Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Is Your Story A Jellyfish?

Jellyfish are incredibly beautiful creatures, I could watch them for hours.

Long minutes, anyway.  They're invertebrates, which is a fancy way of saying they have no spine.

There's nothing wrong with missing a spine - if you're a jellyfish.

If you're a human being, being spineless makes it really tricky to pour a cup of coffee.  Or to go anywhere, or to do... pretty much anything.  If we had no spines or bones, we'd just be blobbing around on the ground.

Stories need spines, or they're just kind of blobbing around, too.

from Scott Young on Give Your Screenplay A Spine

Many Hollywood movies scripts lack a spine. These are stories with no direction that kind of go all over the place only to get to find a generic complication at the end of the second act. Then they suddenly resolve without any care for how they got there. This is the sign of a story with no spine. The plot moved forward with no direction. The spine of a story is the part that holds the story together. It should provide the frame work. If you think about story like the bones in your back it is something that holds the body together. Subplots are like the disks in your back, if you have one broken disk your core will not work. Each disk builds on top of the next creating a strong foundation and core for your story.
He goes on to describe how The King's Speech had both an excellent spine and subplots.
The spine is often described as the plot - or vice versa.  I prefer spine as a term because it's a helpful image.  I can better relate to the spine as Scott Young describes it above, as the things that holds everything together, one link building to another.

from Tameri on Plots & Stories
The plot is sometimes called the “spine” of a story. The plot is the action, while the story is the emotions associated with the action. Yes, a plot can be caused by the emotions of characters, but the action is apart from the story. Plots are the results of choices made by the characters: the characters take action (or don’t) and events happen as a result.
<snip>  The plot of a work is the basic conflict, either from which or alongside other conflicts are created. An effective plot contains one major conflict.
Generally, if you cannot state the plot in a 12-word sentence then you have no idea what the plot is. If you are the author, that is a bad sign. There are only three or four “simple plots” according to most books:
  1. Man versus man.
  2. Man versus nature.
  3. Man versus self.
  4. Man versus man’s work.
The fourth type of plot tends to be considered a variation of man versus man. And don’t gripe about our use of “man” — it’s meant as a generic term for whatever species, gender, etc. the main character happens to be.
Many of my own stories - which are coming-of-age or self-realization stories - would be classified as #3, Man vs. self.  (And yep, probs with the twelve words or less guideline.)

Still struggling with the concept?  Here's another take from Yahoo Answers by Persiphone_Hellecat
The plot is a combination of the initial conflict, the attempts to resolve it and the solution. It is the spine of a story - what runs straight through it from beginning to end. Think of the plot as the trunk of your tree and your subplots and backstories as the branches that run off it. Pax - C
Thinking of it as a tree trunk and branches is another helpful image.

From Richard Brody in The New Yorker about the spine and ache of a story, how it can make us really care about what happens next:
In the nineties, I worked for Sydney Pollack as a story editor. When Sydney, who died on Monday at the age of seventy-three, read a film script, he’d look for one word that would become what he called “the spine” of the story. The word that made up the spine of “Out of Africa,” he told me, was “home.” “Home” was the secret meaning of “Out of Africa”—its magnetic north, the direction towards which all compass points could, and would, slide when the film’s writers, actors, or director lost their creative way.

Finding the spine of a story like “Out of Africa” was important to Sydney for many reasons, the most important of which was that it led to what he called “the ache.” The ache is self-explanatory if you’ve seen Sydney’s films. It is the ache of having one chance at deep love in a lifetime of shallow loves, and losing it too early. It is the ache of perfect, private union destroyed by terrible, worldly circumstance. For Sydney, the ache was about the way that the things we hold most dear always elude us.
I'm going to have to come back and read my own blog links a few times, because my stories may have fabulous characters, but they tend to blob around a bit too much.  Need to build up my spine in more ways than one.

For a great site on sketching the spine visit Story Charts

And now, one of my favorite bands, who are as colorful as their namesake.

Got a good story about a story spine - or lack thereof?
Share it with us in the comments.

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