Most troubles in an ailing story can be traced back to a little something called the throughline*. Throughline is the motor in your story’s boat. It’s the single, pervasive concept that not only guides every event and action but also the one thing to which everything must directly relate.
A tall order? You betcha.
So what is it? Throughline is the answer to the question, “What does my protagonist want?” or if the hero is not conscious of their desires, “What does my protagonist need?” The answer may not be apparent on a first pass if you’re the writer (nor is it expected to be) but, at some point, writers and their story consultants need to hunker down and tease it out.
Why? Without the focus of the throughline, audiences sniff a wandering tale. We can innately sense when some bit of action or dialogue doesn’t ring true–doesn’t fit with that hero’s quest or with their core selves. Our story bullsh*t detectors run overtime looking for any little thread to grab on to that will pull us out of our waking dream. Our jobs as story creators is not to feed that beast.
To do that, we can look for a couple of key signs and help ourselves–once we’ve identified it–by writing out the story’s throughline and keeping it visible as we craft the narrative.
- What is the protagonist’s overarching want for this story?
Does she want to visit her homeland to find out who she really is? Does he want to save his family from the invading alien creatures? Must she recover the diamond?
- What does the protagonist need?
Does he need to be loved and accepted for who his is? Does she need to break out of her rigid shell and live a little? Does he need to forgive and move on?
These questions will reveal the protagonist’s EXTERNAL and INTERNAL motivations–their driving forces–upon which everything else in the story is based. They are two facets of a single idea: the hero’s drive to reach their goal. In practice, this means that no line of dialogue, no thought, no action, and none of the characters they meet will fall outside of this idea. When they do, those nasty little story monsters reach out from under the bed, tickle your audience, and cause them to become impatient with your story.
Middle portions–or 2nd acts in a 3-act structure–notoriously suffer the sucking sandpit of boredom. That’s often due to a weak and/or under-developed story motor. Check it for yourself. Find a novel or film that doesn’t hold your interest, dig about for its throughline, and see if it’s strong enough to hold the action all the way through without major diversionary tactics along the way.
Now find your own story’s throughline and map out how everything else interacts with it. That Aunt Elsie character who wanders in on page 70? Sure she’s amusing but if she has nothing to do with your hero’s driving need, pack her bag and put her back on the train.
As always, these are not rules but guidelines and observations made over a lifetime of studying story. Feel free to disagree and discuss. In fact, please do.
* Poet Frank X. Gaspar–though he may not have originally coined the term–gets credit here for introducing the word “Throughline” to The Story Spot’s vernacular.
Photo credit: happy-dee-dooo on Flickr