©2010 by Robert J Ray and Jack Remick
What is the spine of a story? Screenwriters talk about the spine or the armature of a script. Novelists usually don’t have a clue. But once you know the spine, your writing goes deeper, the characters get better, and the story wraps itself up in itself like a great big birthday present. It’s odd but the spine often doesn’t reveal itself until you start rewriting. So, how do you get to the spine? You use a technique called “spine-finder“.
You search your story for polar opposites like Rich/Poor (Cinderella, Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, Working Girl, or Pretty Woman) and Innocence/Evil (The Silence of the Lambs). In the writing, the polar opposites will give you strings or sets of metaphors. Knowing the spine of your story makes re-writing not only more fun, but also more complete. Sounds abstract? Give it a try. But first read the following:
This writing tracks the development of the spine in Jack Remick’s work-in-progress: Gabriela Dominguez.
March 5th, 2010
It’s possible that the spine of Gabriela Dominguez is Thick/Thin. Gabriela is thin, her life is not thick with objects. La Viuda is thick. She has had 85 years to thicken up her life with objects, experiences, romance, heart-ache and pride.
July 23, 2010 – More Writing on the Spine
Now I’m sure that the Spine of Gabriela Dominguez is Thick/Thin. I looked at the strings of metaphors in the scenes. That thick/thin polarity is there in every scene. Stewart Stern says that the spine will be in every scene. I don’t get that just yet, but I think he means it shows up in the dialogue and in descriptions.
The Thin Metaphors:
Gabriela is thin in body and thin in experience. When the story opens, she is fourteen and is bringing her sick mother to Paso de la Reina because there is no doctor in her village (thin). In Tepeñixtlahuaca Gabriela has learned to read and write, but has read only one book—the bible (thin). She can sew and cook but knows nothing about food other than what she has learned from the woman around her. (thin). Her life experience is thin and routine until the sixth year of the war when soldiers came to her village and her life changes in an experience that will scar her.
As the story develops, Gabriela learns more about love, living and herself (thickening) when her lover, Nando, first takes her to Oaxaca then tosses her away because she can’t have children (thin). The thin metaphors pile up—she can’t have kids, she has only two dresses, two pairs of shoes. She has never had her hair done. She doesn’t use nail polish or makeup. She works in the shop with Nando selling artefacts to las Norteñas who visit Oaxaca. Gabriela sees them but doesn’t know what she’s seeing (thin). She doesn’t have words for what she sees because she doesn’t know what these women mean. (thin) As she moves from Oaxaca to Mexico City, she learns more but still remains simple. She has learned English in a language school and has gone to movies hundreds of times so she has some English (thickening). She buys and wears Levis and chambray shirts like the ones she has seen in magazines. One day she buys a pair of white thong sandals. She eats simple food and doesn’t spend money an anything but a few clothes and English lessons.
The Thick Metaphors:
La Viuda is thick with life and possessions.
She has had lovers and bore a daughter with the Russian.
Her husband, El Señor, has cheated on her her entire married life.
In her ninety-two years, she has acquired a box full of jewelry worth a lot of money (thick). She has another box full of gold and platinum coins. She has also acquired a sable coat and several houses although when the story opens, she lives in the big ranch house in the Valley because she needs the heat. She has lost so much weight (thin) that she is almost not there.
All around La Viuda there is the evidence of her thick life—she has photographs of her and El Señor as they traveled around the world and she has ward robes full of clothes she acquired in those travels.
La Viuda, however, is not physically thick but has lost most of her womanly heft. She is, as she tells Gabriela, nothing but skin and bone held together by memory. The List that Gabriela keeps with La Viuda is an index to her life’s thickness—she has done so much she can’t remember it all and uses the objects as aide memoires. So the List is an index to her thickness and the thinness of memory.
She is also thick with love in the sense that she had El Señor who betrayed her, and she had one great love in the Russian sable farmer who gave her the sable coat and a daughter. She had the Chilean dancer who seduced her in Buenos Aires but later was arrested by Pinochet who had his feet cut off saying Now let’s see you dance, you son of a bitch.
The story then is balanced on the polarities, so how do they mediate?
Gabriela, thin, comes to La Viuda, thick, to be her helper and as La Viuda’s story takes shape in the List, so we see Gabriela’s story unwind as it wraps itself about La Viuda’s. In the course of the story, Gabriela changes with the aid of Magical Helpers, the sable coat, the jewels and the dress. The shop Woman with tattoos changes Gabriela. Gabriela assumes many of La Viuda’s possessions as La Viuda teaches her about life and who she is and how to be a woman.
So we have a second possible spine which is the migration from country to city or a reverse agrarian myth. Worth looking at but at this point the thick/thin is richer.
In the end of the story, Gabriela has blossomed into a rich full bodied woman who can wear a sable coat. She sleeps in La Viuda’s bed when La Viuda dies. She wears all of La Viuda’s jewelry. In the end—that opening image of the toads that Gabriela sees on the path from her village—that image explodes as Gabriela, in a birth scene, ejects the toad fetus growing in her and squishes its head and all its offspring thereby freeing herself of her past except for one thing.
Gabriela takes control. So there’s the possible Control/No Control polarity that has to work as a subtextual spine, sort of an epi-spine. In any event, at the end of the story, Gabriela has become a woman of means and she returns to her village where she unearths the bones of her mother—no—where she forces the Head Man and his Wife and the Scar-faced man to dig up the mother’s bones and carry them back to Tepeñixtlahuaca to rebury them in a full Indian burial ritual with skulls and bone stacks and a heart torn from a living creature—probably a toad.
As the story develops, and as the metaphors of thick/thin intertwine, they bring transformation and reveal some aspect of Fate/Destiny. These other polarities run subplots. Not spine. Spine is thick/thin.