The Story Spine

Story structure is a mainstay in writing strong, compelling dramatic content. I will certainly dive deep into this subject as I again travel this blogging road. For now though here is a brief outline of a story spine. And before that, a bit of attribution backstory.

The simple story spine was initially made public by improvisational theater teacher Kenn Adams in 1991. It appeared as a graphic outline then but bears a remarkable resemblance to my friend and fellow story analyst Christopher Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey, which was first published in 1992. Vogler’s book was itself based on Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which outlines the hero’s journey through the lens of comparative mythology (it first published in 1949).

In the present incarnation I have added my own descriptions of the stages, so there’s that too. No matter who deserves credit, the simple story spine applies mostly to mainstream dramatic stories and works of fiction for print (aka novels). That is to say, this structural format is geared towards comedies, fantasies, science fiction, action and adventure. They all have a happy ending with a definite sense of closure.

Smaller budget independent films and novellas tend to explore quirkier characters and anti-heroes by comparison and have more open-ended structures with sad, inconclusive or melancholic endings. FYI: Tragedy, unless it is an artistic retelling of a classic like Othello, is not in vogue at this time.

Dead Poets Society (a 1989 dramatic film starring Robin Williams) tracks obviously through the simple story spine, as do countless others from this period going forward.

1. Once upon a time. The beginning concerns itself with introducing the main characters, the settings and planting the seeds for the theme.

2. And every day Establishes what their lives are like and what they want in this ordinary world.

3. Then one day Something happens that throws the ordinary world off balance. In the Hero’s Journey we call this the inciting incident.

4. Because of this The protagonist finds the courage to pursue the goal. The action he/she takes launches us into act II.

5. And owing to that action The hero enters dangerous territory (which may be emotional or psychological jeopardy, physical danger or both). Risk ramps up at a rhythmic, ever increasing pace.

6. Passion to win the prize in spite of impossible odds leads the hero deeper into the proverbial woods (in fairytale the setting is often literally the woods or other wild, unknown territory).

7. Until he/she reaches the nadir The dark night of the soul. The blackest moment. This is the face-to-face encounter with the black beast, the devil, the antagonist or his/her own shadow.

8. A fight to the death ensues The hero narrowly defeats the thing that would annihilate him and emerges triumphant with a boon. This may be a precious gem, a power, a psychological victory, the hand of the beloved or a combination.

9. Going home The road back to the ordinary world is fraught with danger. The hero must protect and defend his prize to keep it.

10. Ever since that day The hero returns home a changed person. His/her POV is forever altered as are his relationships with others. The world is a better place because of the adventure.


  1. Anita Untersee · December 10, 2021

    Excellent analysis- definitely a keeper to refer back to again and again!


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