Using the Two Spines of a Story to Create a Strong Screenplay

Watch a bad movie and you’ll see scenes that seem to exist for no other reason than to show action, sex, or special effects. The trouble with bad movies is that scenes often have no relation to other scenes. Characters just pop up in one scene and jump to a new scene with no sense of structure.

The way to give a story structure is to rely on two crucial spines of every story:

  • An initial question
  • A Symbol of Hope

An initial question identifies a problem or goal the hero wants or needs in the beginning of the story. In “Die Hard,” this initial question is whether John McClane will reunite with his wife.

Then the rest of the story is all about answering this initial question. Every scene and all conflict either pushes the hero closer to answering this question once and for all. In “Die Hard,” that means John McClane will either reunite with his wife or one or more will die so they can never reunite.

Only until the end of the story is this initial question answered, but the entire story revolves around this initial question. If a scene doesn’t push the hero closer or further away from answering this initial question, it doesn’t belong.

Watch “Die Hard” and notice that even though the bulk of the scenes have nothing to do with John McClane reuniting with his wife, they push him to either getting closer to reuniting with his wife or further away form ever reuniting with his wife.

The second spine of every story is the Symbol of Hope. The Symbol of Hope defines the physical action of the story because the hero wants to achieve this Symbol of Hope while the villain wants to destroy it. Because the hero and villain both need the Symbol of Hope to achieve their goals, they must fight each other until only one emerges victorious.

In “Die Hard,” John McClane’s wife represents his Symbol of Hope that he must protect from the villain throughout the story. Because both the hero and villain both want the Symbol of Hope, they must keep fighting each other.

Watch a bad movie and you’ll notice there’s often no initial question that remains unanswered until the end to make us care about the entire story (“Madame Web”), or there’s no clear Symbol of Hope that forces the hero and villain to fight each other.

Just by defining an initial question and Symbol of Hope goal for your hero to pursue can make it much easier to shape the rest of your story.

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