Fiction Fridays: The Throughline

I love to read. Or, rather, I love to be caught up in a story that’s so good I can’t put my book down. As a writer, I’m always editing and working with words,  so it’s difficult sometimes to find a book that will do that for me. Sometimes, the words get in the way: either they’re too sloppy or or they’re too well-crafted. But is it really about the words?

We’ve all read books where the writing is sloppy. However, what’s sloppy to one reader can be grand to another–if the story works. I recently tried reading a book that went to the other extreme. The writer was simply trying too hard. Every word was edited and selected to be fresh and new, to pop off the page and hit the reader with its uniqueness and innovation. As a result, I couldn’t find the story for all the eyeball kicks.

Again, it’s a matter of taste. Critics and literati look for different things when they read. What grabs me, though, is the story. It’s what takes us to a new level. Most bestselling books don’t sell for their prose, but for the stories they tell.

For me, this comes down to the throughline.

What is a Throughline?

Writer’s Digest describes the throughline as “the driving force of the book”:

The throughline creates the forward momentum that makes the story absorbing and the protagonist spring to life. 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 Chuck Wendig describes it as follows:

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.

I see the throughline is the path the reader follows through the story. As an author, you must follow that path as you write the story. It may get covered in vines or brambles, so you must also prune it during your editing process. If the path becomes too sparse, the story can get a little dull, so feel free to add some plants, animals, and adventures along the way. You may even add obstacles. It doesn’t have to be a superhighway, because that would make it a little too obvious. It can be a path of breadcrumbs or a rope climb up a cliff, but it has to be clear where the character is headed to get to his or her goal. If the throughline is not clear, the story is lost.

There’s plenty of great advice on writing a good throughline (including the two sites I’ve already referred to above). The best advice I have to offer you is to read. Find a story that hooks you and read it. Then ask yourself why it hooked you. Review the story again to see how the writer led you through the path of the character’s desire or wanting and then made you wait for it, all the while letting you know it was there. It’s a craft, and it can be learned. And there’s nothing like reading a good novel and then re-reading it to see what made it work for you. For me, it’s one of the best things about being an author.


One thought on “Fiction Fridays: The Throughline

  1. Toi Thomas says:

    I’ve heard the term before, but no one has broken it down to me before. Thanks for the Writer’s Digest reference. Think you’re right, sometimes being an author can make reading for pleasure a little tricky, but you seems to have figured your way around it.

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