Danish radio producers taught me a trick they call “the motor.” They tie an hour-long music program together by repeating a word or image or theme to unify the broadcast, and that thread keeps the listeners listening. The same trick works in writing, where we call it “the spine.”
David John Marotta, a Charlottesville financial advisor, recently wrote a column in The Daily Progress, “What does a (financial) woman want?” After a lead saying that women need retirement planning, his third paragraph quotes the singer Sophie Tucker:
From birth to age 18, a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35, she needs good looks. From 35 to 55, she needs a good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash. I’m saving my money.
Marotta then walks through a typical woman’s financial life, from teaching her daughters how to handle money to living in retirement, citing each of Tucker’s stages and adding material from her own entertainment, business, and philanthropic careers. The piece ends with Sophie saying, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – and believe me, rich is better.”
Sophie’s life is the spine, which appears in different forms: the stages quote, her careers, and two other quotes. The chronology is fun to read, and the readers stay with it to the end.
The 2008 movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” has two spines. The larger is the life Benjamin lives backward, and the smaller one is a minor character who keeps telling Benjamin how lightning hit him seven times. Sometimes in longer works, each of the parts has a separate spine.
This blog you’re reading, which is the first draft of a book, has a spine. I keep telling you in one form or another: “Use techniques that work for you.” The second half has its own spine: “Create your own voice from the devices that create the persona you want to represent you.”
All pieces do not necessarily need a spine, but those that have one tend to deliver readers all the way to the end.
[What spines have you used in your writing?]