The Spine of the Screenplay
by Susan Kouguell

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.

story structureMany 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.

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.