Read Time: 4 minutes

Every great story, from ancient myths to modern blockbusters, captivates its audience with a compelling narrative.

At the heart of these unforgettable tales lies a timeless principle: the Story Spine.

Developed by playwright Kenn Adams, the Story Spine is a simple and effective framework for building a strong narrative structure that keeps people engaged from start to finish.

In this issue, we’ll break down the Story Spine, look at examples, and provide practical and AI-driven tips on how to apply it to your work in progress.

Understanding the Story Spine

The Story Spine is a narrative structure that consists of several key elements, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Once upon a time
  2. Every day
  3. But one day
  4. Because of that… (Consequence)
  5. Because of that… (Escalation)
  6. Until finally
  7. And ever since then

Each of these elements represents a crucial part of the narrative, and when combined, they create a cohesive and engaging story.

Note: While Kenn Adams often uses the “Because of that…” step three times in his Story Spine framework, this article will illustrate it with two instances for simplicity in our examples.

Applying the Story Spine to Your Work in Progress

Now that you have a basic understanding of the Story Spine, let’s explore how you can apply it to your work in progress.

  1. Start with the “Once upon a time…” element. This is where you introduce your characters and the world they inhabit. Be sure to provide enough information to engage your audience, but avoid overwhelming them with too many details.
  2. Move on to the “Every day…” element, which describes the routine or status quo of your characters’ lives. This is where you establish the foundation of your story and set the stage for the conflict to come.
  3. Introduce the “But one day…” element, which represents the inciting incident that disrupts the characters’ lives and sets the story in motion. This is a pivotal moment in your narrative, so make it impactful and memorable.
  4. The first “Because of that…” element represents the immediate consequences of the inciting incident and how it affects the characters. This is where you can start to introduce complications and obstacles that your characters must overcome.
  5. The second “Because of that…” element continues the rising action, showing the further escalation of stakes and challenges for your characters as they deal with the aftermath of the inciting incident. This is where you can go deeper into the complications and obstacles faced by your characters.
  6. The “Until finally…” element marks the climax of your story, where your characters face the ultimate challenge and either succeed or fail in their goals. This is the most intense and dramatic part of your narrative, so make it count.
  7. Finally, conclude your story with the “And ever since then…” element, which provides closure and resolution for your characters and the audience. This is where you tie up loose ends and leave your audience with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Now let’s look at two box office hits taking advantage of the Story Spine.

Blockbuster Movie Examples:

The Story Spine of “Finding Nemo” (2003)

  1. Once upon a time, there was a clownfish named Marlin who was overprotective of his son, Nemo, after losing his wife and other children to a barracuda attack.
  2. Every day, Marlin would caution Nemo about the dangers of the ocean and try to keep him safe.
  3. But one day, Nemo was captured by a diver and taken to a dentist’s office in Sydney.
  4. Because of that, Marlin set out on a journey to find and rescue his son, encountering various challenges and meeting new friends like Dory, a forgetful but friendly fish.
  5. Because of that, Marlin learned to trust others and take risks, while Nemo tried to escape the fish tank with the help of his new friends.
  6. Until finally, Marlin and Nemo reunited and learned the importance of letting go and embracing life’s adventures.
  7. And ever since then, they lived a more adventurous and fulfilling life together.

The Story Spine of “The Matrix” (1999)

  1. Once upon a time, there was a computer programmer named Thomas Anderson, who lived a double life as a hacker under the alias “Neo.”
  2. Every day, Neo felt that something was wrong with the world, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
  3. But one day, he was contacted by a mysterious group of people led by Morpheus, who offered him the chance to learn the truth about the world he lived in.
  4. Because of that, Neo took the red pill and discovered that the world he knew was a simulated reality called the Matrix, created by sentient machines to keep humanity under control.
  5. Because of that, Neo joined Morpheus and his crew in their fight against the machines, learning that he was “The One” prophesied to bring an end to the Matrix and free humanity.
  6. Until finally, Neo fully embraced his powers and defeated the agents of the Matrix, proving that he was indeed “The One.”
  7. And ever since then, Neo became a symbol of hope for humanity, inspiring others to fight for their freedom and the truth.

Develop Your Story Spine with AI:

Now that we’ve explored the key pieces of the Story Spine, it’s time to assemble and enhance your own.

Here’s a ChatGPT prompt to guide you.

ChatGPT Prompt:

// edit bold text in [brackets] //

Imagine you are a master storyteller with 20 years experience ready to create a compelling narrative using the Story Spine framework.

Consider the following key elements for the story:

• Genre: [Insert Your Genre Here]

• Central Story Idea: [Insert Story Idea or Summary Here]
• Protagonist: [Insert Hero’s Name], characterized by [Insert Hero’s Key Traits, Backstory, Motives, etc.]
• Antagonist: [Insert Antagonist’s Name], characterized by [Insert Antagonist’s Key Traits, Backstory, Motives, etc.]

Use the following Story Spine to structure the narrative:

1. Once upon a time… Set the scene of the story. Introduce the protagonist in their ordinary world.

2. Every day… Describe the daily life or routine of the protagonist before the main events of the story unfolding.

3. But one day… Introduce the inciting incident. What significant event disrupts the protagonist’s world?

4. Because of that… Explore the consequences of the inciting incident. How does the protagonist react? How does the antagonist come into play?

5. Because of that… Delve into the escalating conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. What further challenges arise?

6. Until finally… Bring the story to its climax. What major confrontation or turning point occurs between the protagonist and antagonist?

7. And ever since then… Conclude the narrative. How are the protagonist and the world transformed as a result of the journey?

Your task is to flesh out this framework into a detailed story outline. Consider how each element of the Story Spine contributes to the overall narrative arc, character development, and thematic depth. Ensure that the protagonist and antagonist are integral to each stage of the Story Spine, driving the story forward with their actions and decisions.

That’s it for this Saturday.

If you’re finding value in TSS, please share it with a fellow storyteller.

See ya next week!

— Dave