How do you make sure a piece of writing is strong and cohesive, not weak and incoherent?
You start with a sturdy spine.
A spine is a single sentence that you use to describe your entire piece; to tack it to the wall and say, “This is what you are about.” It is the anchor that holds your entire story together, lashing every single word, sentence, and paragraph to work for its central message.
With a sturdy spine, your words flow, communicate and make articulate sense. Without a spine, your words fall, mumble, and fail to convince.
Twyla Tharp, from whom I first learned about using a spine, describes it this way in her book, The Creative Habit:
The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work. You intend to tell this story. You intend to explore this theme. You intend to employ this structure. The audience may infer it or not. But if you stick to your spine, the piece will work. Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Before you start any piece of writing, think about what its spine is, and write it on top of your drafts. I’ve found through the years that whenever I had trouble with a story, it’s because I wasn’t clear about its spine.
The Difference between a Strong and a Weak Spine
Writing down a spine can help you focus your words and guide your writing, but there’s a difference between a strong and a weak spine.
A strong spine moves. Robert McKee, who prefers the name ‘Controlling Idea’ to mean the same thing, says this about constructing a spine:
The Controlling Idea has two components: Value plus Cause. It identifies the positive or negative charge of the story’s critical value at the last act’s climax, and it identifies the chief reason that this value has changed to its final state. The sentence composed from these two elements, Value plus Cause, expresses the core meaning of the story. Robert McKee, Story
Simply put, a strong spine articulates your key message and its reason for being. Here are some examples of weak spines:
- John is sad
- Sugar makes you fat
- Having a strong password is safer
Even by themselves, these sentences aren’t compelling. But insert a cause and they intensify:
- John is sad because his girlfriend has left him
- Sugar makes you fat because of excess insulin
- Having a strong password is safer because weak passwords are easily cracked
What If You Can’t Fit the Spine into One Sentence?
But what if you can’t fit your story’s message into a single sentence? A powerful piece of writing only has a single spine, where every word is committed to its controlling idea. Cramming too much into a single story creates a mess.
If you think back on a favorite movie or book of yours, chances are that you can easily come up with a single sentence describing its spine. If you recall a movie or book that you didn’t enjoy, it’s likely that you’ll have trouble doing the same.
So keep your spine a single, coherent sentence, and lop off anything in your writing that doesn’t support it. If you have more you want to say, spin it off into another spine for its own story.
A Spine Tells You If Your Story Works
A spine is also the ultimate test for a piece of writing. If the spine fails to move, then it means that whatever you write, no matter how many words you use to write about it, won’t compel.
When “John is sad,” then the beginning, middle, and end of the story remain the same, John is sad. The reader has no reason to continue past the start.
When “John is sad because his girlfriend left him,” we have a moving spine. And if you have a more ambitious spine, “Love triumphs because John discovers love after heartbreak,” then we have a story to tell.