Stories with spine

Welcome to the GWN blog! We’ve got a great post today from guest Jayne Barnard about stories with spine.

Here’s Jayne!

Any story, whether long or short, literary or genre, staged or sung or read aloud, has a plot. The plot, or the dramatic action, is composed not only of actual actions, but also the motives for those actions. Motives arise from inside characters; actions take place outside them, in locations. Organizing characters, actions, and motives into suitable locations, and then setting them in the highest-impact order, can seem confusing and overwhelming.

Think of the story as an animal: a hamster if it’s a flash fiction, a brontosaurus for a very long novel. What the shortest and longest of animals have in common is a spine, a series of vertebrae, through which the nerves flow as one continuous unit. In a story, the nerves are the through-lines: characters and questions that draw the reader along from beginning to end. The vertebrae are individual scenes in that longer story, protecting the through-lines while presenting the necessary actions and motivations to readers in a logical and entertaining order.

So what is a scene? At its most basic, a scene is action that takes place at one time, in one place, and moves the story along convincingly to the next plot element. It is, in effect, a single small story in a stream of small stories, each revealing an action, one or more motives, and something of the characters.

As a complete story in itself, a scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A vertebrae has a beginning (flanges), a middle (the smooth ring of thick bone), and an end (different flanges that interlock with the beginning of the next vertebrae). The story’s beginning flange is a reason for the characters to be at that place at that time. The action in a previous scene (or in off-page back story) brought these characters to this place at this time; the action in this scene will bring the same characters, or other ones, to a new place and/or time where a new scene will start.

In a beginning, some small action or line of dialogue raises a question in the reader’s mind, gives the characters a reason to interact with each other, and sets the scene rolling. The action might be as small as Character A ringing a doorbell. As over-used as this example is (much like answering the telephone or waking from sleep), it instantly raises two questions: what Character A is doing at this door, and who will answer the bell?

The middle of the scene advances and protects the core of the story. What grows the strong middle is conflict. Each character wants something, even if it is only to be left alone by another character. The conflict between their wants knits the scene together. Assume Character A wants answers to a question. Character B doesn’t want to give them. B evades or lies. A presses. B repeats or changes his earlier response. Sometimes one of them appears to be gaining, only to have a reversal occur that puts the other ahead.

The beauty and challenge of the middle is not to make it too easy, either for the characters or the reader. Keep the reader guessing. Entice them to use all they have learned about the characters and the core story up to this point, to try to figure out who will win this small struggle. The more the reader invests in an outcome, the stronger the middle will be.

The end is the payoff for the character’s – and the reader’s – efforts. Did A get his answer? Did the reader guess right, or wrong? Perhaps neither A nor B achieves their goal. That type of ending is the most frustrating for readers, but can be the most compelling. Use it too often, or too obviously, and the reader’s frustration will outweigh their engagement with the larger story. However it ends, there must be flanges to hook onto the next scene: new questions arising from the answers received, new places to go, new ideas to be incorporated or old ones eliminated.

At its simplest, a scene is action that takes place at one time, in one place, and moves the story along convincingly. At its most complex, a scene also sets a mood, reveals hidden aspects of character, delves deeper into the larger story’s central question, and has enough dramatic tension to draw the reader’s eyes forward almost without their conscious awareness. In theatre, the writer provides the dialogue and a few action cues; the rest is provided by actors, set designers, lighting and costume technicians. In prose, the writer provides all of the above. The intensity or apathy with which the point-of-view character notices his surroundings can incorporate all the work done by set and lighting on a stage; the clothing a character wears reveals much about them to the other characters and to the reader. Light, dark, sight, sound, scent, texture, and colour all help to evoke a mood, reveal a character, and enhance awareness of the central story question.

If you can build a single solid scene with a beginning, middle and end, you can write any length of story. Make each scene, each small story, as strong as it can possibly be, linking it to the one before and leading to the one following, and there is no limit to what you can achieve: flash fictions with a single strong vertebrae, short stories with four to ten, novellas and novels with as many as you need. They’re all built on the length and strength of the spine.

