Take a little of this over here —
*grabs for a theme*
— and a buncha that over there —
*reaches across your lap for a character and her goals*
— ooh ooh and then this stuff —
*fishes in the cookie jar for motif and mood and a handful of plot events*
— and now we forge them into a single blade which we promptly plunge through your manuscript. The blade pierces all the pages. It cuts down through the still-beating heart of your story.
This, then, is the throughline.
Wait, What The Fuck Is It, Again?
The throughline is an invisible thread that binds your story together. It comprises those elements that are critical to the very heart of your tale — these elements needn’t be the same for every story you tell but should remain the same throughout a given story. You don’t switch horses in midstream, after all. Because that’s just silly. You have a horse. You’re in the middle of a stream. That horse over there, you can’t trust him. He might be a total dick. Plus, if you leave your current horse, you’ll hurt his horsey feelings. Do you want that on your conscience? Can you handle seeing your ex-horse try to drown himself in the very stream you just crossed on another mount? You bastard.
What were we talking again?
Ah. The throughline. The throughline tangles up those handful of most critical elements and, if you’ll permit me another meandering metaphor, is like the rope that the audience will use to pull itself through the story. If you do not provide an adequate throughline, offering only a weak pubic braid at best, then the audience will lose its grip and plummet into a pit of treacly ennui. Translation: they will quit your story. They’ll put down the book. They’ll turn off the movie. They’ll go play Bejeweled and/or masturbate.
Why Do I Need It?
Didn’t I already say the thing about the rope? And the “binding everything together?” Blah blah blah, glue? Duct tape? The Force? Midichlorians? Bondage? Is any of this resonating?
A story needs to feel like it holds water. Like it has been given over to unity and that it’s not just a series of separate parts dry-humping each other with their clothes on. A throughline permeates. Maybe the audience realizes it — “Oh my god, the color burnt umber has been important this whole time!” — or maybe it’s something that the audience unconsciously processes. Either way, it makes the story feel whole, so that it all ties together in a way that is both external and internal — we see the plot and characters have been driven by it and that the subtext and theme and other sub-rosa elements have fed into it, too.
Types Of Throughlines
A throughline can be built of anything. It can be:
Thematic: in which it reflects your theme.
Character: in which it reflects a character trait, arc, relationship, goal, or fear.
Plot: in which it references a certain type of plot event or mystery.
Motif: in which it reflects recurring imagery and/or metaphor.
Mood: in which it reflects… uhh, do I need to spell it out? M O O N spells “mood.”
Language: in which it reflects a recurring word or idea or harnesses a specific style.
And there’s probably others. Any element you can draw out of your story and carry across the whole thing would count as a throughline. Throughlines can be external or internal (and in a perfect world cover both).
How You Use It: The Easy Version
The simple version is choose three core elements (“core elements” is probably redundant, shut up) that will carry through your story. Describe these elements in no more than a single phrase or sentence.
So, for instance, you might have:
“John will do anything to prove his love for Esmerelda.”
“An aura of hopelessness.”
Then, you want to ensure that every chapter touches on at least one of these throughlines.
If you’re writing a screenplay, assume (arbitrarily, I know) that every five pages constitutes a new chapter.
That’s it. That’s the easy version.
You can go nap now.
BUT WAIT THERE’S
How You Use It: The Slightly More Complicated Version
Choose a dominant throughline.
This is the end-all be-all without-it-the-story-feels-like-cats-scurrying-in-different-directions throughline. The story needs it or the story fucking dies. This throughline should pop up every chapter. Sometimes it’ll be subtle, almost throwaway. Other times you’ll hit on it more strongly — more sledgehammer than scalpel. But it’s in every scene like a scent the audience catches when the wind turns.
Then, choose at least two minor or sub-throughlines.
These do not pop up quite as often. They need to pop up bare minimum three times total apiece — ideally, they’ll appear once every three to five chapters.
Not-so-frequently asked questions? You got it.
Can You Overdo It?
Yep. You can totally overdo it. You can create too robust of a throughline and hit hard on it every chapter, shoving it into the audience’s eye like a lit cigar. (Tsssss.) Your throughline isn’t just physical or external elements. It has subtle, secret stuff in there, too. Like theme. You go wielding theme like it’s a Scottish claymore and you’re Braveheart and everyone’s going to think you’re a goon. Internal components — mental, emotional, sub-textual — only work when they lie beneath the skin. They should poke out only sometimes. Like Morgellons disease. *shudder*
Can I Change It As I Go?
I’m not saying a throughline cannot evolve — it can, and sometimes should, build on itself. A theme can be challenged. Character goals can evolve. But if they change drastically, then it kind of ruins the point of a throughline, doesn’t it? It’s like asking, “If my friend is using a rope to climb up the mountain, is it okay if I use voodoo to transform that rope into an electric eel?”
What’s The Advantage?
For you, the writer, this helps you provide clarity and focus to the story you’re hoping to tell. For the audience, it provides a sense of overall togetherness — and a clue you know what the fuck you’re doing. Oh! And it’s also a way of applying simple, light, but ideally elegant structure to your work without building an entire blueprint of story architecture out of nowhere. And, if you are a robust “story architect,” this guides you there, too. Overall, it provides an objective for you as you plot, plan, write, and edit.