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SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE: The Spine of the Screenplay

The first step of screenplay structure requires knowing the dramatic spine of your story. Susan Kouguell offers tips.

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In my more than 25 years of teaching screenwriting and screenplay consulting I continue to find one common issue -- many screenwriters do not know what the inherent conflict is in their scripts. The truth is -- they don’t know the dramatic spine of their story.

Many screenwriters tend to get sidetracked in set pieces, formatting, dialogue, and other basic elements; they have lost sight of the vital yet basic skill – dramatic writing. Whether you’re writing a comedy or drama, a thriller or action film, a farce or fantasy, crafting a solid conflict and resolution is critical to your script’s success.

story structure

The spine in a human’s body is what holds the body’s framework together. In a screenplay, the spine holds the script together. Without a strong spine, the body and the screenplay collapse. A crumbling screenplay results in a script that will be rejected by film industry folks.

The spine can be as simple as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, or it can be more complicated.

Characters’ motivations prompt the choices and decisions they make, which in turn, advance the narrative.

The dramatic spine is the drive behind your protagonist’s actions. It is what propels your protagonist forward. In this example, the dramatic spine is seen through the athlete’s choices.

Example: Your protagonist is a female athlete who has always played by the rules and has won every competition. But when she discovers that her brother needs expensive medical treatment, she will do whatever it takes to save his life, including cheating at an event so she can win the prize money.

The dramatic spine can be seen when characters push towards their goals and the emotional changes they experience are punctuated.

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Characters must have a set of both internal and external obstacles that challenge them. When these internal and external obstacles are tied together, your plot will have a more relatable and believable conflict.

In My Best Friend’s Wedding Julianne attempts to sabotage her best friend’s wedding to win the man she believes she should have married all along, but her emotional progression provides the twist in the narrative; she’s not the woman the audience will be rooting for due to her selfish and duplicitous actions.

In the film Juno, Juno’s pregnancy is the spine of the story; her decision to keep the baby and the way in which it impacts her relationship with the father of her baby, as well as her own family and the adoptive family, propels the narrative forward.

Tips to Discover the Dramatic Spine of Your Screenplay

  • Picture an actual human spinal framework and then envision what your characters hold on to both emotionally and physically, internally and externally, in order to achieve their goals. Protagonists and antagonists must have specific goals they hope to accomplish as the plot unfolds. Along the way, they must face obstacles, roadblocks, problems, and hurdles, which raise the stakes in the script.
  • Understand your characters’ wants and needs.
  • Determine what is causing the major conflicts between your characters.
  • Know the emotional progression of your protagonist.
  • Identify the overall through-line of your plot.

Don’t lose sight of your true identity: Screenwriter as Dramatist.

Check out all of Susan's Upcoming Classes at Screenwriters University!

The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Animated Feature
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting

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