I don’t write many posts about the craft of writing, mainly because there are so many people way more knowledgeable than I am. Plus I feel I’m still learning. Actually, I hope I will always be learning. : ) But, I couldn’t let go of the recurring thoughts I had about the spine of a story I was struggling with, because it was beginning to take an unintended path. I had lost track of my original intent.
Some time ago, I’d read Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit. I was impressed with her take on the spine of story, whether a painting, a dance, or a novel. She said something like: Spine begins with your first strong idea. The idea is a toehold that gets you started. It’s the statement you make to yourself about the intention for the work. You intend to tell this story, and you intend to explore this theme.
Sometimes we don’t know what our theme is as we write the rough draft. I remember Jenny Crusie saying do not become a theme monger. There is a subtlety required with theme. Do not bash the reader over the head with theme. Trust that you will recognize your theme as you rewrite, and then you can reinforce it if need be. Crusie also introduced me to the Lajos Egri cheat sheet: blank leads to blank. An example in my writing would be family loyalty leads to justice.
I could be wrong because, oh no, I’ve been wrong before, but for a novelist, character arc is probably the most definitive aspect of spine. Story, spine, and theme are all separate, and yet they work so closely together. Just like the spine, muscles, ligaments and tendons in our physical body.
When your spine is strong, you don’t suffer those dreaded “this isn’t working” moments that often come in the second act of your story. There are no bulging or prolapsed disks. You know how your character will grow, what she must learn, how she will be different at the end of the story. Ms. Tharp says, and I agree, we have to constantly ask ourselves, “What am I trying to say?”
I had attended Bob Mayer’s writer retreat twice. I know. I’m a slow learner. Anyway, he was the first person to mention to me the original story idea. He asked us to recall that initial kernel of thought, that idea that first sparked our story, and create one sentence from that in thirty words or less. He told us to type it out, print it, and put it on the top of the computer so that every time we started back into our rough draft we could read that sentence and it would keep us on target.
And that folks is spine. That sentence, the initial idea that triggered your imagination, the “what if” that caused you to create these characters, place them in that setting, and then show their journey, telling their story, and showing growth and understanding at the end. I found the one I’d written for my WIP. It took me immediately to my intent, my story spine, and I could see where I had run off the rails. As Ms. Tharp says: The audience may infer it or not, but if you stick to your spine the piece will work.