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!

PLOT – WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

In an early episode of A Game of Thrones, Old Nan says that old stories are like old friends: we need to visit them now and again.

Certain favourites keep cropping up – Beowulf, Cinderella, Perseus, Jonah, Noah, for example – stories that go back thousands of years across countless cultures. The best stories feel as if they meet a need beyond entertainment and escape, and bring us in some mysterious way a sort of psychological ‘retuning’. They bring a sense of satisfaction and wholeness.

Why study plot?

Now and again in my writing groups, somebody will say that this plot stuff doesn’t apply to them because they don’t want to write to any formula. That’s understandable – we all want our work to be fresh and original, we want it to be us. I agree that copying other people’s work has limited value if you’re already sure of your own voice and intention. Even if you haven’t.

Besides, studying plot can feel as if we’re trying to put into boxes things that shouldn’t always be in boxes. So I ask you, as I ask everyone in my writing groups, to treat this post as a bit of fun. Read it lightly and then forget it. Let it circle in your dreams along with whatever else you’ve read over the years. If you ever need anything from it, it will come to you in its own time.

For example, if your draft’s finished but there’s a vague sense of reader (or writer) dissatisfaction, or you feel that it’s somehow fallen apart and you are not sure why, you just might find a solution here…

A man walked into a bar … and found the ingredients of a good story. Good stories usually have:

  • A hero or heroine or both. Even the humblest joke has a man walking into a bar or a chicken crossing the road. Story-making starts with character, which is why character has come before plot in this blog.
  • An imaginary world: the chicken’s road, the man’s bar, Cinderella’s kitchens, the Starship Enterprise, Lizzie Bennet’s home full of sisters. Non-fiction sets out to lure readers into its world too.
  • Something that unsettles the present and has to be acted on. Mr Darcy arrives in the shire. A quiet housewife is invited to join the French Resistance. Lucy Manette must set off to Revolutionary Paris to recover her father after his release from the Bastille.
  • Now for the exciting bit: a series of conflicts, obstacles, uncertainty, thrills. The rollercoaster middle part. Non-fiction is not exempt: The Double Helix and Longitude are excellent examples. Check their sales figures if you would like proof.
  • Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood magnate who put the G into MGM, used to say, ‘Start with an earthquake and work up to a crisis’. There is usually some sort of climax where the story’s obstacles are at their most extreme. The main character faces her biggest possible choice or test. This does not have to be an epic battle with thousands of auks – Mole, Ratty and Badger find their own challenges in a comic battle against the weasels in Toad Hall. In one of my favourite novels The Descendants, a peaceable sort of guy discovers that his dying wife was having an affair, so he tracks down his wife’s lover. Another writer might well have written a round of fisticuffs in the street. Kaui Hart Hemmings is subtler than that.
  • Somehow (more about this later) the tussles resolve into an ending and a new beginning. If things come to a sudden halt in the middle of the battlefield, readers tend to feel as if they’ve been left dangling – they long to be settled into a sense of life going forward again.

Is there such a thing as a formula for surprise? Can be. Quite often actually and I’m sure you’ll recognise this one:

  • The main character is shown in his normal world.IMG_1159 (2)
  • Something is unsatisfactory, hurting or threatening him and other people. It can be external danger or an inner dysfunction whereby the hero is doing the hurting.
  • ‘The inciting incident’: something happens that forces change. The bandits have become so dreadful that the peasants persuade the cowboy to help them and Yul Brynner sets off to find the other Magnificent Six. Mole drops his paintbrush – Hang spring cleaning’. A digger is heard in the distance, coming to destroy the rabbits’ warren. There’s no turning back.
  • The main character realises exactly what it is he wants and forms a plan to get it.
  • Forces of opposition gather (and those who help Our Hero to resist them). One obstacle can be that the main character himself refuses first of all to take up the challenge. (The ‘Call to Heroism’ was not invented in Hollywood, by the way – Homer’s Odysseus tried to avoid call-up to the Trojan War by sowing salt into his own fields, pretending he was mad. It didn’t work.)
  • The succession of conflicts ensues. The stakes rise and keep rising.
  • There’s a climactic crunch scene where the main character is forced to crack wide open. To get what he wants, he must do the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do. The emotion is overwhelming for character and readers.
  • The battle brings an epiphany to your character, an insight about what sort of person he really is. He is forced to recognise his greatest need (ta-dah, something you know about from your work with the character questionnaire). He acts on that insight …
  • The worst is past and life can return to normal. But it is a new normal, things have irreparably changed. 457587_10150986744197470_2016124434_o The character ends at a higher or lower level of fulfilment, depending on how far he’s changed and accepted the insight.

Thank you to a tutor from the Soho Theatre & Writers’ Centre for much of the detail in this template, shared many years ago on an Arvon Foundation course.

In my many years of attending writing courses here and there, I have come across many of these formulae. There’s usually something useful in each one. I have no interest in taking you through the Hollywood screenwriters’ usual five-act structure with this particular encounter required on page 13 or that on page 42. If that appeals to you, I wish you well with it but this blog is about novels and novelists are freer. We can take the best from all these options and make them our own.

This last one, I will call the problem-solving formula – I came across it on a course many years ago about writing for children:

  • life is unhappy for the main child character and/or other people;
  • the main difficulty gets worse and worse;
  • until we reach (the tutor called it this, I kid you not) the ‘plateau of awfulness’;
  • this goes on until everybody’s in tears and it all looks hopeless;
  • somehow the main child character (nobody else) solves the problem from her/his own resources;
  • everybody’s happy and grateful.

This problem-solving formula has the virtue of simplicity – you can develop it any way you like. It’s the backbone of children’s classics from Animal Farm and Black Beauty to the adult worlds of Bridget Jones and Sherlock Holmes. Does it fit any of your favourites?

It always unnerves me when people start taking written notes in my sessions because this is not about studying or taking tests. It’s about developing a feel for the shape of a powerful story arc, for who drives the story forward, about pace and stakes, and how a story comes to a close. Read plenty, short stories and long, think critically about what you’re reading and feel how these templates described here might have a part to play for you.

These lists are no more than the scribbled drawing to guide paint onto the canvas, the invisible armature that supports the clay while a sculpture is being made, or a shoe’s last or mould.

EXERCISE – 10 minutes

To save you from feeling that too much analysis is going on, choose one of your favourite themes: love, death, fear, life, happiness, sadness, joy, grief, birth, greed, peace etc. Treat yourself to ten minutes of free writing about what it means to you, utterly privately, just for you. You can imagine you’re chatting with one of your characters about it if you like, or just let rip. For as long as you want.

Between now and the spring, we will look at a series of classic plot structures – love stories, thrillers, rags to riches, rite of passage, overcoming the monster, voyage and return, and epics – starting next week with one of the oldest of all, the quest.

Have a happy writing and reading week!