Is Your Story Spineless?
Let me paint you a picture. It might be one you recognise. You’re nearing the end of your first draft, coming to the amazing climax you’ve been eager to write. But a subtle confusion about the whole thing is taking the wind out of your sails a bit. There’s a problem. Actually, there’s a few. You were vaguely aware of them before, but now they’re rearing up and getting all in yo’ grill, refusing to be ignored any longer.
The villain is villainous, but you’re not sure why they’re being so mean; you’ve invented a fun piece of technology, but it doesn’t serve the story in any way; another piece of tech gives you a great ‘get out of jail free card’ at the end, but you’ve no idea why someone would invent it in the first place; you’ve got at least two characters you don’t know what to do with…
In short, it’s all sort of there, but nothing quite fits together properly. Well, shizzle my dizzle, you may well say to yourself, I’ve got myself in a right pizzle here and no mistake.
Myself and Craig were discussing just such a thing the other day. He was having trouble with his antagonists motivation, and I was having trouble with basically everything in my fragmented story. I reached into my Big Box O’ Metaphors and suggested our stories needed a “spine”.
Is there a spine there already?
What do I mean by a spine? It’s a central idea that all of your other story elements hang off. My problem was that I had lots of bits of a skeleton, but they felt separate from each other. I needed something to join them all up.
Now, your “central idea” could be pretty much anything I guess. It could be a character, a single event, a concept, the list goes on. But it’s important to identify it and be conscious of it as you write or edit in order to make the story feel like a cohesive whole.
In my case the spine was already there. I just hadn’t seen it. Since realising that my story’s nefarious company/government agency is at the centre of everything (and now I know, it’s obvious), I’ve been able to develop the backstory, bring it into the story proper, and tie up my ending. Not a bad revelation!
How you might build a spine
But let’s take the example we opened with. Here we have a fragmented story where motivations aren’t clear and objects and technology exist without purpose. Here we’ve got a truly spineless story, where elements exist seemingly independently of the world they inhabit. How do you go about building a spine into this story?
It’s a difficult one because the answer probably means a substantial rewrite. But hey, swallowing hard and knuckling down is what we do, right?
My suggestion would be this – start with your backstory for the world (I’m talking very much from a sic-fi and fantasy point of view here, so if you have any tips for other genres, please leave them in the comments for us). Your world history is where all your characters, all the technology, religions, locations come from. So start by defining the history of your world. You’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what your world looks like “now”, so what made it that way?
Once you’ve got that, use it as your spine. Hang your characters from the world history. Where were they when this disaster happened; how were their family affected when this planet was taken over; how did this technology change their lives?
I’m not saying every character should be related to every historical event, far from it – you only need one or two elements to have had an influence on your character. It should be enough to drive their backstory, and to give them motivations and desires. You may find your villain had a reason for blowing up the Sun after all.
You can do the same with technology, and some locations. Let them grow from your backstory.
So, after a great many notes you have a convincing world and story elements that fit in it. You may also have some bits left over that simply don’t fit. Get rid.
You might also have something that looks very different from your original story. If that’s the case you might be thinking you’ve swapped one set of problems for another. You’d be right. But, judging by the mess you were in before, you already had some rewriting ahead anyway. This way you have a solid base to begin from, and hopefully the sense that the story you’re about to create is a better one than you had before. Consider it a lesson learned I guess.
What do you think? Can you identify the spine in your story? Do you think one is needed, or am I talking rubbish? Sound off in the comments!