Throughlines in Novels and Screenplays

I have posted before on how much I learn from screenwriters.  I would even argue that film has become the groundbreaking medium in the world of storytelling.  Yesterday, for instance, I received a newsletter on writing for children with a front page article entitled, “E-Books Go Hollywood:  Readers Are Ready for Books to Sing & Dance.”

Regardless, I would not want to try to write a novel these days without a grasp of such screenwriting basics as “High Concept,” and “Three Act Structure.”  Another key term from stage and film is, “Throughline.”  Unfortunately, many definitions of the phrase are overly simplistic, like this from  “a theme or idea that runs from the beginning to the end of a book, film, etc.”

A more useful description is given on Wikipedia, which traces the word back to Constantin Stanislavski, the great proponent of method acting, who:  “believed actors should not only understand what their character was doing, or trying to do…in any given unit, but should also strive to understand the through line which linked these objectives together and thus pushed the character forward through the narrative.”

Even this definition is rather abstract, and we need some examples.  The clearest discussion of Throughlines I know was written by Nancy Lamb in The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children (2001). The section of the book dealing with Throughlines is reprinted in the February, 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest, which brought the subject to mind.

The Throughline, says Lamb, is “the central plot point that propels the hero from beginning to end, from one scene to the next, from one act to the next.” A key point she makes is the frequent breakdown of the initial, conscious motivation of the protagonist near the middle of the story:  “What he wants is denied him,either by his choice or by the force of outside circumstances.  The breakdown exposes a deeper motivation that propels the character forward, a motivation he was originally unaware of.” (emphasis added).

Lamb cites the classic Bridge to Terabithia as an example.  Jess Aarons wants to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade.  This motivation breaks down when he meets Leslie Burke, the new girl in school, who is a tomboy and a faster runner then he is.  The two become best friends and build a world of imagination together, and the Troughline deepens.  Not a single minded goal, but “Jess’ multi-faceted desire for self-realization becomes the primary Throughline that runs through the story.”

A third Throughline becomes central when Leslie dies in a tragic accident:  “Jess must learn to cope with his grief and believe in himself.  Until that point, he was convinced he needed Leslie to ‘make the magic.’  Now Jess is alone and must learn to call upon his own creative spirit without the help of his friend.”

Lamb uses the analogy of a train to to demonstrate that the Throughline may “change tracks,” but it is always there, and always moving toward the destination.  It lends force and cohesion to a story, and ties together what might otherwise be  a series of disparate episodes.

“From beginning to end, the Throughline is a constant in your story.  You can have any number of other things happen 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 your readers’ attentions and pull them through the story.”

Lamb calls the Throughline the “spine” of a story, a good analogy, because the spine of people and animals is hidden.  As long as everything is working, we don’t give it much thought.  It is instructive to try to identify the Throughline in your favorite tales.

In Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo agrees to carry the Ring of Power to Rivendell, a task which is heroic enough; it almost costs him his life, but that is just the beginning.  Sam is ready to return to the Shire, but Frodo cannot.  Grasping the danger to Middle Earth, he reluctantly says, “I will carry the ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way.”  It is like the ground opening under the hobbit’s feet, dropping him into a far more dangerous world.

The initial Throughline in The Da Vinci Code is Robert Langdon’s need to prove himself innocent of a murder he did not commit.  The simple imperative to survive is gradually eclipsed by his desire uncover a hidden mystery that is central to western culture and religion.

The Throughline is one of those elements it is fun to watch for in books and movies – fun and valuable, for it is a tool that can only make our own writing stronger.

2 thoughts on “Throughlines in Novels and Screenplays

  1. I would recommend scanning the posts here tagged “screenwriting.” A year ago, at a regional SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, one of the agents recommended Syd Field’s book, “Screenplay,” and I have passed on the recommendation here. You can also Google on him and find lot’s of articles by and about his work. He was a pioneering teacher and many of his ideas have become “rule of thumb,” for screenwriters, and make good sense for novelists too.


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