Through-line – the single most vital trick in writing a novel

And by vital I mean life-giving as well as essential. Your through-line is the great big question you ask at the beginning of your story, the one that keeps your reader hooked through every page.

WHAT IS YOUR BOOK ABOUT?

You could answer ‘about 30,000 words so far’. Many people say their book is about one of the big abstract issues like war, heroism, exile, true love or that mixed blessing we call family. Those are themes. Most good books have at least one theme though they’re not essential. Themes are what you want your readers to think about, after they’ve closed your book and are going on with their lives.

Through-line

Your through-line is the big plot question you ask at the beginning of your story, the one that keeps your reader hooked until it’s answered, one way or another, close to the last page. It is not about the meaning of heroism in general, it is about the heroic survival of a particular character your readers care about. Through-lines are about what you want your readers to feel.

Your theme is:

  • an abstract question
  • appealing to the intellect,
  • affecting as many of your characters as you like,
  • that you need not answer – let readers make up their own minds,
  • is not necessarily something that will be attainable or resolved by the story’s end and
  • more than one theme is fine though, if you have more, they should link in some way.

Your through-line is:

  • a specific question about a particular need. Will Jill get a pony? Will Carrie marry Big? Will Sherlock find the killer? Will Black Beauty survive?
  • It’s an emotional question of high stakes
  • about a particular person, preferably your main character(s). A thousand pages of statistics teach us about rough-sleeping but in Stuart: A Life Backwards; it’s Stuart’s own life story that gives it emotional urgency.
  • Your through-line question should be humanly attainable (achieving world peace goes in the ‘theme’ section) and
  • it must be attained or answered in the story. The answer doesn’t have to be yes but there should be a sense of resolution at the end.

An example of a through-line

A fine example of a powerful through-line is in Stuart: A Life Backwards. This excellent book came about when its author Alexander Masters worked in a facility for homeless people in Cambridge and met a rough sleeper called Stuart. They became friends and decided to write Stuart’s life story. Alexander’s first draft was painstaking but, by his own admission, dull. Stuart didn’t like it either and came up with a stunning through-line and structure.

Write it backwards, Stuart said, starting in the present and going back in time to his childhood. Write it like a Tom Clancy thriller, he suggested too, and next is where his marvellous through-line comes in. Readers should ask, he said, who stole Stuart’s innocence. Who ‘killed’ the boy he was.

Who stole Stuart’s innocence? Who stole his life, in other words, and when the answer comes, everything hilariously aggravating about Stuart (and there’s plenty) is instantly understood and the reader’s heart is broken. Stuart died between the finishing of the book and its publication: he didn’t survive to see Alexander awarded the Guardian First Book prize for their work.

Who stole Stuart’s innocence? Will Joey the Warhorse survive the Western Front and come home to the boy who trained him? Will Anna Karenina live happily ever after? Will the community of Watership Down rabbits ever manage to settle safely again? Will the boys in Lord of the Flies ever be rescued?

Golding cartoon

EXERCISE – 10 MINUTES

Choose one of your favourite stories? Give yourself ten minutes to define and write about its through-line. This is not always as easy as it sounds. In the film Titanic, for example, we know that Rose survives for decades after the wreck. The film’s through-line is how she survives.

Your favourite story will have sub-plots – do they have through-lines too? Are they different from the main one? Are they linked to it and to each other? Do the characters have their own personal through-lines? How do they all connect?

EXERCISE – 10 MINUTES

Let’s think now about the story you are writing. Please don’t be discouraged if this exercise turns out to be tricky. At first draft stage, it’s not at all unusual to have through-lines that spread like deltas – in fact, that’s often why people lose heart and give up. Thinking about your through-line at any stage can help keep you on track.

See if you can sum up your through-line in 20 to 30 words. It may well feel impossible but keep trying. You might find yourself coming up with three or four through-lines. Don’t worry, your story is work in progress.

Exciting as your several through-lines might be, it’s important to keep scribbling around them until one edges forward as the most urgent. Some classic novels have more than one but if you’re working on your first novel, try to keep things simple and clear. The clearer your through-line, the stronger and more saleable your story will be.

