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The Vertebrae of the Story Spine

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For today’s Story Grid Bonus, here’s a bit more about how to take an editorial criticism, translate it into a specific story problem and then use a special Story Grid Tool to fix that problem…

So, you’ve received numerous editorial responses to your work like these:

“I never found myself becoming emotionally invested in the Story.”

“What began with promise, devolved into an overly plotted mess.”

“Unfortunately, there was just no irrepressible “oomph.”

What these comments all have in common is very simple. There’s a Story Spine problem. But, as with all conceptually simple principles, to correct this central unworkable dilemma in your novel will require monastic patience and unwavering focus.

You may end up cutting some of your best stuff, or you may even completely change the central protagonist and antagonist. The book you started with will most likely turn into something completely different.

Because it should.  It’s not working now.

One thing is guaranteed, though. If you use The Story Grid tool I will suggest (it’s one that is not covered in the book and perhaps a great subject for its own mini-book) you’ll discover how to strengthen that crucial make-or-break narrative spine inherent in all Archplot and Miniplot Story structures.

The spine of Story for Archplot and Miniplot, of course, is the mother of all plots—the quest narrative.

The quest, very much akin to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, is so compelling to human beings and so relatable to all of us that even the most venal and unsympathetic protagonists, if they have rock solid personal missions, win us over.

That is, if the writer makes the character’s object of desire and her steps to get what she wants crystal clear.  Think about Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita or just about any protagonist that Edith Wharton created (Lily Bart in The House of Mirth is a perfect example). These characters are not anywhere near likeable, but their desires are so expertly delineated that we as readers can’t help but attach to them, cheering them on.

It’s worth going over the difference between a want and a need again. Because a character’s conscious objects of desire, her WANTS, and her subconscious objects of desire, her NEEDS, are what form the building blocks of your Story’s spine.

Objects of desire, the conscious Wants and subconscious Needs of your protagonist/s, are the vertebrae of your Story Spine.

Reviewing these fundamentals every day, especially when in the thick of an editorial project, is a necessity for an editor/writer. Reviewing fundamentals of Story are equivalent to the vocal warm-ups that actors and singers use to stay prepared for performance. Don’t just trust that you “know” what a want is and what a need is. Review their qualities again and again and make them part of your own private editorial mantra.

What your character wants has two components, a Macro Want and Micro Wants.

The Macro Want is the finish line of desire.  Senator Barrack Obama wanted to become President. That was his Macro Want.  His Micro Wants though from day to day, hour by hour, moment to moment changed throughout his Presidential campaign.  But they were all in service to that Macro Want. That’s important to remember.

He went to Iowa and drank coffee in a diner for three hours listening to farmers talk about corn because he wanted to get their votes…and by association, the votes of other farmers.  He debated and wanted to win those debates to prove that he was more qualified than his opponents in service of his global want of becoming President.

All of the Micro Wants contribute to the success of getting the Big Macro Want.

Same thing for fictional characters.

If your lead character is an investigator in a serial killer thriller, like Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, his obvious conventional want is to identify and bring the killer to justice. But wise writers add a deeper conscious emotional Macro want on top of that convention, one that we can all relate to beyond our intellectual appreciation of justice.

Deep down, beyond bringing a bad guy to justice, Clarice Starling wants to be an integral part of catching Buffalo Bill because doing so will position her well for a future career as an FBI agent.

Her thinking is that if she works with her boss very well and does what is expected of her and more, the powers that be will recognize her talents and hard work (very much the American go-getter approach). And once she’s recognized, the powers that be will put her exemplary abilities to work for the greater good and thus will single her out for escalating degrees of responsibility. She will rise in the FBI hierarchy through her dedication and perseverance. And one day, she could even perhaps succeed her mentor Jack Crawford in the most compelling and respected division in the agency—behavioral science.

Clarice wants to prove herself. She is determined to thrive in a man’s world and raise her station. She believes that grit and determination will put her hillbilly West Virginia past behind her. She will become someone. Something better than where she came from and thus she’ll be able to validate her dead father and mother.

In short, if she makes it in the FBI, her ancestral tribe will have made it too.

Becoming an FBI agent will raise her social station and gain the respect of people she admires (blindly I would add).  That is her Macro WANT.

Who can’t relate to that?

No matter if you are living in the penthouse of the Sherry Netherland in New York or if you’re barely making a living as a cashier at McDonald’s, you can relate to being an outsider longing to join a respected group.

Not just join but lead a respected group.

What do you think keeps Donald Trump motivated? He wants to put a TRUMP sign on the best piece of real estate in the United States. Then, he won’t just be the son of a real estate developer who quietly built an empire in Queens, New York.  Someone who parlayed a sizable inheritance into a difficult to objectively evaluate multinational concern revolving around his unique brand of celebrity. He’d be The President of the United States, leader of the free world.

When we’re young, and even not so young, deep down we all believe we are capable of achieving a higher station in life. And we all are inspired by “pluck” and determination of a character in a story or a person in real life who actually does what it takes to get what they want. So much so that we fall in love with the antagonists in thrillers as much (and in many cases more) as we do with protagonists.

Would you rather have a beer with the character Gordon Gekko or Bud Fox from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street? Hannibal Lecter or Clarice Starling?

So delineating and tracking antagonist wants (known as MacGuffins in Action/Thriller/Crime Stories) is as important as tracking your protagonist’s wants too. How close is the antagonist coming to his want? How does that compare to the progress of the protagonist?

