Lost and Found and the Story Spine


Today I started work on the second draft of my first novel.  The first task I’ve decided to undertake is to review and revise the plot structure.

Recently I took a little course offered by the fine folks at One Story.  Ann Napolitano did a five day course entitled “Lost and Found: A New Way of Looking at Plot”, which I highly recommend, by the way, if she offers it again.  In the discussion forum for the course, I learned about the “Story Spine” concept, which Ken Adams invented as a way to assist actors in improvisational theater and Pixar included in its “rules” for story development.  I have begun my re-plotting effort by combining the technique Ann introduced with the Story Spine approach.

Lost and Found approaches plot from the perspective of what the protagonist is “missing” and how the search for it develops and resolves.  In a sense, you take the journey of discovery with the characters in the story as they seek to deal with the conflict by examining what it is that has them off-kilter to begin with.  The “missing” thing can be a person, a thing, a feeling, … anything.

The Story Spine goes like this, where you fill in the blanks:
Once upon a time _________________,
until one day _________________,
because of that _______________,
because of that _______________,

until finally _______________,
and ever since that day __________________.

I think in a novel you probably get some iterations over the because of that…/until finally sequences, but that’s neither here nor there.  It’s a tool for grasping the bare minimum sequence of cause and effect that make the story.

What I noticed as I thought about Lost and Found and the Story Spine is how the quest for what is missing follows the Spine.  So, identify what is missing, put the protagonist’s paws on ground at “until one day” — the point at which it goes missing or can’t be ignored — and your off and running.  I tried it with a couple of short stories and it worked, so I figured I’d give it a go with the novel.

The novel is called “The Last Tanuki”.  It takes place on a distant planet called Tereathon where the human/animal genetic hybrid inhabitants live deep beneath the uninhabitable surface in gigantic caverns.  The story centers on Aria, a tanuki hybrid.  She’s a young adult and has been out on her own a few years.

The first thing to do was to identify what was missing.  They are several:

  • Aria’s parents went missing when she was a pup (parents missing)
  • Aria’s step-parents are killed in the first chapter (step-parents missing)
  • An attempt on Aria’s life is made in the first chapter (Aria’s security/safety is missing)
  • Aria’s Uncle Cato, who made unwelcome and inappropriate advances toward Aria when she was 13, shows up in league with those who made the attempt on her life, turning Aria’s emotional state upside down (Aria’s peace of mind is missing)
  • Aria pretends to be a cross between two different genetic families of hybrids because tanuki are viewed with superstitious suspicion by others and are sometimes attacked.  Crosses, though, are considered inferior, so she faces some kind of discrimination either way.  (Aria is missing the acceptance and equality others have.  She is also missing companionship)
  • Those who made the attempt on her life are apparently looking for a map they think she has through her father (the map is missing)

Those are the main things.  The goal of Lost and Found is to narrow that to the most important.  I went one step further, though, and asked: what is missing?  what does Aria believe is missing?

I have trouble with theme in stories.  I could tell throughout the first draft that this book was struggling to find its message (Dorothy Sayers would have said I was not tuned in with the Idea).  Anyway, as I thought about what was missing and why, a theme began to emerge: children suffering for the sins of their parents.  This is actually most of the characters’ problems, so I used it as a lens to examine what was missing, and one thing popped out above the others: the struggle for acceptance.  Aria’s situation in that context is nearly a microcosm of the entire world of Tereathon.

So it was pretty clear that the most important missing thing is acceptance of crosses and tanuki.  The rest of the missing things just serve to provide events for Aria to deal with the real issue: discrimination and its affect on her.  However, Aria only sees that as a fact of life in her world as a whole, and she grew up knowing nothing else, so she can’t really see the forest for the trees.  To Aria, the most important thing immediately missing is that map: only that can free her from the terror of her life.  Minus the immediate threats, Aria would say the most important thing missing is her parents.  Their motorcar was found having crashed, and while they are presumed dead, their bodies were never discovered.  Aria, however, has always held out an impossible hope they might not be dead, though by the time the book takes place, it has been 16 years and her hope is almost extinguished.

That isn’t a perfect analysis, but it’s good for now.  It provides a backdrop for the Story Spine.

Now in the original sequence of events, the story opens with the threat on Aria’s life.  The other precursors are revealed in changes in point of view and in flashbacks.  I didn’t like those very much, and by reaching back into the Story Spine of Aria’s life: that is, just by starting off my thinking with “Once upon a time …. until one day ….” a whole world opened up.  Another lesson I’ve heard in numerous places is to start your story deeper in on round two.  I think a better way to put that is, consider starting your story some-when else.  In this case I looked at it as Aria’s story, and since the map and Aria’s parents figure so prominently, maybe that is a good place to start.  I wrote that, the original, and several other possible starting points down, and it was clear after a short time that the one that offered the most cohesive plot was to start with the events of her parents disappearance, but just as an action sequence that hints at the map and something of life on Tearathon.  Given that point in time and space, I now had a “Once upon a time …” and an “until one day …” all based on what Aria is missing and believes is missing:

Once upon a time, there was a tanuki/human genetic hybrid girl named Aria who lived with other animal/human hybrids known as animalians on a distant planet called Tereathon.  Tanuki were treated with superstitious suspicion, and sometimes violence, and cross-hybrid family offspring were held in disdain.  The surface of Tereathon was uninhabitable and for untold generations animalians had dwelled beneath the surface of the planet in massive underground caverns. The girl’s parents went missing, their car found wrecked and abandoned, and were presumed dead.  She was raised by step-parents who were not tanuki and thought it safer for her if she hid the patterns in her fur and passed herself off as a cross rather than live as a tanuki.  This is how she grew up and the habits she developed.

Every day Aria went about her business, trying to keep a low profile so as not to offend “normal” animalians.  She was content to just live quietly and get by in a world that treated her as less than equal and forced her to repress any expression of her true self.

Until one day her step-parents were killed in a suspicious factory fire and her uncle, who had molested her when she was 13, showed up, and she began receiving threats on her life along with demands for a map that had allegedly passed to her through her father.

Because of that, she discovered a connection between her father and an animalian who lived in town.  She went to see him (Graowf) and his friend (Prox) to learn if they knew anything about her father and the alleged map.

Because of that, Graowf ….

And I’ll stop there so I don’t reveal anything.  I will probably go back and revise the Spine, cutting it down to its core — it seems to wordy.  I’ll also construct a detailed outline that follows and that I’ll use for writing the second draft.   Regardless of what I do, you see how the process is working for me.  Lost and Found and the Story Spine seem to me quite useful tools for working a story plot.  I’ll post more on my thoughts about them as my novel progresses.

What tools do you use to help you develop story plots?

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