Probably the best piece of advice I’ve heard for writers is from screen writer William Goldman the writer of The Princess Bride (You know, the book and the movie with the immortal line: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”). When writing a script, Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?, you need to discover what he calls the spine of the story – that is, the impression you want to leave with the audience, or what the story is about besides the bare events. If you’re an English major, you could say he is talking about the main theme. But, whatever you call it, the advice holds true for both fiction and non-fiction.
The point is easiest to understand if you think in terms of fiction. Imagine that you are writing one of those time-honored stories in which a young man rises from obscurity to become rich and influential. It is not enough simply to narrate the events in his life; if that is all you do, then the result will be like one of those endless cell phone conversations teenagers seem to have at the top of their voices when you’re trapped with with them on a bus (“Then he says, and I say, then he goes . . .”), until you want to scream with boredom.
Instead, you need to understand how you want the audience to view the events. Will the story be about how the young man is unable to shed conventions until he finds himself trapped by his own success? Or will it be about personal courage and having the strength to realize your dreams? Either of these perspectives could be a legitimate spine, and each could apply to the same sequence of events. But without discovering the spine, you won’t know what to emphasize, or even the metaphors you need to tell the story.
This need explains why telling a real person’s story is notoriously difficult to do well. Very few people’s lives have a spine – even a well-known person’s life contains a lot of living for the moment and random incidents. You need to find a perspective from which to tell a person’s life, and usually it’s easier to find meaning in a small portion of a life rather than the whole thing.
Goldman is talking about fiction, of course – specifically, writing movie scripts, although his comment applies equally well to short stories or novels. I’ve found it useful when writing the handful of stories I’ve published professionally. However, as I’ve slowly struggled to learn journalism over the last few years, I’ve realized that his advice applies equally well to features and news items.
It’s not surprising, really, because articles are narratives, too. Take, for example, a simple news release. A company issues a news release because it has a story it wants told – it has a new product, it has hired a new executive, or maybe it has a comment on industry news. The publicist’s job is find the perspective that the company wants on the news, while a journalist’s is to find the perspective that makes the story worth the attention of the audience. The publicist who has found the spine of the story is working hard to make sure that journalists believe the perspective offered, while journalists – if they have any integrity – are trying to discover the spine for themselves.
At least, that’s the way it should be. In reality, many publicists and journalists never discover what the spine of a particular story should be, either because they are in a rush or lazy or just plain ignorant of their roles. A publicist without a spine sends out a boring release that no one wants to read, technically fulfilling the needs of their client or employer, but in truth doing them no favor at all. Similarly, a journalist who doesn’t bother to find the spine either tells a disconnected story, or worst, shows a lack of integrity by simply accepting the one that the publicist offers. You can find hundreds of such releases or stories on any given day, but, unless the news is so major that it tells itself, none of them are of any value to the audience.
In both fiction and non-fiction, finding the spine takes time. Yet the effort is always worth making. Not only is the search a matter of integrity, but writing without the spine is infinitely harder, and is far more likely to produce rambling or mediocre results – and to be excruciatingly boring and painful to produce.