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.


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.


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

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