I just finished William S. Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, and, strangely, what I took out of it was a better understanding of the idea of spine.

What I usually get when I ask about spine is this slightly annoyed look that I always end up interpreting as shouldn’t you know this already? Well, yes, I’ve heard all kinds of things about spine and how it supports your story.  As it turns out, metaphors don’t actually tell you every damn functional technique you need to know about the words they describe, and that spine is a lot more important in screenwriting than it is in writing novels or even short stories, and that I mostly speak to fiction writers who may or may not have as good an understanding of spine as they think they do.

Spine.

Something about it reminds me of the idea, again from movies, that dialog can be too “on the nose.”  I struggled with it initially.  Why would having characters come out and say what they actually meant be problematic–as long as it was in character voice?

But then I realized that, in fiction, my characters speak outright truth mainly as part of their internal POV voices.

An example of truth as part of POV in fiction:

The field of green wheat shivered as the early glow of the sunrise touched the dew.  The wheat knew what was coming, getting roasted under that sun.  It was what that field lived and died and would eventually be plowed under for, making more wheat to roast under that sun, generation upon generation.

Maisie shaded her eyes, waiting for the edge of the sun to crest the trees that marked the Binders’ farm.  

All kinds of things had to be harvested, if you wanted to make room for new wheat. 

And besides, Marcus Binder had had it coming.

Now, say, you had to write that as a screenplay:

EXT. FARM – PORCH FACING FIELD OF WHEAT

A golden sunrise just about to begin over a field of green wheat, the light shimmering on the dew, an early morning hush.  In the distance, MARCUS BINDER’s farm and the trees surrounding it.  We know what’s waiting for the cops.

MAISIE stands on her porch and stares at the sunrise coming up behind MARCUS’s farm.  She has a mug of coffee: you know she’s in a thinkin’ mood.

MAISIE

I killed you because you tried to hurt my wheat.

[Roll credits.]

That dialog.  Too on the nose.  How about:

EXT. FARM – PORCH, FACING FIELD OF WHEAT

A golden sunrise just about to begin over a field of green wheat, the light shimmering on the dew, an early morning hush.  In the distance, MARCUS BINDER’s farm and the trees surrounding it.  We know what’s waiting for the cops.

MAISIE stands on her porch and stares at the sunrise coming up behind MARCUS’s farm.  She has a mug of coffee: you know she’s in a thinkin’ mood.

MAISIE

When it’s my time, Marcus Binder, I won’t make such a damn fuss about being plowed under…and making room for new wheat.

[Roll credits.]

Okay, you know.  Not brilliant.  But at least not as jarringly off as the line about “I killed you because you tried to hurt my wheat.”

I’m going to put forth a tentative idea about spine.  I haven’t tested it–just brainstorming.

As fiction writers, we often see a certain type of story from beginning writers, who, if we’re being honest with ourselves, include ourselves.  I think it’s one of the reasons we find reading our own works so unnerving:  we think we’re writing this great masterpiece, and really it’s just a rant.

THE HARANGUING STORY ABOUT SOMETHING WE FEEL PASSIONATELY ABOUT always starts out as this magnificent epic (cue the swelling music) and always ends up as something we shove in the drawer.  Or just delete.

Or, even worse, keep harping on about how nobody recognizes our greatness.

The characters are either “true to life” or else so simplistic you can see the hand at the bottom of the sock puppet as they mouth their lines.  Let me tell you the plot:  there is an injustice in the world, which, by the powers of karma, comes back to bite the ass of the perpetrator (the main character, the good guy, is almost incidental–except for the fight scene at the end, which concludes in a triumphant manner).  Victory for everyone deserving, or at least horrible death for everyone not deserving!  The main character might even feel regret for the (deserved) way that the undeserving have met their ends!  Huzzah!

The story, let us say, is entirely too on the nose.

This is not to say that the impulse is necessarily bad (although it often is).  Wanting our chosen ones to triumph over everyone else is a total reader delight.  But most of us have come to realize that when things go too smoothly in real life, what it means is that someone is setting us up to get screwed over.  It’s too good to be true.  We are unable to really get behind events that are too on the nose, too much of a wish fulfillment, because we’ve been conditioned all our lives to be wary of that crap, from pyramid schemes to miracle cures to the people at the front door who swear they aren’t trying to sell us something.

Now, if we set a few obstacles in the way of the main character, and make them a little less black and white, and add a few distractions in the form of other people who aren’t just there to make things easier for the main character, why, then we start to think that maybe we can let down our guards and enjoy what’s going on.

We know how stories are going to end.  Stories that don’t end predictably make most audiences feel robbed.  I hate Old Yeller and Bridge to Terabitha, not because they discuss death, but because they pull the rug out from under your feet, right at the end.  (Best movie about death ever:  E.T.)

So how do you make a story that says what you want to say, but doesn’t come right out and say it?

That’s a whole other topic.

But I’d like to suggest that spine is that secret, on-the-nose story that you really wanted to tell in the first place, hidden under all the stuff you do to keep the reader from sadly setting the book aside and going, “Couldn’t happen.  Not even in a made-up world.”

I just really wanted to tell you that people die and have to leave:  E.T.

I just really wanted to tell you that the good guys not only win, but are so good that they make evil people become good:  Star Wars.

I just really wanted to tell you that the little guy wins sometimes, for a little while:  Firefly.  The Lord of the Rings.  Probably a thousand other stories I could come up with off the top of my head.

I couldn’t tell you how to design or edit for a spine, as opposed to outlining a plot.  Not yet.  But it kind of blows my mind that you can say something so completely and utterly cheesy (and heartwarming) that we couldn’t buy it, if you told us outright what you were trying to say.