Writing with Backbone

Story Structure and Unity

When we look another people, whether that be close acquaintances or a complete strangers, we tend to see the external appearance of their bodies—their gender, their colour and complexion, perhaps their height or weight, and a dozen other features. If we were trained as orthopaedic doctors, however, we might ‘read’ those bodies differently. We might think more about another person’s skeletal structure. We would know, as the “Dem Bones” song phrases it, that the

Hip bone connected to the back bone,
Back bone connected to the shoulder bone…

And so on. We know how it goes. 

In our stories, too, there need to be connections between the structural parts. In this Writing Craft lesson, we put on our x-ray glasses to consider the backbone—or the key support structure—of a story.  Our backbone, or spine, has three main segments: the cervical (upper part), the thoracic (middle part), and the lumbar (lower part). Each of those parts is, in turn, divided into groups of vertebrae. Likewise, we can think of our stories as having three parts. Traditionally, they are referred to as the beginning, the middle and the end. Sometimes, even in prose narratives, these beginning, middle, and end parts are called Acts 1, 2, and 3. And, like the segments of our backbone, each Act does something specific: e.g. catch the reader’s interest, continue and heighten the conflict, and provide the crisis and resolution.

Storytellers have used this knowledge for centuries, either intuitively or consciously. 

In our body’s composition, the backbone provides vital structural support, distributes our body weight, and makes possible our movement. The same is true for the dramatic structure of a story. Though a reader may be aware mostly of “external appearances,” the inner structure of your story distributes the action evenly and helps to give it forward momentum. 

While much has been written about Dramatic Structure, the brief summary and illustration that follow offer a basic orientation.

Dramatic Structure

Betty Enn’s Memoir—Dramatic Structure

Another function of our backbone is to encase the spinal cord, a bundle of nerves which carries from our brain to our body. Here, too, we can draw an analogy to story writing. The cord running through our story goes by different names. Often it is called the “theme.” If you are familiar with classical or choral music, this can be a useful term. Likely you will understand how a main “theme” and its variations tie together a composition. 

For others, however, the word “theme” is problematic. Too often it gets reduced to a moral or a familiar saying—e.g. “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” A moral is a lesson, a rule to live by.

A theme, by contrast, offers a central insight about life, a description of how people act, not how they should act—e.g. “Growth is achieved only by taking risks” or “Petty concerns may blind one to life’s risks.” Although I understand the term “theme” when it is used, I personally prefer the alternate word “through-line.” Through-line derives from the world of screenwriting and playwriting. Like a spinal cord, it is the nerve centre in a story conveying the meaning from beginning to end. 

You may recall listening to young children talk about a movie they have viewed or a book they have read. They tend to give a blow-by-blow recitation of the plot: “And then…and then…and then…” Their approach is understandable; until we are in our late teens or even early adulthood, many of us have not the ability to think more abstractly and analytically. However, if we ask an adult friend to tell us about a movie or book, we do not want a childish action-by-action recounting. We want the “gist,” the essence, the meaning. Of Betty Enns’ Lesotho memoir, one might say, “It’s about putting our prayer into action, even in difficult circumstances.” Talking of a more secular story, we might say: “It’s about rising to the occasion and overcoming hardships” or “It’s about the folly of war and the dangers of blind patriotism.”

Often in a story the through-line (or theme) is not stated directly. Instead, it is suggested in the plot or by the attitudes of key characters. One helpful way to discern the through-line is to consider the Character Arc:

  • How has the main character changed in the course of the story?
  • What has the main character learned by the end of the story?

Very few life writers create a story by starting with a theme or through-line. More typically, they will write pages and pages of memories, working either from memory or perhaps reviewing documents such as letters, journal entries, photographs or news articles. Only afterwards, as they reflect, will they begin to sense intuitively or realize analytically what is their particular through-line.

When writing your life story, your first concern is to recall your experiences and record them, however you can get them out and get them down. Our initial goal is to translate our memories into written words. Yet the time will come when you seek to organize the many written pieces and fragments into a larger whole. Bearing in mind the Dramatic Structure (your story backbone) is one step. Another is to discern the through-line or theme (the narrative ‘spinal cord’) that carries the meaning forward.

Identifying Our Through-Line (Theme)