is often filled with unimportant material unrelated to the Story Spine.

Other times, writers will included lines of action that are off the Path of Action, tangent material that has nothing to do with the Story Goal. Doing so makes the story confused, unfocused – it weakens the Spine and the story experience for the audience. Some writers go so far off the Path that they create a “Fractured Spine.” The story seems to be going along the Story Spine as expected, but then suddenly (usually in the Second Act) the story goes off in a completely different direction. The story abandons the Goal that was established early in the story for an altogether new, unrelated goal. This is the point where these writers will lose their audience. The audience has been orientated to understand that the story was about one thing, then suddenly it is changed to be about something else. Keep your story train on its tracks. Once you establish your Path of Action, stay on that path!


4. THE CONFLICT

The character's journey down the Path of Action cannot be easy. What is dramatically intriguing about watching someone complete a task without any problems? Nothing is less exciting than when things go exactly as planned. Let's say I told you this story: “Early this morning I noticed that my dog Rex was missing from my house. I was worried because Rex is very old and could get hurt or lost easy. I had to find him. So I left my house – and there he was sitting on the front step.” Now, you would probably be staring at me with a look on your face that says Why did you just waste my time with that? How was that in any way interesting? This is because the story had no conflict. I achieved my goal with no problem at all.

We should all well know by now that CONFLICT is the lifeblood of all drama. Drama cannot exist without it. We should have been hit over the head with the concept by now. (If you don't know this yet, PLEASE hit yourself over the head with it so you know.) I have yet to figure out the logical reason behind this, I just know it is true. NOTHING is less dramatic than watching things go exactly as people want them to.

When your protagonists pursue their goals, there must be some force of conflict that opposes them. Someone or something must be dead set against your character achieving his or her goal. The conflict can't be no pushover, either. The source of conflict must be just as dedicated to stopping the protagonist from achieving his/her goal as the protagonist is to achieving that goal. The main source of conflict may be the cause of the Story Problem, or it may not, but what is required of the main conflict is to directly oppose the main character every step of the way along the main character's Path of Action – from the very beginning to the climax at the end.

In general, a single, strong source of conflict opposing your protagonist (such as an antagonist character) tends to be far more successful dramatically than a collection of smaller sources of conflict. (There's an old Hollywood phrase: “One shark is worth ten barracudas.”) But this is all relative to the needs of the particular story. There are types of stories where the protagonist is fighting against a situation, rather than a person or a thing. For instance, a story about survival in the wilderness, the conflict would come from various elements of nature: lack of food & water, dangerous animals, weather. Or, a story where the protagonist is fighting against unjust or bigoted views found in an entire society, the conflict would comes from a variety of persons in a variety of different ways. However, even in these situations, building one conflict up to be the most threatening the the protagonist's success will serve to strengthen your Spine to a more audience-satisfying degree.

Believe it or not, I have encountered many scripts where the writers have failed to included ANY conflict. Their characters breeze through their actions with no problems at all, everyone getting along with everyone else just swell. If any script makes the reader want to slam their head into the wall, it is these. It creates a boredom akin to watching eight hours of someone else's vacation videos. There is simply no drama. It is simply not a story. Another frequent problem I see is writers who, instead of creating one strong main conflict that opposes the protagonist from beginning to end, create many small sources of conflict that they pepper throughout the script. They have chosen to create ten barracudas rather than one great white shark. These conflicts pop up in some arbitrary place, fail to do much for the story, and then are easily defeated ten pages later. Approaching conflict this way does not develop your story, it makes it episodic. A feeling of tension from conflict never escalates, because it is constantly being thrown in and then killed off before it has a chance to develop. You should think of your source of conflict as your protagonist's shadow. It's always there, dogging him/her from the very beginning to the very end.

5. THE STAKES

Okay, now your main character has a problem, a goal, a path to get to that goal. But with the conflict in the way, the journey to the goal is now very hard for the main character, even life-threatening. What is stopping the main character from realizing that the goal is not worth the risk and giving up? This is why a story demands STAKES. “Stakes” are defined as what is to be gained or lost upon success or failure. A story demands that there be a very important reason that forces the character to continue on to the goal. Either there is something of great value to be won if the protagonist should succeed, or there are dire, unthinkable consequences that should befall the protagonist should he/she quit or fail. Often the best stories contain both.

The stakes must be BIG. As shown in the diagram, the force of the Conflict is constantly pushing against the protagonist. The Stakes is the force that constantly pushes the protagonist forward towards the goal, pushing him/her through the continuous resistance of the Conflict. Therefore, in order to be successful, the strength of the Stakes pushing the protagonist forward to act must be as strong or even stronger and the power of the Conflict that is trying to stop the protagonist. No matter how much pain and misery the Conflict throws the protagonist's way, the Stakes must still be big enough to keep him/her fighting on.

Great movies have big stakes. We constantly see movies where if the main character should fail, they will lose their home, the people they love, and very often their lives. Even if the stakes may not seem very big to the outside world, they need to seem very big and important to the character, such as a story about a character who is fighting for her self-respect, or of a young boy who is dying to get a kiss from his schoolyard crush.

When a script lacks Stakes, character actions will seem arbitrary and implausible. A character will seem to foolishly throw themselves into risky and dangerous situations for no good reason whatsoever. With each escalating action, the script will turn off the audience more and more because they will continue to ask “Why are they doing this? It's not natural. What's in it for them?”

Stakes are also a key element in orientating the audience – the way that we communicate to the audience why events in the story are important and why the audience should invest their emotional energy into the story's outcome. If for instance the audience is watching a scene and knows that the outcome of a scene will decide whether or not a character lives or dies, they will be far more emotionally invested in the events of the scene than if they did not know that something was at stake. The audience would remain emotionally detached. Many times I am reading a script, and everything seems okay – the plot is okay, structure and characters are good – but despite all this I find that I don't give a damn about anything that is happening. I couldn't care if the characters live or die. Nine times out of ten, this is because the script Spine is missing its Stakes.



Now why is is called the Spine? Sure, my diagram sort of looks like a spine, but let's look at the spine's biological counterpart to find why. In vertebrate animals, (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles...) the spine runs the entire length of the animal, from head to tail. The spine is what unites every part of the animal, joins every limb and appendage, connects the brain to control the legs. It is the body's system of support, its nerve center by which it moves and functions. It allows the cheetah to run, the shark to hunt, and the human being to stand upright. Without their spines, these animals could not function – and neither can your script. Without a Story Spine, your script is a dramatic invertebrate. It is a slug, a worm, an unevolved piece of slime existing at the bottom of the dramatic food chain.

Now which would you rather your script to be? A cheetah? Or a slug?

(Next article: The Spine Expansion Pack, Part 1)