The Story Spine
The story spine is a storytelling structure attributed to Pixar or to writer/director Brian McDonald. McDonald himself has been using it a long time but can’t recall where he got it from.
The eight-step structure can be used on screenplays, novels or short stories. You could even apply it to a narrative poem. It’s a great road map for storytelling and one worth keeping in your back pocket. Here is how it breaks down:
1. Once Upon a Time…
2. Every day…
3. Until one day…
4. Because of that…
5. Because of that…
6. Because of that…
7. Until finally…
8. And ever since then…
You can see from this list that it’s actually a pretty simple structure. Let’s break it down further:
1. Once upon a time…
Of course you don’t have to actually open a story with those words. But this type of opening sets up the main character(s) and their world right up front. Who is the story about? Where is it set? Who is the reader meant to be rooting for?
2. Every day…
With this step you quickly establish the normal life of the character(s) at the start of the story. This norm will be overturned by coming events.
3. Until one day…
Now we have an event which disrupts the normal life of the main character(s). It’s an inciting event which will throw the character into a new situation.
4. And because of that…
Now we’re entering act two of the story. The character is now dealing with the consequences of the inciting event. They are reacting. They may know their ultimate aim, but winning will not come easily. Their early attempts to fight back might fail or lead to more problems. They can also achieve a goal only to find that they now need to do something else.
5. And because of that…
More consequences. Characters need to work hard, facing challenges, suffering defeats, but pushing on anyway. They can have low moments and times when they feel like quitting, but they carry on. A good story needs conflict. With no conflict, there is no story. If the character always wins out at the start, there’s nothing else to tell about them. This phase of the story spine shows the escalating situation as one thing after another impacts the character. Think of a set of dominoes going over in a chain. The chain of events should be related and show actions and consequences. The midpoint of your story could also be in this part.
6. And because of that…
It’s not an absolute rule that you should have three stages like this, but it’s worth remembering that too few means less conflict and less drama for the main character. This applies to novels and longer stories. Shorter stories won’t have the same amount of time for a long chain of events. You might only have one or two ‘because of that’ in them, depending on their length. But here you are in the latter part of act two.
7. Until finally…
You are now in act three. Your main character has reached the point where their ultimate goal is in sight and achievable. You should be hitting the climax of your story. What all previous events have been building up to. Not all characters win out in the end – some stories end on failure. But win or lose, this is the point where the character’s fate is established.
8. And ever since then…
There could be a moral to your story, or you can show how events have changed the main character(s) (which can also relate to the theme of your story). Or you simply want to return the story to a point where the main character is in a new normal. Their life might have changed, but their new situation comes from their efforts fighting against the obstacles before. The resolution stage cannot drag out too long because once the conflict is over, there is no dramatic tension left to drive the story forward. Long resolutions after the action is over leave readers struggling to finish. Make sure your story doesn’t drag on at the end.
Story Spine 1: The Lady of Shalott
Earlier I suggested you could apply this structure even to narrative poems. Think of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott.
- Once upon a time there is a mysterious lady in a tower who can be heard singing by locals working in the fields.
- Every day she works at her loom in the tower, weaving the sights that pass before her mirror. There is a curse that says she must not look out the window and can only see reflections instead. She sees passers-by, including young people and lovers, which makes her wistful.
- Until one day Lancelot appears in her mirror. He is such an awesome sight that she forgets about the curse and turns to look at him as he rides by outside.
- And because of that her mirror cracks from side to side and she realises the curse has come upon her.
- And because of that she goes out and takes a boat, painting her name on the prow. Then she unmoors the boat and lies down. She sings as the boat carries her towards Camelot. She slowly freezes to death.
- And because of that people in Camelot see the boat passing and even the high and mighty come down to see the dead woman in the boat, crossing themselves in fear.
- Until finally Lancelot sees her and says: “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
The final step of ‘and ever since then‘ doesn’t appear in this narrative poem. We don’t know how the story later impacted Lancelot or the other witnesses.
Story Spine 2: Rebecca
You can have a number of ‘And because’ sections in a longer story. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is an example. WARNING: SPOILERS.
- Once upon a time the young unnamed narrator works as a companion to a rich American woman called Van Hopper.
- Every day the narrator has to run errands and suffer her employer’s embarrassing manners. Mrs Van Hopper constantly puts her down and the MC is nervous and lacking any confidence.
- Until one day they stumble across Maxim de Winter at their hotel. Mrs Van Hopper is very keen to chat to him and mentions his dead wife, Rebecca, who was very beautiful. Rebecca died in a sailing accident a year before. Though Mrs Van Hopper’s manners embarrass the narrator, Maxim is kind. When Mrs Van Hopper falls ill, Max invites the narrator to breakfast with him.
- And because of that, they spend more time together, while the narrator lies to Mrs Van Hopper.
- And because of that, when Mrs Van Hopper suddenly announces they must travel to America, Max proposes to the narrator and she returns to England with him, to his estate, Manderley. The house he lived in with the mysterious Rebecca.
- And because of that she meets the unfriendly housekeeper Mrs Danvers who is still loyal to Rebecca, and constantly feels out of place in the house and with Max’s social set. She is living in Rebecca’s shadow and believes Max still loves Rebecca.
- And because of that, she takes Mrs Danvers suggestion to wear a particular gown to a ball, which turns out to be a copy of something Rebecca wore. Max is furious and it’s clear Mrs Danvers wants rid of the narrator, even trying to tempt her into jumping from a window.
- Until finally Rebecca’s boat is found after a storm and it’s clear it was sabotaged. Max confesses to the narrator that he never loved Rebecca, he hated her, and he tells her what really happened. The narrator is relieved that he never loved Rebecca. But with a body found inside the boat, it becomes clear Max deliberately identified the wrong body the previous year. An inquest ensues. Rebecca was terminally ill with cancer. She had no intention of suffering and deliberately goaded Max into hitting her. He is now cleared of any suspicion. Mrs Danvers, who didn’t know of Rebecca’s illness, sets fire to Manderley, dying herself in the fire.
- And ever since then the narrator and Max have lived abroad. Manderley is destroyed and they can never go back.
It could be said that this second example could include some ‘because of that’ plot points during the inquest with the revelations about Rebecca and Mrs Danvers’ ultimate reaction to destroy the house. But the discovery of the ship wreck and Rebecca’s body, together with Max’s confession to the narrator, is the key turning point into the climax. It’s inevitable that there will be more revelations to come.
The Story Spine
While there are other ways to plot out your story, and there is no suggestion here that either du Maurier or Tennyson used this model, the story spine is a useful tool. This is partly due to its simplicity – it forces you to think about the most important plot points in your story. It reminds you to introduce your characters, set the scene, and then introduce an inciting event, following that up with a series of consequences and challenges, until finally the story reaches its climax before settling into a new normal for the characters.
Other useful blog posts:
Novel Outlines: 3 Case Studies
Developmental editing self-check list
Character credibility and the domino effect
10 ways to improve your novel’s pacing