The first time I stumbled upon the word “spine” being used in such an intriguing manner was when I read Thyla Twarp’s “The Creative Habit”. In the book, she shares her rich experiences and personal habits that made her into the successful choreographer today, outlining a number of interesting concepts that she found personally important to anyone looking to delve into the creative arts. One of these concepts is the idea of finding the spine of your work – the central theme, the key premise, the river of life if you want, from which all other fantastic ideas and juicy details flow. To find the spine of your work entails digging deep and staying true to the roots. You have a goal in mind, a vision in sight, and no matter how far you’ve strayed from the straight and narrow, the spine will bring you back in focus. While this evidently applies to a creator engaging in his or her creative work, I propose looking for spines in the works of others as well, particularly those more “common” work that are not associated with a classy level of art or boasting of a bohemian flavour. Like say, TV shows.
Now I love TV shows, don’t get me wrong, and I believe that it is an art in its own right to write and produce a great series. But I don’t think that most people would actively analyze TV shows for its artistic and intellectual content! Most would be content to feed on sitcoms or dramas like how we consume comfort food (while watching them): lazily, and in bulk. It’s not a bad thing, because everybody needs a bit of pampering once in awhile, but consider how much better it will be if we could engage the rest of our mind even while indulging in a great show that we love (but of course do get off the couch once in awhile and do some squats and push-ups to get the blood flowing. Never underestimate the power of a re-oxygenatedmind after exercise. That and the need to keep the flab off…). Think of the benefits: 1) Sharpening your brain power 2) Honing your literary skills 3) Improving memory 4) Practicing the art of observation 5) Comparing and contrasting theories 6) Gaining interesting tidbits for small talk 7) Preventing mental laziness while “slacking off”
Spotting a Spine
Some spines are very obvious. They may for instance be a direct rendition of the episode’s title. Others are not so obvious, their spine might be subtly masked behind multiple layers of interpretations and metaphors. But usually, the spine takes the form of a concept that you, as a spine-spotter, are familiar with, came across recently, or is being challenged by as a result of the thought-provoking nature of the show you’re watching (I hope!). It is something that could be a universal concept, but will end up being phrased in a way that is personal to your experiences. This is important to acknowledge as you don’t want to be working to hard to produce a “factory-manufactured” spine. There is no correct one, although some fit better than others; you are the sole judge of that.
Spotting the spine requires you to pay attention to a few important things. First of all, watch out for the movement and flow in the episode. Unless it is a special episode, or the show is specifically organized in a different way from the norm, you will usually be able to spot the sine-wave of action and emotion. There will be the set up, then the dip, and then the rise, and finally the settle-down. Often times there will be cliff hangers or whatnots, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes and intent. The reason why you want to keep in mind this sin-wave so to speak is to know when are the vital spots to put all senses on alert to dump any shiny bits of information into your hippocampus for future processing. There may be a few turning points that are critical in helping you formulate the spine of the show. Sometimes what you thought is the spine is actually a branch of it – where the major points of action and emotion converge is usually where you want to put more weight in the information that is used to confirm a spine.
Secondly, don’t forget the interaction and development of the main characters throughout the episode. I usually pay attention to this the most as that is where you get most of the meat. Who says what to whom, when and how and why in relation to their personal development and social position, are things you will instinctively remember as humans are naturally wired to take in the subjective stories of people more easily than plain, impersonal facts. Do consider for example, how difficult crises or situations shape the personality of the character overtime, and in that particular episode especially. Notice how each character overcame obstacles, or emerged triumphant, watch how they deal with relationship issues, and surprising developments in each others’ lives. You will start to piece together a thread that unites all these big interactions and reactions, and that will go a long way in helping you formulate your theory for this episode’s spine.
Thirdly, remember that there’s just one spine! By now you may have separate and conflicting theories or hypothesis that are vying for the number one spot. To prune away the less important side-branches, you need to have a criteria, or simply weigh-in the different ideas you have to see which one has the most clout. Sometimes it is a no-brainer; you can easily spot the central theme, or the idea that simply overshadows the rest with its critical and impactful nature. What I mean is that this idea is a strong unifier among the different goings-on in the show, while alluding to a concept that is also relevant to our lives as the audience. If in the unfortunate scenario you are unable to isolate The One, ask yourself a couple of questions. What is the thread that strings together all the different interactions of the main characters together? Can I find a unifier that aptly describes all their major developments? Is there a lesson to be learned, or a concept that is being challenged or explored in this episode? Does this idea impact me, emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise, as a viewer? These questions should help you to get closer to the core of what the show is all about.
Spining Your Way Up
You may be asking by now, “Why should I as a creative person, be looking into the spine of someone else’s work?” Good question there. To me, the answer lies in the way I perceive the creative process. I personally believe that at any phase of creative work, particularly at the start, there is a lot of learning involved. And before we start doing any of those fancy, super-original tricks, we need to understand the basics rules and conventions first. We need to practice mimicry, and do it very well! The purpose of doing something so “uncreative” at first is to get into the head of the artist and learn from that experience. It is almost like getting a first-person view of how the master sees the world and makes creative decisions. You’ll be surprised at how much you can gleam from it. At first searching for spines may be a dry activity, but after immersing yourself in it, you will get a feel of the creator’s thought process, and the whole process becomes like a treasure hunt. Your acumen for developing an entire creative work from a simple spine, embellishing details so natural it almost seems organic, and saying no to unnecessary detours that take you away from the spine will become so refined that after indulging in this, dare I say, hobby, on a regular basis, I promise that your own creative work will start to see tremendous results.
I tend think of this activity as a creative game that brushes up my skills and keeps my mind awake, and having loved every bit of it, I know you will enjoy it too! Feel free to share some of your ideas on the comments below 🙂