The Vertebrae of the Story Spine

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.

13 comments on “The Vertebrae of the Story Spine

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    I just printed this post to put inside my copy of The Story Grid and have added the two new columns to my grid. Light bulbs were flashing in my head as I read this – it really helped to cement this issue of “want” for me and it’s going to solve what turns out to be the central problem with my WIP. I think we can start to call you a Story Chiropractor Shawn – as always, thanks!

  2. Alec Graf says:

    Great explanations, Shawn, and looking forward to hearing about NEED.

    One question though: by which point in the story should the Macro Wants (conventional and emotional) have been clearly established? I’m supposing during or soon after the Inciting Incident of the Beginning Hook…?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Alec,
      Great question. When you reveal the “mission” Macro Want is dependent upon the global genre choice you make. Pure action requires that you get the mission front and center as soon as possible, whereas the internal content genres are as stringent. You can take a little time to “set the scene” in a miniplot revelation story. But if you’re writing a mystery, you better have a dead body or heist episode within the first few scenes.
      Hope that helps

      1. Alec Graf says:

        Thank you Shawn, very helpful as always.

  3. Shawn,
    I’ve been using your template of story value/polarity shift/turning point in every scene, and I’ve noticed a new and exciting momentum in my story. Everything feels more streamlined and taut. Its been revelatory for me. What you’ve said here dovetails with that template, although this takes things many levels deeper. Am I on track here, feeling that the two concepts are related? Thanks!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Susan,
      Yes, they are absolutely related. What could go off the tracks is if you are writing compelling scenes, but not putting in a specific Micro Want for the protagonist inside the action. The scene might be great, but if it does not move the spine of the story (the quest of the lead character and/or secondary characters whose wants are at odds with the lead character), it could confuse the reader. Remember that the Micro Want must be a thing that will help the protagonist attain her Macro Want.

      So great to hear! I know it’s difficult work, but if you take the time and give it your all, it will pay off.
      All the best

      1. Thanks, Shawn. The hard work doesn’t scare me. It’s flailing around in the dark that makes me nuts. You provide a roadmap. so appreciated.

  4. I love how you’re relating writing to specific concepts. In the interview the other day you talked about a neurosurgeon trying to write. Now you’re talking spinal anatomy.

    Imagine me, a neurosurgeon whose practice is mostly spinal surgery, who’s been writing for a while now…

    I know you’re not writing these just for me, but boy do they resonate with me.

    Thanks for another great one.

  5. maggy simony says:

    As an amateur writer but political junkie, especially on the issue that drives Trump crazy (our deficit with China) I have to disagree with you Shawn on Trump’s macrowant — I don’t think he wants to be president, I think he wants to be U.S. trade representative.

    If he can’t get that he’s going to damn well STAY in the race and hope to move the Republican Party TOWARD economic “nationalism” and away from present religion — economic globalism in which multinational corporations set the rules and dominate.

    Sanders is really doing somewhat the same thing in the Democratic party while moving that party “left” in terms of domestic policy.

    On trade they are as one — just as back in the 90s the anti-NAFTA movement encompassed left to right, from Ralph Nader on the left to Ross Perot in the middle and Pat Buchanan on the right. I was in that.

    Meanwhile, I am busily pulling together a basic bibliography in July, THINKING and working to complete Foolscap for a book on women’s cultural history &playing bridge. I await your spreadsheet for Turning Point and will use that to create MINE.

    Mine, however, is going to have to be an old-fashioned version (non computerized) of a spreadsheet — don’t know how to do those.

    maggy simony
    cape Canaveral FL.

  6. Aaron says:

    Hi Shawn,

    I’ve worked through the first ten scenes of my draft and looked for the micro wants. In doing that and also checking back on the TSOTL story grid spreadsheet, there seems to be a relationship between the scene micro want and the turning point. If the micro want is aligned with the story event (which it seems to be more often than not) then the turning point is the beat in which the want’s success or failure is decided. Should the micro want necessarily be aligned with the event in this way or am I over reaching?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Aaron,

      No, you are not over reaching. This stuff is so simple, it’s complicated.

      For example, in the first scene Starling wants to be chosen by Crawford.
      The Inciting Incident is being called to his office. The progressive complications are when he hints around to her doing something for him, questioning her qualifications etc. She internally debates about whether or not the job will be worthy or not. Will it be “secretary” work? If so, she could get in more trouble taking that job than not. So the job offer should have complications.

      Now when he offers her the job to interview Lecter, Starling’s want is granted. And when that offer occurs, Starling faces a crisis. Does she take the job or not? Her choice is the climax of the scene, which ends in the resolution of her getting instructions on how to behave.

      So yes, to make sure that the wants are failing or succeeding, take a hard look at your turning points. They will change the value of the scene through action and ideally they should be tied to moving your protagonist’s mission forward or backward. Don’t forget that if you are writing a scene where the antagonist is playing the lead role…or a secondary character is playing a lead role in that scene…i.e. you are telling the scene through their point of view…the turning point of that scene should hinge on the want of the one whose point of view is being presented.
      All the best,

      1. Aaron says:

        Thank you

  7. Peter Brockwell says:

    Shawn, this is a very interesting post. Really looking forward to your post about the NEEDs. I’ve just started reading your Story Grid book. Makes a lot of sense. Nice work!

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