2012 saw the rise of the popularity of the story spine, a method used for writing well-structured narratives. It all started when Emma Costs, an artist with Pixar (Creators of Toy Story, Brave, Coco, etc.), sent out a tweet presenting 22 tips to make you a better storyteller. The tweet went viral and was the topic of conversation for many months in the creative writing community.
Since then, the storytelling rule that has received the most attention is “The Story Spine” because it is a convenient tool for creating a well-constructed story for a screenplay. This guide will define the story spine method, break down the 8 steps you must follow when writing with this tool, and give you a real-world example using the Pixar movie “Cars.”
- What is a Story Spine
- What are the 7 Elements of a Story Spine
- “Cars” Movie Using the Original Story Spine
- FAQs on the Story Spine
Table of contents
- What is a Story Spine?
- What are the 7 Elements of a Story Spine?
- “Cars” Film Using the Original Story Spine Tool (Practice Exercise)
- Should You Use the Story Spine?
- FAQs on the Story Spine
Side note: I recommend Plottr as my top plotting tool to fabricate stories using the Story Spine and many other Story Structures. If you purchase Plottr, I do get a small commission from that, but there is no extra cost and every bit goes to the coffee fund. More on Plottr later.
What is a Story Spine?
Originally created by playwright Kenn Adams, the story spine is a method both writers and performers use to make fascinating stories for any audience. The playwright writes about this tool in his best-selling book, How to Improvise a Full-Length play – The Art of Spontaneous Theater.
The story spine helps with the structure of any movie, broadway play, or narrative. It's so effective that Pixar, Disney, and Lucasfilm (Creators of Star Wars) train all its incoming writers to use it on all their projects. To them, this method is the basic foundation for any well-constructed story if they intend to use it to engage their audience.
What are the 7 Elements of a Story Spine?
The 7 steps below include the introduction that sets the stage for your protagonist, an occurrence that breaks their daily routine, a mid-point that shows the results of that change, a climax that builds up the story to a final resolution, and then the actual resolution which one hopes is a happy ending.
And it all starts with the opening in every fairy tale that we know all too well:
1. Once Upon a Time…
You can be original and don't have to start with these exact words. This step merely reminds us that we have a duty as storytellers to announce our protagonist and setting. For example, the story could take place in medieval times. An audience will have a few questions to decide if they want to continue watching. Is the protagonist interesting, and who are they? Where is the location, and what period does it take place?
It is only an introduction, so you don't have too much at this point. The goal is to write enough to give your audience a taste of what's to come.
2. And Every Day…
Now the characters and setting are set, so you can start by giving details about the world your characters live in and the obstacles they might face. In the movie Rocky, for example, the main character feels unfulfilled as a boxer and unhappy with a day job that will never give his life meaning. It sets up the scene for how things are at that moment but gives subtle hints that might change if he's up for the challenge.
3. Until One day…
Whether the protagonist's life is going well or they are miserable, at this point, something happens that changes everything. It's an event that pushes them to change their habits, embark on an exciting quest, strive to achieve a goal, or fight to keep the balance of the world they love. In technical terms, this part of the story structure is called the inciting incident. It's the critical moment that starts the story. In The Lion King, the pivotal moment is when Simba's father dies, and he must summon the strength to be independent at a young age.
4. And Because of This… (Part 1)
In this step, the main character journeys to accomplish an objective. If this narrative were a play, it would be the second act, and we get into the meat of the story. After being exiled by his uncle, Simba grows up with two friends he meets in the forest and begins a carefree life. After years of uneventful bliss, he and his friends bump into a lioness from his kingdom that lets him know how much the people are suffering with his uncle as king.
At first, he rejects the offer, but Simba's father appears in his dream, telling him to back and take his place as the legitimate king. On the way back, there will be a few obstacles to reaching his uncle, but they make the narrative more intriguing.
5. And Because of This… (Part 2)
With the help of his friends, Simba gets past his uncle's henchman, but the story does not end here. His new objective is to confront his uncle and get him to admit to the kingdom's subjects that he killed his father.
6. Until Finally…
This part of the Story Spine is considered the climax. It's when the resolution of the story is set in motion.
Scar, his uncle, blames his father's death on the hyenas. When Simba forgives him, he tries to kill him also, but Simba is prepared. He throws his uncle off a ledge and falls to his death.
7. And Ever Since That Day…
After the eventful climax, this final scene reveals the meaning of the narrative for the main character, anyone else involved that supported the protagonist and the audience.
Simba finds himself crowned as king and realizes his destiny is to bring back prosperity to his once thriving kingdom. The famine ends, and his loyal subjects live happily ever after.
“Cars” Film Using the Original Story Spine Tool (Practice Exercise)
To get some hands-on practice, I recommend you take a blank page and follow along. For this exercise, we will use the movie “Cars,” and you can pick any film that you know well. The more practice you get in with different types of movies, the better you will get at using this tool.
- Once upon a time… An ambitious young rookie is introduced.
- Every day… His independent spirit and inherent skills gave him the ability to win races without relying on others.
- But, one day… He loses his way and finds himself in Radiator Springs.
- Because of that… It was now his responsibility to repair the road he damaged.
- Because of that… Along the way, he encounters new companions to help assist each other when facing obstacles.
- Because of that… He understands the meaning of friendship and the importance of being a team player.
- Until Finally… He is allowed to race competitively and has a new edge with his new skills and friendships.
- And Ever Since then… He starts to place friendships above medals and winning races.
Should You Use the Story Spine?
If you come face to face with writer's block when putting together a narrative, follow the 7 elements of the Story Spine suggested above. It will help you break down your story into its most important elements.
Go through your entire narrative using the prompts, and even if you are not writing a fairy tale, you should still get the ideas you need to point you in the right direction. If you didn't get all the information you wanted to include the first time, keep starting over until you do, and you will be successful.
If you want to use the the Story Spine, I highly recommend Plottr as a way of helping you structure your story.
Plottr has templates for dozens of different storytelling techniques, including Story Spine. It uses helpful prompts and guides to help you outline each scene in your story, each character that you need to build, etc.
It is also my choice for the best outlining software.
FAQs on the Story Spine
What's the Spine in Theater?
For a theater playwright, the spine is the main idea or objective expressed as a verb. This action connects all the parts of the script, and everything starts to make sense.
How do you find the spine of a story?
To find the spine of a story, identify what the protagonist desires and what is the obstacle in their way that prevents them from their goal. Study their emotions and how they change as the story progresses as the character gains hope. The writer will try to clarify this so you can enjoy yourself.
Is a Story Spine only good for writing fictional narratives?
No, you can also use this tool to write non-fiction. For example, preachers use it to structure sermons to create more powerful stories, and life coaches can use it to create better courses for their events.