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The Key to Subtext

Jack Remick and I first heard the word “spine” when we worked with Stewart Stern in the screenwriting program at the University of Washington. The spine was defined as backbone or armature. It was often invisible, a structural gizmo felt when it wasn’t there—but not visible when it was there.

Back then, Jack and I tossed out a definition: The spine is a set of polarities that you can use to sharpen your dialogue when you rewrite. An early example was thick/thin in Jack’s novel, Gabriela and the Widow.

We got some big-time help on the nature of the spine in story-telling when Hollywood director/producer, Sidney Pollack, visited the UW film class. This man answered questions. He talked all day, he did not show fatigue. Every answer was perfect, penetrating, eye-opening. He was brilliant, erudite, funny. Pollack said, “If you’re going to spend a year making a film, you want to know it inside out.”

One of Pollack’s answers took 47 minutes. Included in that long answer we saw the spine in his movie, Out of Africa, when he talked about possession in the dialogue. Another word for possession is ownership. In a key scene, the stars argue about who owns what, a normal everyday subject. Here’s an example:

In the movie, Karen Blixen (played by Meryl Streep) says: “I want my Kikuyu to learn to read.”
And Denys Finch-Hatton (played by Robert Redford) says: “My Kikuyu, my Limoges, my farm—it’s a lot to own.”
And then Streep stiffens, saying she has paid plenty for what she owns. And then Redford says: “We’re not owners here. We’re just passing through.”

So the polarities for the spine of possession are owning/not owning. You can see these polarities at work in the film. Finch-Hatton owns his clothes and an airplane. Karen Blixen owns a house, a coffee farm—as a white lady and an archetypal colonial, Blixen considers the Kikuyu her children, her possessions. Because she has pure thoughts—she means no harm, she is bringing the light of education to the ignorant natives. Blixen is driven. She is blind to the spine. She wants Finch-Hatton to settle down. He wants to explore, to fly his airplane. He wants to be free as a bird.

When we write, our dialogue depicts wants and needs. You can use the spine to measure and enhance the roiling struggle in the subtext. The spine, with its polar opposites, works well in film-making. It also works well in fiction-writing. Whatever you’re writing you can deploy the spine and its inherent polar opposites to increase the tension in your story-telling.

Check the following grid, created during the writing of Murdock Tackles Taos, the sixth book in my detective series. If you’ve read the book, you know what’s going on in the subtext. If you haven’t read the book, you can figure out the subtext by studying the spine-grid that follows this paragraph—and that will throw a bright light on the book.

The spine in Murdock Tackles Taos is an offshoot of Claude Levi-Strauss, the anthropologist, who wrote a book called The Raw and the Cooked.

I borrowed the Murdock Tackles Taos spine from the polar opposites of Raw and Cooked. If you check the grid below, you can see each slot on the grid contains a reference to food preparation, eating, biting and chewing.

For example, Murdock compares Julio the cop with a simile that sounds like normal, everyday speech: “Julio was lunging at you like a caged tiger who had just smelled fresh meat.” The spine word is meat.

In a revealing interior, Teddy the tennis pro sees his teeth chewing on a finger.

To juice up you own work in progress, you gobble up these tidbits of and put them into a grid. The grid will highlight your spine-words. If you have too many, do some trimming. If you don’t have enough, here’s your chance to pack in some more.

The everyday reader won’t notice the specifics, but will feel the subtext pulsing. To that reader, the book will feel tighter. It will move faster. The reader won’t want to stop.

Check out the spine-words in the grid below. I use grids as I write, from the early scarred pages to the climax and the final image. The grid compresses the book, gives you control over chunks of prose that need work. When you get lost in your words, or when you can’t feel the style coming easy, then you can use a grid to back away from the pages, while still keeping in touch with the book.

My first grid gathers characters. I list the name, the role, entry and exit and fate. Does the character live or die? I add helpful stuff like object and core story. If I’ve got four characters headed out on a Grail Quest, then I’ve got to choose the main Quester right now, and decide on the fates of the leftover three. Do a Character Grid after you write 50 pages. You can’t go wrong.

The grid on subtext and spine can come later—a hundred pages or so—but if you can nail the spine early, your writing will hum, you’ll be a happy writer, and much less depressed. Study this sample. Three columns: page, quote, notes. If you want more, send me an e-mail.
Subplot 2—Plot Track on Eating—Spinework for Murdock Tackles Taos
Opener, Part 1


Exercise: If you’re curious about how to use the spine to strengthen your story, print this spine-grid out, then use a red pencil to circle the eating-biting-chewing words.

Tip: To build your own spine-grid, comb the pages you have typed up using your writing program’s search function. If you type on paper, photocopy the pages and get out your red pencil.