Story Spine: An Outline in 9 Steps

Check out this graphic by Jono Hey that explains the Story Spine

Although I sometimes write fiction, I loathe outlining a fictional story. Unless we are talking picture books. I get picture book structure. When the time comes to outline a picture book, I get out fourteen post-it notes and my story board and get to work.

But a novel? It just feels so big and unwieldy.

Then I read Kirsten W. Lawson’s post, “The Plot Power of ‘Because of That.'” In it she discusses the value of using a story spine.

This outline form was created by Kenn Adams, a professional in improv theater. It is an outline that emphasizes how one character action causes another.

Here are the 9 elements needed to create a story spine.

Once Upon a Time . . .

This is the beginning of your story. “Once upon a time there were three little pigs.”

Everyday . . .

This step emphasizes your character’s life and daily experience. “The three little pigs each built a home, one of straw, one of sticks and, the most industrious pig, built a brick house.”

But One Day . . .

Think of this as your inciting incident. What happened that brought about change? “But one day along came the big, bad wolf and said ‘Little Pig, Little Pig, let me in.”

Because of That . . .

The inciting incident leads your characters to take action which leads to the next action. “Pig One runs inside, the wolf blows down the house of straw, and Pig One runs to Pig Two’s house.”

Because of That . . .

Your characters are led to another action. “The wolf blows down the house of sticks. Pig One and Pig Two run to Pig Three’s house.”

Because of That . . .

This is the last step leading to another big change. “The wolf tries and tries to blow down the brick house.”

Until Finally . . .

This is your climax. “Until finally he realizes this house is too strong and climbs onto the roof. But Pig Three had built a fire and the wolf fails to climb down the chimney.”

Ever Since Then . . .

This is the ending or denouement. “The Three Little Pigs live happy ever after having learned their lesson that . . .”

The Moral of the Story Is . . .

“. . . hard work pays off.”

The beauty of using a story spine outline is that it creates cause and effect which helps avoid an episodic feel to your story. What do I mean by episodic? Each scene is an episode and although they are loosely connected each does not rely heavily on the preceding scene.

Once you’ve created this lean, 9 step outline, you can flesh it out using Save the Cat beats, 3 acts, or whatever works best for you.

–SueBE