Photo credit:  Cliff Erasmus

Photo credit: Cliff Erasmus

Calgary author Jayne Barnard has been writing award-winning short fiction for more than twenty years. Recent stories, such as the Bony Pete-winning “Each Canadian Son,” focus on mystery and suspense, often with a historical setting. A BA in Theatre and three summers writing and acting for children gave her a deep appreciation for the power and beauty possible in a single scene. Stringing many scenes together gave rise to “When the Bow Breaks,” a novel-length crime manuscript that was shortlisted for the Unhanged Arthur in Canada and is now shortlisted for the Debut Dagger in the UK.  Like her Facebook page for a chance to win dagger-themed prizes.

Cindy here again!

Thanks for being here, Jayne. Great post. I’m going to have to go take a look at my scenes again.

Happy writing!



The Way You Do The Things You Do

Hi everyone! Today I’ve got Steve Liskow on the blog talking about learning about process and structure.

Here’s Steve!

When I first started writing seriously, I followed the conventional wisdom that you had to write every day. Some people said you should set a word goal, too—in Stephen King’s case, two thousand words.

I tried that for about five years, no matter how I felt and no matter how good or—in most cases—how bad they were. At the end of that time, I could sit down at the desk with a pencil, fountain pen, crayon, or a keyboard, and produce words on command. If they weren’t great, I could make them better.

That’s how you learn to write words. People don’t tell you that it’s also how you learn your own process. Do you need to outline or not? Do you start with a character, a situation, an image, or an evocative line? How and when do you revise?

Basically, you should progress from writing words to writing a story. Then you write a good story. Then you write a good story well. It takes a long time.

Nobody mentions that in addition to learning how to write, you’re learning what to write. I used to get an occasional student who hated to write long work, but produced such evocative images that I suggested they turn to poetry. Some people adore description so much that they can kill a story before it gets off the ground, but their love of detail helps them write excellent technical journals. And we’re all such narcissists that it seldom occurs to us that nobody would want to read our memoir unless we really DO find the cure for cancer.

Since I grew up in a realm where history (my father’s love), mystery (my mother’s passion) and the so-called Great Books all held sway, I didn’t even realize a hierarchy existed for years. My first attempts at mystery were a little on the literary side (and terrible), but I was always comfortable in the form and found that I could produce pages without too much trouble. My high school honors English (and later teaching English) meant I knew the mechanics of the language well enough so I could treat revision as a technical exercise. The big problem for me continues to be structure, but I’ve found writers who can show me the way.

Find someone you enjoy reading—contemporary, please, nobody will buy Thackeray now—but who doesn’t deal with your chosen subject matter. Write out a few pages of their stuff longhand to get the rhythm into your own ear and muscles, and then go wild. I’ve looked at S.J. Rozan’s Absent Friends (among others) for structuring, but you’ll probably never notice it. I often use present tense because I saw Don Winslow use it to inject energy into a story. Kate Atkinson and Laura Lippman use literary or pop allusions to make a point. Dennis Lehane, Lynne Heitman, and Karin Slaughter treat their characters badly and raise the stakes to the stratosphere. I’ve recently discovered Mo Hayder’s way of continuing a subplot in one novel as a larger plot in a second book. I can learn from that.

Samuel Jonson said that good writers imitate and great writers steal. Maybe the biggest trick is figuring out what’s worth stealing.

Cindy here! Thanks, Steve! It’s true, they don’t tell you any of that when you’re first starting. Hmm. If I want to sell like Stephen King I’m going to have to up my daily word count.

About Steve:

Steve Liskow is a former teacher, director and actor and holds graduate degrees in both literature and theater. His award-winning short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and several anthologies, including the MWA collection Vengeance, edited by Lee Child. His four crime novels take place in Connecticut, and Run Straight Down, released two weeks ago, concerns a shooting at an urban high school. For more about Steve and his writing, visit

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