Narrative Writing


Story Spine

In a well-constructed story, the events (A, B, C, D, E, etc.) are causal. Event B cannot happen unless event A happens. Event C cannot happen unless events A and B happen. Readers have a powerful desire to read what will happen next because they expect the events they have witnessed to have repercussions. The cause-and-effect nature of the events makes for a finely woven tapestry. When readers say a story it "tight" or critics say a story is "not tight enough" they are referring to this cause-and-effect relationship.

               — James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel

Repeat after me: A story is not a collection of unrelated events.

Does that seem obvious to you? Great!

Unfortunately, it's certainly not obvious to everyone, because every year I read dozens of stories like this:

Event 1

Joe had superhuman strength. In the morning, he fought a monster called a Zordak. He beat the Zordak up.

Event 2

In the afternoon, Joe fought another monster. This monster had eight arms and it was called a Flunderbibble. Joe beat up the Flunderbibble too.

I'll admit, that story does have conflictbut conflict alone is never enough. There needs to be a connection between the events.

The Solution

A good outline can help you clarify the connection between events. My favorite tool for this purpose is called Story Spine. Story Spine is a formulaic outline used by many famous writers.

Story Spine
Once upon a time . . .
Every day . . .
But one day . . .
Because of that . . .
Because of that . . .
Because of that . . .
Until finally . . .
And ever since then . . .

There are many good things about Story Spine, but the best, I think, is that little phrase: "because of that". It forces you to consider the consequences of your hero's actions and to write the next scene accordingly.


Traditional Outline

There is nothing particularly original about "Story Spine". Storytellers have used this same structure for thousands of years.

Here is how Story Spine lines up with a more traditional outline:

Story Spine

Traditional Structure


Once upon a time


The world of the story is introduced and the main character's routine is established.

Every day

But one day

Precipitating Event

Note: to precipitate something means to trigger or spark or cause something to happen.

The main character breaks the routine.

Because of that


There are dire consequences for having broken the routine. It is unclear if the main character will come out all right in the end.

Because of that

Because of that

Until finally


The main character risks everything to achieve success.

And ever since then

Resolution / End

The main character succeeds or fails, and a new routine is established.

Instruction for the Quiz

Answer the questions.