For me, one of the key concepts of writing is the spine of the story: what the story is about, or the theme, if you’re an English major. William Goldman the author of The Princess Bride, named the concept in Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? He was referring to screenplays, but the concept holds true for fiction as well, whether for entire novels, or for chapters, individual scenes, or even paragraphs. Until you discover the spine, your writing is apt to be directionless or colorless, except by accident.
As Goldman explains, the spine is not the plot. The plot is a sequence of events, with later event caused by earlier ones. Instead, the spine is what you want writers to think about the events of the plot. For example, imagine your plot is about how an unknown person of obscure beginnings rises to become emperor. The same events could have many different spines: how ambition corrupts, how humble people are to be relied on rather those in powers, how youthful dreams are corrupted with maturity, or any of a dozen others. Which one you choose is entirely up to you, and probably you won’t discover it until well into the first draft, or until the second. However, once you have found the spine, you know what to include and what to exclude. Sometimes, knowing the spine can also suggest new directions for the story. The same is true for sub-plots as much as main plots
Possibly, discovering the spine, it can take you out of the trap I fell into two-thirds of the way through my first draft. I kept writing, and each chapter read well in itself. However, reading my latest chapters together, I had to admit that they seemed directionless. I had lost all concept of where the story was heading, and each chapter became harder to write than the previous one. At last, as I ground to a crawl, I went back and thought about the story until I found the spine. I retreated several chapters, and I am currently re-writing with the spine in mind. So far, the result feels a far strong story. I even discovered a small sub-plot to reinforce the main one.
On a smaller scale, I wrote scene in which a small group was traveling, hoping to meet others going the opposite direction and faced with the possibility of pursuit. I told what happened, but the story had all the life of a breaded cod. So I considered the spine, and to me it was obvious that the group would be anxious– increasingly so as neither of the events anticipated happened. As simply as that, the scene had tension and was far more interesting to read.
There is a catch, however. Although Goldman did not mention the fact, I find that knowing the spine works best if your narrative never mentions it, or any near synonym. Instead, knowing the spine should be the criteria for deciding details. For example, I never once mention that my anxious group is anxious, or nervous or uneasy. Rather, the spine suggests details: everyone walks faster, they stop singing, and keep looking to their weapons. In other words, the spine I assigned tells me the kind of effects I want.
What I like about Goldman’s concept is that it is a way to think rationally about the creative problems of writing. It is not required, yet when I examine scenes I wrote without thinking about the spine, I find those that are most effective have a unity of detail similar to those written when I did. I find the spine a way around any difficulties, and a best practice as well. Increasingly, it is becoming a standard tool when I write.