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)