Saturday, August 18, 2018

Revisiting the Basics: Throughline

photo courtesy google images
"The best fiction has a line of compulsion as strong as a hawser running through it. The reader is compelled because the characters are compelled, each equipped with a 'through-line,' an actor's term for what he 'wants' overall, what he 'wants' in a particular scene. These through-lines are the strands of the hawser, but, complicating the figure, they run at cross-purposes with each other and with circumstances, creating conflict and opposition." --Oakley Hall, The Art and Craft of Novel Writing

...hawser (n.):  a large, stout rope or thin steel cable, used for mooring or towing ships... 

The term "hawser" was a new one to me, not being familiar with boating or, on a bigger scale, towing ships. But now it's a word I've added to my vocabulary. Can't you just see how the braided strands of rope work together to make a stronger product, strong enough to pull a ship, keep it headed in the right direction, and help get it safely to its final destination?

Mr. Hall has certainly come across an apt metaphor for a story's throughline, a subject I've taken more of an interest in following the latest critique of my manuscript, one in which the throughline was mentioned as needing strengthening (thanks again, Cathy :-)

And so I went back to the basics again--to review, chew on, digest how to make improved revisions to my story's throughline and, ultimately, the story itself. I found the following sources helpful:

From Nancy Lamb in her book, The Art and Craft of Storytelling (p. 72): "The best way to travel the length of your story is to grab hold of the throughline--the driving force of the book that you set up in the opening pages--and refuse to let go."

Again from Ms. Lamb (p. 76): "From beginning to end, the throughline is the constant in your story. You can have any number of other things happening in the book. But the matter of what drives the hero and compels him to act is never in question because the throughline is there to maintain the reader's attention and to pull him through the story."

She also elaborates on these thoughts in the online Writer's Digest article What Is The Throughline of a Novel (And Why It's Important You Have One). Here she says, "Some writers think of the throughline as the embodiment of the main character's conscious desire. The character knows what he wants and knows that he wants it. This personal hunger, shared by the viewer, drives the story and shapes the narrative."

Author Nancy Kress, interviewed at Writer UnBoxed, was asked "What is a 'throughline' and how can you use it to make writing the middle of a manuscript easier?" Her answer: "Draw an upside down 'U.' Left-hand leg (call it A) is the state of the character and the situation at the start of the story. The right-hand leg (B) is the story's end, where character and situation have changed (if they haven't, you usually don't have much of a story.) This is the throughline. Your task is to create and relate all the incidents that occur to plausibly turn A into B." Other writers have described the throughline as an invisible thread that binds your story together.

So a throughline? A hawser or rope that pulls the reader through the story. A line of compulsion. The story's driving force. A character's personal hunger. An upside down U that shows the character's growth, change. An invisible thread that binds it all together.

How to strengthen that hawser, that's the question! Ms. Lamb gives insight on the subject in a section of her book subtitled, "Take a Ride on the Throughline," where she lists a series of questions to consider including:

  • What is the primary throughline of my story?
  • What are the secondary throughlines of my story?
  • What does my hero want, why can't she have it, what is the driving force that makes her do, endure, overcome?
  • How does each throughline pull the reader through the story?

And so another revision calls. You can bet I'm going to cast that hawser out there in hopes of pulling a stronger story through the waters to its final port and make it a more engaging ride for the reader at the same time. Let's hope!

How would you describe "throughline"? Any tips on how to capitalize on it so your WIP sails forward with purpose, and not drift into troubled waters?


  1. Our lives from birth to death are a throughline. But if I were to write a memoir about my journey toward publication, ending with publishing that first novel (if that day ever comes!), that would be the throughline of my memoir. It might include that I married, had three kids, got two degrees, was a children's librarian, lived on a wheat ranch, and a hundred different things--but only as each one helped or hindered the journey toward publication. If it had no impact at all, it would be omitted.

    1. Cathy, the subject of your *hypothetical* memoir's throughline is interesting, that of one writer's journey to publication. Especially with all the interesting things things you've done, including adventures with a pilot/rancher husband and your own experiences as career librarian. But you paint a good picture, that only those things that had impact and helped pull the story along would be included. More insights on the subject of throughlines, thanks!

  2. I love this concept~ I honestly needed this very post today. I feel like my current WIP is very adrift (especially after reading an ARC of Anne Ursu's upcoming book, The Lost Girl--it is SO well-crafted!). Thanks, Kenda!

    1. Jess, so good to hear from you! And glad the post was helpful, although I'm the one who could learn from you :-) Cheering you on as you work on your WIP but I'm confident it will be another good one just like 'Waiting for Augusta' was, which I read some time back. I still want to read your 'Under the Bottle Bridge,' haven't done so yet. One of my goals is to go on a reading splurge with the idea of analyzing the throughlines of each one--I should start with that one :-) Thanks for stopping by...

  3. I like the definition you gave that is related to what the character wants. A lot of times, when my WIP seems to be drifting, I've forgotten to focus on that. I tend to write an entire draft, then go back and fill in character motivation, etc., which definitely strengthens the manuscript. But I wonder if focusing more on the "throughline" would be useful to me.

    1. Peggy, I think if I can really wrap my head around the concept of the throughline, it will help my story a lot--hope it helps trigger those things you need, too. The idea of 'driving force' or character's 'personal hunger' is beginning to speak louder to me than just a character's motivation. Funny how it has taken so many years to see this in a different light. Good luck to you if you try this approach :-)