Your through-line is precious. It’s your story’s backbone, its engine, the thread that holds your story’s beads together, and it should appear somehow in every chapter. Occasionally readers will forgive a little tangent but keep it brief. (By Book 4 of A Game of Thrones, George RR Martin had so many of us readers by the heart that we kept reading as if it was an endurance test, but our favourite characters and their through-lines were missing from that fourth book and, to be honest, he lost a lot of us.)

Once you’re confident of your through-line, congratulate yourself. You now have what is known as your ‘elevator pitch’ for those precious ten seconds when somebody introduces you to an agent or publisher and you’re asked what your novel in progress is about.

Crucially for your story, once you know your through-line, you are equipped to destabilise it in every stage of your story, nudging up your stakes as you go, until you reach your destination. As Wilkie Collins said, make them laugh, make them cry and, above all, make them wait.

A QUICK WORD ABOUT STAKES

What lowers your stakes? Anything that makes a reader put down the book and forget to pick it up again. This list comes from my writing groups – please feel free to add your own:

  • Repetition,
  • Diverting the story into something else (away from your through-line),
  • Too much leaden description,
  • Telling us what we know already or can guess,
  • Spelling out every damn thing,
  • Being predictable, and too unpredictable,
  • Unsympathetic or boring characters,
  • Showing off research and
  • Mistakes.

FINAL EXERCISE – 10 – 15 minutes to start with

For practice, let’s imagine a static scene where one of your characters is sitting in a traffic jam, pauses lost in thought while they’re up to their wrists in washing up water or takes time out to look at the sky. 

whit evening

First, let’s discover how your character (X) is feeling at the beginning of the scene. Start with a brief scribble-chat together:

  • What can X see, hear, taste, smell and touch?
  • Is X hot or cold, comfortable or not, in tight clothing or loose, in a familiar place or a strange one?
  • What is X’s mood: stressed or calm, low or excited, fearful etc.?
  • How does X feel about what’s just been happening ? For example, has X just left an exam or job interview early and is worried about the outcome?

You should have X’s voice flowing nicely in your imagination now as s/he leads you through her/his senses, surroundings, mood and context.

Now, find a way to bring X’s thoughts around to your through-line, if you haven’t already. As you keep writing, see if you can let your character raise your novel’s stakes to greater urgency with a lightning jolt.

Even a static scene can be full of activity. In fact, the contrast in pace can work to your advantage and produce an unforgettable chapter. As long as you bring your stakes and character together with your through-line, all will be well.

Happy writing!

What does Maisie know about Rite of Passage stories?

Let’s start with a bit of light anthropology.

Rites of passage are community rituals that mark an individual’s progress from one stage of life to another. They can involve an ordeal of some kind designed to test the individual to the limit and communities have always had them. Once through the test, the newcomer is welcomed into the community where everyone shares a renewed sense of courage and togetherness. You can see this in initiation ceremonies into school groups and gangs, and in military services worldwide. It can make sense to test the limits of someone’s courage when your own life or that of the community could depend on it.

But a rite of passage is not always about risking life. Confirmation, bat and bar mitzvahs, weddings and graduations all give family and community a chance to get together with food and dancing to bless the new development. There are plenty of less formal rites too, like a new uniform on moving up to Big School, or a stag party.

IMG_0949Each of these rites makes a statement of solidarity. It’s about joining and acceptance. Rite of Passage fiction, on the other hand, can be about resistance to blending in. It is where individuals courageously discover their own singular worth and destiny, possibly at odds with society around them.

Do I mean Coming of Age stories?

Who occurs to you whenever you think of a rite of passage story? Do you think of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island or the boy in the film Shane? Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye? Ralph in Lord of the Flies? Some young man moving from youth to manhood? Actually, anybody can feature in a Rite of Passage story, whatever their age and gender. Maisie, for example.

What Maisie Knew

Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew was first published in 1897. Maisie is ten years old when her parents divorce and they are granted alternate custody of her for six months each. James says in his own preface: ‘The wretched infant was thus to find itself practically disowned, rebounding from racquet to racquet like a tennis ball or a shuttlecock.’ He’s rather betrayed himself in talking about the child as ‘it’ but never mind. Her parents are ghastly, unreliable and useless. Regardless of what Maisie wants or needs, they both remarry pretty quickly, as much to spite each other as anything else. Maisie’s parents continue to suit their selfish selves, leaving their gorgeous new spouses to fall in love with each other.

