It’s a simple task to explain what throughline means. It’s making sure each scene feels connected to the main story. Whether it’s pivotal or not, even if it’s a scene without any of the main characters in it, or part of a sub-plot, if it starts to feel unconnected the reader will lose interest, and any momentum or tension you’ve built up will dissipate.
What isn’t so simple is to explain how to make sure YOUR story has a strong throughline.
The problem is that as a reader it’s obvious when you’re confused or when you’re lost. But as the writer, the story already exists in your head. So it all makes sense to you no matter where you are in the story. You understand why characters do what they do, even if it isn’t written down.
The key to throughline is to know what the characters want and what the story is about. If you are the sort of writer who wings it and hopes for these things to manifest as you write, that’s okay, but once you have your first draft down you have to go back and work out what your throughline is and insert it where it’s missing.
The hardest part is to keep the throughline present when your character is off on a tangent or dealing with a sub-plot. Or when you are in the POV of a different character. If you’re not writing about the main storyline, how do you keep it alive in the mind of the reader?
The answer is to use your skills as a writer to work in hints and reminders. Using subtext, metaphors, foreshadowing, or simply work it into thoughts or dialogue. Unless your story is very basic and simple, the throughline is something you will consciously have to look for and adjust. It will not simply fall into place for you. Scenes are like a barrels floating in a river. If you tie them together you can use them as a raft. If you don’t tie them together, they aren’t naturally going to stick together. They may all go roughly in the same direction, but not in a way that’s useful to you.
Make no mistake, you need to keep that throughline present and the reader tethered to it. Throughline is the heartbeat of a story. If you lose the throughline, you lose the story.
If a mother has lost her child to a kidnapper and the police won’t help, so it’s up to her to find her kid, then obviously she has that on her mind all the time. But does that mean she has to act like she’s freaked out 24/7? When she stop up to gas up her car, and goes in to pay, maybe buy some food, can’t she just act normal in front of these strangers, as people do when they have problems?
And of course she can. But because you, as the writer, have knowledge of her distress, because you believe and accept that she is all broken up, you have an underlying sense of her pain that the reader can easily misplace if you don’t provide guidance.
That’s why you’ll see scenes where the bereft mother will suddenly see a mother with her child, and her face will register the loss for the benefit of the audience.
Of course, you don’t have to be quite as blunt about it as my ‘movie of the week’ example, but your story will benefit if you find ways to reinforce the central premise of your story.
Clearly that’s a high drama type of example, but the same holds true for any kind of story. If Jane meets her new boss and has a thing for him, even though he threatens to fire her, and then she has a scene visiting her Dad who has Alzheimer’s, after which she talks to her best friend on the phone about a blind date her friend’s keen to set her up on, you may see all these things as a way to introduce us to different side’s of Jane’s life. Nobody cares. We don’t know Jane, she’s just some random person to us.
If you start with the cruel but handsome boss, then she complains to her Dad about her crappy love life and her Dad has no idea who she is but offers her advice he would give to his daughter if he had one, and then her friend suggests a blind date but she refuses until her boss is on the other line insisting she works late, and then she takes the blind date out of spite – then you can see this is a story about Jane’s unsuccessful love life.
Any scene can be connected to that throughline, even if it’s subtle, as long as you are aware of what the story is really about. Being able to link up scenes so they don’t feel like random moments from a life is key to making a story flow and take your readers with you as you float downstream.
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