Shot Through The Heart: Your Story’s Throughline

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.

You lose.

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.”

“Insect imagery.”

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 MOAR MORE.

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.

NSFAQ

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.

27 comments

  • “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.”

    Yes, he might.

  • Love this article! I enjoy the 25 Things… format, but sometimes it’s nice to read advice in article form.

    “Throughline” is a good term for this. I’ve often called it the “thrust” (insert sexual innuendo here) because if I don’t have it the story meanders, but I like your word better. I also love your ideas on sprinkling it through the story.

    Do you usually plan out the throughline ahead of time, like during outlining? Or do you let it develop and bring it out more in editing?

    • @Elizabeth:

      Seems to me you can go either way with the throughline, but for me it’s stronger if you at least have it figured out at the start.

      I brought it out in editing with my latest, and that worked — but it also took me more drafts to stumble to that thing I should’ve already known.

      — c.

  • I was kinda joking with that Braveheart (through)line, but I just jotted down a few ideas for this for my current rewrite, and I’m back to say thank you. You helped me today.

  • In my book Threadbare, I overhear my mother muttering angrily about a yellow dress on three separate (widely spaced) occasions. In the final chapter, it comes up again as the meaning is explained. I think that is a minor throughline.

  • I love it when your advice drives home how very much I have been getting it RIGHT!!

    Of course, this is because I have studied under your tutelage voraciously to begin with.

    I couldn’t write a book, I think, without knowing it’s throughlines and it’s ending and overall intent. I wouldn’t write at all, if I didn’t already know what I want to say.

    Thanks to you, I say it even more better.

    haha

    fuck.

  • I like this article. I also like the little diagrams. :) Love will ALWAYS conquer bears. And Voldemort.

    The thing is, in high school we analyzed books for the dominant theme/motif/character development, etc. all the time. I know perfectly well how to identify it. It’s actually generating it in my own writing that’s a problem…

  • Great read but I’ve got a question:

    Would you say the through line is the plot or the subtext? I’m reading this as if you’re talking about subtext but maybe I’m wrong?

  • I’d quite like to plan a nice throughline, unfortunately my brain is a mess and distracts itself with sucking my characters through black holes or inter dimensionally popping them out of existence.

  • How would you handle throughline with a multi-plot story? My partner & I are working on a plot involving 3 main characters, all of whom have a direct contribution to the main arc as well as their own sub-arcs. Is it better to keep an occasionally-occurring theme in each of their sub-arcs or to just let elements of the main throughline involve them individually?

    Once again, great post! I love being forced to think before I’m adequately caffeinated…. :-D

    • A throughline is highly useful — even essential! — in a multi-plot story. You want those multi-plots to be connected, to be braided together even if the aspects are not immediately obvious. The throughline elements you choose should remain present in all plotlines! What a great way to keep the whole thing together.

      — c.

  • I get it know, I do. Kind of like this: Say you are prone to rambling on. You are trying to tell your captive (or hopelessly trapped) audience a story. It started as a short story, but soon meandered off and became a Stephen-Kingian length treatise.
    Your audience keeps breaking free of their bonds long enough to smack you and say, “Hey! Back to the story!”
    As long as they do this throughout the story until you either finish it or strangle them, that’s the throughline.

    But you said something, Chuck, that makes a lot of sense. Of course you want to have an idea of it going in. But in editing, aside from tightening, polishing, fixing–you want to clean it up thematically as well: make the story grip the throughline. You’ll get a more clearly defined throughline. It can help you decide what to cut, because something always needs to be cut. You taught me that.

  • Bearing this post in mind, last night I went over our project and realized with a tinge of deja vu that we’ve had a solid throughline the whole time…I just didn’t recognize it for what it was. (Weird stuff like this seems to happen a lot with this project, for some reason.) All three protags have trust issues inherent to their sub-arcs, and if each didn’t also trust the others in the grander scheme of things they’d all be dead (for various reasons) before the end of the story. *grins wickedly, checks line-item off*

  • I’ve yet to write my first fiction book and I have so far struggled to comprehend this ‘throughline’ concept. But after reading your blog, the penny has finally started to drop :)

    However, after nearly finishing my second non fiction book about travelling Canada, it is clear to see from my writing that I’m improving with my storytelling :)

  • I found this post extremely helpful and highly diverting as well. Bravo! I am realizing that by developing a throughline of sorts ahead of time, I can keep from getting lost in my own story. Thank you.

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