The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work. You intend to tell this story. You intend to explore this theme. You intend to use this structure. The audience may infer it or not. But if you stick to your spine, the piece will work.
I am such a student of the way structure can support meaning in literature that I had Tharp's notion tucked away in my consciousness while reading my book club’s recent pick, Colum McCann’s 2009 National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin.
The book begins with the description of a disparate crowd of onlookers brought together by a 1974 public spectacle—specifically, Philippe Petit’s infamous 110-story walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Because the thread connecting the interrelated stories comprising McCann's novel is as tenuous as Petit's high wire, the book baffled many in our club.
My Kindle was not the best way to experience this book. I longed to flip back through for a more visual sense of how the stories fit together. But I had blogged here about McCann before, and had faith it would all come together—and was rewarded with this paragraph in the voice of a character named Gloria, on p. 306:
I caught glimpses of people’s rooms: a white enamel jar against a window frame, a round wooden table with a newspaper spread out, a pleated shade over a green chair. What, I wondered, were the sounds filling these rooms? It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.
And I thought, there it is: in one paragraph, McCann has revealed the spine of his 400-page work. Once my book club members knew they were peeking into the details of these characters’ lives as if stacked atop one another, the book started to make sense in a way they could verbalize.
Was McCann’s use of this technique conscious? Who knows. But even that which has been done subconsciously, once brought into the light and examined, can be recognized and used again.
About the spine, Tharp concludes:
In the end, whether they see it is not part of the deal I’ve made with my audience. The spine is my little secret. It keeps me on message, but it is not the message itself.
Tell us: What is the spine of your WIP? Is it on the page, on a Post-It, or tucked away in your head?
Kathryn Craft is an author of women's fiction and memoir who specializes in developmental editing at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."