PHS Editor and Harlequin Historical Author Michelle Styles examines how to give your story some backbone.
A strong spine to your story means that the reader is more likely to read on. One of the major problems with the current BBC mini series of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norell is that there isn’t a strong story question that needs to be answered. The question keeps getting lost with all the sound and noise and viewers have turned off. With Poldark and the Game of Thrones, there are strong story questions. The ultimate question/spine of the story in the Game of Thrones is who will succeed to the Iron Throne and will they be able to keep the power once they get it? In Poldark it is about the man and if he will be able to rebuild his life and achieve his dreams. Although Poldark has romantic elements, the romance isn't the spine of the story.
In series romance the spine or the backbone of the story is the growth of the emotional relationship of the two main characters. It is the essence and the core of what the books are about. However when writing a story, it is very easy to get lost in a tangent. Suddenly the story which was supposed to be about two characters overcoming their differences and the various blockades they set up to reach a total and complete understanding morphs into something else.
If the story is sent in to an editor, it will come back with a request for revisions (if you are lucky) and a note about how the author lost her focus or perhaps has a sagging middle.
How can you tell if a story has lost its focus?
Look at the end. The end of the story is when the main story line is completed,particularly look at teh climax. What question is being answered? In the case of a romance, the central question is ALWAYS – how will these two characters overcome their differences, obstacles and challenges and get together? Everything in the story should ultimately lead back to that question. If everything doesn’t lead back, you don’t have a strong enough spine.
Look at the middle. Is there a lot of sound and noise with the characters being busy but the relationship not progressing any further forwards? In order for a relationship progress, the characters actually have interact. No interaction and the relationship stagnates. The 10 page rule can help.
The 10 page rule:
It sounds restrictive but it is something that works. You don’t want more than 10 pages to go by without advancing the main plot line in the story. If the characters can't interact to advance the plotline, think of other ways. They need to be thinking about each other and doing things that will impact on their relationship. Everything goes back to the main story question.
If you have a strong spine, people will keep turning pages as they want that question answered.
Look at the beginning. Make sure the reader wants this question above all other questions. At the start of a story there may be several questions -- will the heroine get the job she desires/ Will the heroine be able to find out if her mother loved her? Will the murderer be caught/ Will they find a cure for a deadly disease? Etc etc. At the beginning of the story, make sure the other questions fade into insignificance, that the real reason for turning the pages is the reader's desire to learn the answer to how will these two people overcome the obstacles to their relationship and have a productive and ultimately life-fulfilling relationship.
If you do that, you will be able to create a strong spine and with a strong spine, readers will keep turning the pages.
So when you are revising, first make sure your story has a strong backbone.
Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romances. Her latest (and 24th for Harlequin Historical) was published in June -- Summer of the Viking. Learn more about Michelle and her books on www.michellestyles.co.uk