Where does Maisie fit in all this?

In the (otherwise excellent) 2012 film Maisie chooses to live with the beautiful, loving young couple who used to be married to her parents. In James’ novel, crucially Maisie considers this option and rejects it. Her experience is that adult relationships don’t work and she’s not going to trust this new one either. Instead she decides to spend her future with the only constant person in her life: her nanny – not the most beautiful person in the world but utterly good-hearted and steady – called Mrs Wix. It is a brave choice for the little girl to make and James describes it tenderly as Maisie’s ‘great moment’.

Here is the essence of a Rite of Passage novel: having been pushed to the limit, the character has a ‘great moment’ of realisation of what she or he most fundamentally needs – and finds the courage to act on it. Hurray for Maisie! 

IMG_E0087What are the ingredients of Rite of Passage stories?

Many of the well-known Rite of Passage stories tend to follow the classic story arc, the one that goes: Problem – obstacles – increasing stakes and crisis – battle – insight / epiphany – resolution from the main character’s own inner resources – aftermath leading to the new future.

My usual caveat, by the way: I have no interest in tying you to any formula. Forget what you’ve just read, whatever you need from it will come to you as you write. The shape of your story is up to you.

What makes it a Rite of Passage tale?

The theme. Your main character is on a journey of potentially revolutionary self-discovery at the deepest level:

  • Who is your character really?  What kind of person will they choose to be?
  • Is this the kind of life they need or will they be better off somewhere else?
  • Do they have the courage to make the move?
  • Will the character’s views of that original community of theirs ever be heard?

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901) is a classic tale of conformity versus vocation, Rite of Passage and escape. (With elements in common with Jo’s story in Alcott’s Little Women.) The novel was rejected many times until the publisher William Blackwood declared it to be the first great Australian novel with (feminism aside) magnificent descriptions of the outback. William Golding also suffered many rejections of Lord of the Flies. These novels were saying the unsayable and had a tough time gaining acceptance.

Another difference from other stories is the frequency of unhappy endings. In Lord of the Flies, a naval officer arrives and removes the surviving boys to safety and we have no sense that anyone has learned anything except (in Golding’s words) ‘the darkness of man’s heart’. Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) discovers loving happiness in being with his little sister but the novel hints at a difficult future for him and does not resolve his sense of being an outsider. Salinger’s brilliance lies not just in the honest, first person style but the sly exploration of whether it’s Holden or the conformist society around him that is deranged.

Let’s take a moment to distinguish survival stories:

In a survival story, darkness descends on the main character and has to be suffered until the character is rescued or finds a way to escape. There is no sense that the character deserved or needed this experience.

In a Rite of Passage story, the dark experiences are the making of the main character and provoke the necessary decision about the future that they would not otherwise have had the strength or opportunity to make.

Anybody who endures a horrifying experience learns in the course of it. But in Twelve Years A Slave, for example, no-one would allege that Solomon or any of the other slaves needed to endure what they did to become more fully themselves.

Lord of the Flies is often held up as classic Rite of Passage but I feel that it’s actually a survival story. Ralph learns more on the island than anyone his age should know but he does not need the appalling sequence of events to become more fully himself. He remains the fundamentally decent man he was when he first put the conch to his lips.

You may well feel differently. I’m not laying down rules, just throwing up thoughts for you to consider while you work out where you draft might benefit from a little help here or there.

EXERCISES

  • What are your favourite Rite of Passage stories?
  • Why?
  • What sets them apart from other similar stories for you? Is it the character(s), the story arc and how it resolves?
  • Is the location important? Why?
  • Is there anything about this story type that rankles with you? Can you give an example or two of what put you off? And work out why?
  • Think of a couple of fictional characters, maybe from the novel you’re writing, and sketch out Rite of Passage stories based on their lives. Think about what the crisis scenes would be and where they would fit together.

Happy writing! Next week, we’ll be Overcoming the Monster.