For example, the antagonist in The Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill. He consciously wants to transform himself into a woman by making himself a “woman suit” out of the skins from his female victims. If Buffalo Bill gets what he wants before Clarice Starling gets what she wants…

This is the fundamental Spine of conflict that keeps the narrative moving.

You may be saying to yourself…

Yes, I get this Macro Want thing, but how do you dramatize the Want from scene to scene? I can’t have my character explaining what she WANTS and giving little expositional updates about how she’s progressing in her quest in every scene…that would suck the reader right out of the fictional universe.

Well, you’re right. You can’t do that.

Instead you must analyze each scene in your story and evaluate the specific Micro “Want” your protagonist has in that specific scene and determine whether or not it is clear that she gets what she wants or doesn’t get what she wants.

Did Obama get those Iowa farmers votes? Maybe…maybe not, but he still became President.

If the protagonist is not in pursuit of an Micro object of desire in the scene, the spine of the story will suffer. The reader will unconsciously reject that scene. He will get confused as to why it is there in the first place.

For example, in the very first scene of The Silence of the Lambs, the reader is introduced to two people at polar opposite ends of the FBI hierarchy, trainee Clarice Starling and Head of Behavioral Science, Jack Crawford. Just that set-up tells us about the Wants of both characters in the scene.

We know what each one wants from the get-go, just intuitively.

The trainee wants the favor of the Head of Behavioral Science. When an underling is called to meet with a higher up, the underling goes to that meeting with a goal. That goal is to prove oneself worthy of attention. Because recognition can lead to promotion.

The higher up wants something too—usually to pass off an unappealing job to the underling in an attractive way. He wants someone lower on the totem pole to do something unpleasant that he won’t or can’t do himself. But he does not want the underling to know that she is indispensable to him either. He wants her to not just accept the job, but to feel indebted to him for the privilege of being chosen to perform it.

So in this scene, we know that Starling wants Crawford to recognize her as special and to act on that recognition. Will she get what she wants or not?

And we know that Crawford wants Starling to accept a heinous task with no guarantee of future patronage. Does he get what he wants or not?

These Micro “wants” keeps readers reading. They want to know what’s going to happen…who is going to “win” this specific scene.

The way Starling handles herself in this meeting rattles Crawford. To get her to do the job, he finds himself telling her that he’s had an eye on her and that he regrets not having answered a letter she’d written him. By the end, he’s promised Starling that if she does a good job, he will send her report to the head of the FBI with her name on it.

The reader can’t help but be impressed by Starling in this introduction and is now hooked to see how she’ll progress in future mano a mano meetings. So Chapter One/Scene One of The Silence of the Lambs is a great example of a protagonist getting her specific Want in the scene (she “wins” the scene) that is consistent with her Macro Want from the entire Story (becoming a respected FBI agent).

Don’t make the mistake of having your protagonist “win” the scene “wants” over and over again. If they do, the reader will find the Storytelling unrealistic. You’ll get editorial notes like “I was never able to suspend my disbelief.”

An example of when Starling fails to get her “want” is when she is tasked with finding Raspail’s old car in Scene Six. She goes through a litany of reasonable and rational tasks to track it down. But just when we think she’s solved the riddle, she fails.

In the next Scene (Seven) she must admit her failure to Crawford who delightfully lectures her about her assumptions. Again it is the clash between the scene’s protagonist and the scene’s antagonist as each pushes their agenda forward that solidifies the spine of the Story.

So what’s this magic Story Grid tool I referred to at the beginning of this post?

Those Story nerds familiar with The Story Grid Spreadsheet can probably anticipate what this tool is.

It is simply adding two more columns on The Story Grid Spreadsheet.

One is labeled WANT.

For each scene in your Story, you’ll fill in this column with the specific Want that the protagonist in the scene is after. So If the scene is from the point of view of the Antagonist or a secondary character, fill it in from the central character in that chapter’s POV. So for Crawford’s POV scenes and Lecter’s and Jame Gumb’s etc., analyze their scene specific wants.

The other column sits right next to WANT and is labeled SUCCESS/FAILURE. And you guessed it, you’ll write down if the WANT was attained or denied to the central figure in that scene.

So for Scene One in The Silence of the Lambs, you would write down “Recognition” as Starling’s “want” from the scene. And in the next column, you would write SUCCESS. For Scene Six you would write down “Locate Raspail’s Car” under “want” and “FAILURE” next to it.

Simple. But not easy. Lots of blue-collar analytical work.

After you’ve filled in these two columns, you’ll be able to track the spine of your Story in a very concrete way. Visually too, as the polarity shifts will create a heartbeat like pattern…or not.

One of three things will reveal themselves to those who’ve received the editorial responses from above.  After they’ve filled in these two additional columns:

  1. They realize that they haven’t clearly injected the want of their characters in their scenes. or
  2. There is no variety in the SUCCESS/FAILURE seesaw of attainment of Micro Wants, robbing the story of realism. or
  3. The Scene-by-Scene Micro Wants have nothing to do with the Global Macro Want, which will result in readers getting confused, losing interest, and ultimately abandoning the story.

At the very least, the writer who takes the time to examine each vertebrae (each specific want in every scene) of the Story spine will discover innumerable opportunities to deepen the reader’s personal investment in his Story.

More on all of this, and the role NEED plays in the Story Spine to come.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts The Story Grid Bonus Material posts and Storygridding The Tipping Point posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.