The Story Spine was created by Kenn Adams.

Like many others who’ve performed live on stage, I first came across the Story Spine in improv class.

The basic structure of the Story Spine is:

Once upon a time...
Every day...
One day... 
Because of that...
Because of that...
Until finally...
And ever since that day...

If you’re already familiar with the mice quotient and the basic structure for flash fiction, this will seem familiar.

The Wizard of Oz, stripped down into its Story Spine.

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Dorothy who was carried by tornado to the magical land of Oz.

Every day, she journeyed toward the Emerald City in order to ask the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz to help her get home.

But one day, she got to Oz and she met the Wizard.

Because of that, the Wizard told Dorothy that he would only help her get home if she killed the Wicked Witch of the West.

Because of that, Dorothy encountered many dangers and was finally successful in destroying the witch.

Because of that, the Wizard agreed to take Dorothy home in his hot-air balloon.

Until finally, on the day of their departure, Dorothy ran after her dog, Toto, and missed the balloon.

And ever since then, Dorothy learned that she always had the power to get home on her own, which she did.

This example was made by Kenn Adams and he notes, “…when stripped down to the Story Spine, the movies in question lose many of their characters and much of what makes them so brilliant and memorable. That’s because the Story Spine is not the story, it’s the spine. It’s nothing but the bare-boned structure upon which the story is built.”

The Story Spine begins with those four familiar words…

Once upon a time…

This tried and true opening has been so popular in storytelling for so long, precisely because it reminds us that our first responsibility as storytellers is to introduce our characters and setting.

Your audience needs you to fix the story in time and space:

  • Who is the story about?
  • Where are they?
  • When is all this taking place?

You don’t have to provide every detail, but you must supply enough information, so the audience has the context it needs to understand the story (and the stakes) that is to follow.

Every day…

Once you’ve established your setting and characters, you can begin to describe the everyday experience of the world they find themselves in. This is the humdrum of everyday life until things start to change.

In The Wizard of Oz, for example, the opening scenes establish that Dorothy feels ignored, unloved, and dreams of a better place “over the rainbow.”

But, one day…

Something happens that shakes up the main character’s routine.

This event forces the character to do something, to change something, to attain something – either in order to restore things to the way they were before or to establish a new equilibrium.

In story structure, this is called the inciting incident, and is the pivotal event that launches the story. In The Wizard of Oz, this is the tornado that comes tearing through Dorothy’s life and sweeps her off into adventure.

Because of that…

Your main character begins the pursuit of their goal. In story structure, this is often called the beginning of Act II, the main body of the story.

After being dropped in the Land of Oz by the tornado, Dorothy wants nothing more than to go home. But she’s told that the one person who can help her do that, lives far away. So, she begins her journey to the Emerald City in order to meet a mysterious wizard.

Along the way, your characters will face all kinds of challenges, obstacles and general shenanigans – these are there to make the narrative more interesting.

And because of that…

The main character achieves an objective. In Dorothy’s case, she meets the Wizard of Oz, but this isn’t the end of the story.

Instead, this gives her a second objective, to kill the Wicked Witch of the West and bring her broomstick to the Wizard.

And because of that…

You can add as many layers of “and because of that…” to your story. There are dire consequences for having broken the routine and it is unclear whether the characters will come out alright in the end.

In flash fiction, you’ll have fewer try-fail cycles than in longer stories.

Until finally…

We come to the moment of truth for our character(s) in the climax. This is where your character will try to succeed at achieving their goal.

After Dorothy defeats the witch and brings her broom to the Wizard, he now has to make good on his promise to send her back to Kansas – which he does, but the return isn’t quite the way Dorothy (or the audience) had expected.

And ever since that day…

Once the character has succeeded or failed in achieving their ultimate goal, a new routine is established.

Now that we know what has happened in the story, we need to find out what it all means for the characters (and for us in the audience). This is that part of the fairy tale where the storyteller shares the moral of the story.

When Dorothy wakes up in her own bed and realises she never actually left Kansas, she learns the lesson of the story: what she was looking for was inside of her all along.

The next time you get stuck, follow the yellow brick road.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

The basic structure of the Story Spine can help you gain clarity when writing a story, and just making sure that you’re taking your characters through these steps will keep things moving.

The Story Spine serves both as a practical exercise to acquire the skill of crafting a well-rounded story and an organizational tool for story creation.

With practice, the process of constructing a well-organized story will become an intuitive process.

Additionally, it’s an advantageous outlining technique when you have several intriguing ideas for a story but are uncertain how they fit together. By utilizing a Story Spine, you can map out the structure of your story, identify its existing components, and then fill in the missing pieces.

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