Plot Skeleton - Part III


On Monday I shared with you an Overview of the Plot Skeleton tool and followed that up on Wednesday with the first stage of the Plot Skeleton – The Skull.

Those posts are available elsewhere on this blog.

Today we will review the next stage of the Plot Skeleton – The Spine – including those most critical elements: the Inciting Incident and the Bleakest Moment.

This is the third segment of what has become a four-part blog post on the Plot Skeleton using the notes from a Facebook Live writing seminar I hosted over the summer.

The seminars presented some of the most essential building blocks I’ve learned for writing a work of fiction. The seminars were very basic and certainly not comprehensive. But my goal was to offer a few good building blocks to get you started.

We have been looking at, and working with, a writing tool developed by authors Angela Hunt and Nancy Rue. This tool is another, more applicable, way of looking at the age-old story structure discussed in previous blogs, The Hero's Journey.

The Plot Skeleton, created by Hunt when she taught writing to home-schooled students from the 3rd to the 12th grade (her pamphlet of the same name is available on Amazon), combines the spontaneity of seat-of-the-pants writing (gardeners) with the discipline of an outline (architects). It requires a writer to know where he/she is going, but it leaves room for the joy of discovery on the journey.

Everything offered in these blog posts about the Plot Skeleton is based on the work of Hunt and Rue, and used with their permission.

Last time, we were in the Skull ... the protagonist's 'ordinary world' where we learn of the protagonist's Obvious Need and his or her Hidden Need. Today we move the hero from his ordinary world into the midst of the story.

Hopefully you are drawing along with us. Let’s get to the next stage, The Spine.

I - The Spine - Draw a straight line from the skull about halfway down the page.


The Inciting Incident:

  1. Just below the Skull, where the shoulders would be, comes the moment in the story when something happens to move the protagonist from the “ordinary world” to the “story world” … from status quo to something totally new. The Inciting Incident can be a dramatic event - an outward change - or a less visible event - or an internal change of heart, mind or emotions.

  2. The Inciting Incident always occurs 20% into the story (or 20 minutes into the a movie. You can watch a film and almost predict when it will happen).

  3. It happens after we’ve gotten to know your character’s personality and needs.

  4. A clear example of the Inciting Incident is generally found in all picture books. Picture books come to a point where it is stated “One day ...”. What happens next is what moves your main character into the action of the story world.

A - In the Wizard of Oz film, a tornado picks up Dorothy and drops her and her house into Oz. B - In The Sound of Music, … the Von Trapp family needs a governess.

C - In the Empires of Armageddon series, the Inciting Incident occurs when Brian Mullaney is banished (by an evil State Department official) to Israel, breaking a promise to his wife that they would never move again.

5. Often the protagonist resists that move into the story world.

A - Maria didn’t want to get sent away from the convent.

B - Brian Mullaney almost quits the Diplomatic Security Service in order to keep his promise to his wife.

6. If the protagonist resists the move into the story world, another character steps up to provide encouragement, advice, information or a special tool that will provide the incentive to leave the ordinary world.

End of the Spine – The Goal:

  1. After the Inciting Incident, the protagonist will establish and state a goal.

A - Dorothy wants to go home; back to black-and-white Kansas.

B - Maria decides she wants to be the best governess she can be.

C - Brian Mullaney decides he will do the best job possible; whatever it takes to get him home as soon as possible.

2. It must be an observable goal … filmable … measurable. So it's clear when the protagonist accomplishes that goal.

3. The goal can’t be light or trivial; it must mean a lot to your character:

A - Mortgage the farm.

B - Burn a bridge.

C - Abandon a relationship.

4. The goal sets up the tension in the story world.

A – The goal establishes The Dramatic Question: Who will win? …who committed the crime? … will she or won’t she? … What is your character willing to lose? … who will win the inevitable showdown between good and evil?

B - Then an ever-shifting set of subordinate goals can follow:

1) Dorothy needs to follow the yellow brick road; overcome the poppies; get in to see the wizard; bring back a broomstick.

C - What if the protagonist doesn’t reach his goal? The resolution of the story can’t be that life just returns to normal.

D - Increase the risks and force the protagonist to find the treasure.

The Rib Cage:

1. Between the Inciting Incident and the protagonist reaching her goal, we need to draw a series of arcing ribs.

2. The ribs are like a pendulum – the story swings back and forth, from problem to reward; from problem to reward, or success.

3. You need this alternating, back-and-forth tension because the reader needs some time to relax between crises.

4. Each rib is a complication that arises to prevent your protagonist from reaching the goal.

5. There must be at least three curving ribs over the spine. Two is too few because you need to ratchet up the tension from one rib to the next.

6. The complications must get more and more serious, from top to bottom, as the character moves deeper into the story world.

7. The ribs are the “stakes” … what the protagonist is risking in order to reach the goal.

8. The stakes should increase in significance from top to bottom:

A - The protagonist meets opposition … garners allies … makes progress … experiences setbacks … stakes are raised … allies are lost … despite inner growth, the situation gets worse and worse

B - Along the Yellow Brick Road Dorothy reaches an intersection, but a friendly scarecrow is willing to help … Dorothy becomes hungry, but there’s an apple orchard ahead … The apple trees resent being picked, but the scarecrow taunts them until they begin throwing their fruit at the hungry travelers.


The Bleakest Moment!

1. Reaching the final rib of the rib cage, the protagonist encounters an impossible obstacle.

2. The protagonist is brought to his knees … at the end of his rope … feels the pain of defeat.

3. Then you need to make the hero's situation even worse ... and then even worse than that.

4. Remind your readers of what your character has risked – and lost?

5. Things can’t any get worse … all hope of reaching the goal is lost.

A - The balloon leaves without Dorothy.

B - The kids don’t want a governess; the captain doesn’t want a singing, dancing governess; the baroness doesn’t want a pretty governess (she’s jealous) “Oh, but you’re blushing.”; Maria, who’s in love with the Captain, runs back to the convent brokenhearted.

C - Ambassador Cleveland promises to request a transfer home for Mullaney but, Brian soon discovers, the Ambassador’s Situation Report includes no such transfer request.

What does our heroine do now? Come on back on Monday and we'll find out.

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