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Help develop your plot with the Story Spine

Although it’s been around for a while, I’ve only recently heard about the concept of the 'Story Spine', a plotting technique developed by Kenn Adams in 1991. Kenn is the Artistic Director of San Francisco’s Synergy Theater and he developed the Story Spine as a simple framework to teach his students the basics of storytelling.

The Spine comprises the start of eight propositions, which you then have to expand on. These are:

Once upon a time…. Every day… But, one day… Because of that… Because of that… Because of that… Until finally… And, ever since then…

In The Writers’ Guide chapter on Basic Story Structure you can read about simple story structure and how any story is divided into a Beginning, a Middle, and an End divided by two ‘plot-points’. The first plot-point is the inciting incident that separates the Beginning from the Middle, while the second plot-point is the climatic event that separates the Middle from the End.

The Story Spine follows the same pattern with the first plot-point being ‘But, one day…’ and the second being ‘Until finally…’.

To me, what’s most interesting about the Story Spine is the three repetitions of ‘Because of that…’ in the middle. They don’t look like much but when you start to think about it all the interest and excitement of your story is captured here, each event remorselessly driving forward to the next ‘Until finally…’ your protagonist gets to grips with the situation.

Kenn has produced a number of worked examples to show his Story Spine in action. Here’s one for The Wizard of Oz:

Once upon a time…there was a little girl named Dorothy who was carried by tornado to the magical land of Oz.

Every day…she journeyed toward the Emerald City in order to ask the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz to help her get home.

But one day…she got to Oz and she met the Wizard.

Because of that…the Wizard told Dorothy that he would only help her get home if she killed the Wicked Witch of the West.

Because of that…Dorothy encountered many dangers and was finally successful in destroying the witch.

Because of that…the Wizard agreed to take Dorothy home in his hot-air balloon.

Until finally…on the day of their departure, Dorothy ran after her dog, Toto, and missed the balloon.

And, ever since then…Dorothy learned that she always had the power to get home on her own, which she did.

As you can see the Story Spine excludes much of the detail of the tale, but that’s the point, it literally (in a figurative kind of way) strips a story down to its bare bones.

Kenn developed the Story Spine as an interactive tool for use in his classes, his improv students fleshing out the Spine as a group, each student completing a proposition before handing the story onto the next in line. However, it's also a useful reflective tool for the solo writer. Would the bare bones of your story make a spine strong enough to carry a compelling plot, or it is more like a limp jellyfish?

I hope you found that useful. You can find more writing advice in The Writers' Guide.


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