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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Anne and Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Wes: This episode is brought to you by our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek.
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is:
Oren: And this is the first time we’ve had Wes and Chris on together at the same time for six weeks. So I think the throughline of this podcast is going to be about you two getting to know each other again, ‘cause it’s been a long time. You may have just forgotten everything.
Wes: So many things have happened to us.
Chris: So then, of course, the first thing that we have to do is establish how we’re total strangers who don’t know each other anymore. Like: Oh, who is this, Wes?
Oren: Who’s this Wes person? Why did you invite them on?
Chris: It’s a vague memory. A big mystery. I don’t quite know.
Oren: I know. And everything in the rest of this podcast will relate to this throughline that we have. We won’t do any distractions. Everything we do will come back to Chris and Wes not knowing each other and needing to get back in touch. Okay, got it. So this week we’re talking about throughlines, and my first question is: What is a throughline? Why do we use that word?
Chris: That’s actually a really good question. I’m going to ask you that because you’re the one who started using that word.
Oren: I’m not prepared.
Chris: I am. Okay, so let me first state that on the blog, I have called it quite a number of different things. And honestly, we should have had a unified blog-wide term for it earlier. It’s been frequently referred to as the main conflict of the story, the story’s core, what the story is about, or the heart of the story. Those are other terms that are commonly used for this. Oren started using throughline, maybe a year ago. So, then I just went with it.
Wes: So real quickly, for everybody listening out there, and since I’m still curious: How is it different from a plot?
Chris: Well, that depends on what you define as plot. I would say it’s a part of the plot. When we talk about plot on Mythcreants, we’re usually talking about the plot structure. Whereas sometimes when other people talk about plot, they’re talking about the specific events that happened in the story. But we talk about plot in terms of structure.
So I would say that the throughline is actually the most important part of the plot structure. It’s central plot thread, the framework that the rest of the plot is built around. It’s the thing that basically holds the entire story together. It has generally a big hook for the throughline at the beginning and a big resolution at the end of the story. I think, as we get into examples, it’ll become a little bit more clear. That’s how I would define a throughline. What about you guys?
Oren: Yeah, I would say that, in general, to count it as a throughline, it has to start at the beginning of the story, or as close to the beginning as possible, and then go through the story all the way to the end.
The most clear-cut example that I can think of that a lot of people will be familiar with is ‘A Christmas Carol’ with Scrooge. The throughline of ‘A Christmas Carol’ is Scrooge’s miserliness and greed and having to deal with that. It starts off with that almost immediately, right? It starts with his partner dying and Scrooge is only begrudgingly willing to pay for the funeral arrangements and even then he only goes for the cheapest option. After that it’s present throughout the entire story. That’s what the rest of the story is about. Then there’s the big resolution at the end where we’ve resolved that. Scrooge has gotten over being greedy. Now he’s generous and nice. You could argue whether or not that’s realistic, but that is a very strong throughline. Anyone looking at that story will recognize it and be able to say what it is.
Chris: I think it’s worth mentioning that a lot of movies have two principal plot lines that really drive the movie. One is often an internal conflict and the other is an external conflict, with the external conflict being a big threat, like an action movie, and the internal conflict usually being a character arc, much like the Christmas Carol. For a lot of them, it’s mostly the character arc that’s the throughline. The movie usually opens with the character arc and then the big threat happens. In the course of fighting that threat, the character learns their lesson and that’s what ends the story.
Oren: The threat is usually an excuse to deal with the throughline in an entertaining fashion. It makes it more urgent. It’s really important as opposed to something the character could maybe live with. So with that as a definition, why is a throughline important?
Wes: Well, as far as my experience goes with it, editing for consistency or keeping eyes on stuff… from a non-fiction or more academic background, you want to stay on track, for the sake of your story, and, more importantly, for the sake of you readers. If you want to read a bunch of disjointed stories, then pick up an anthology and just have fun with that. But if you want to read something that’s a few hundred pages long, you really hope that it’s starting off with something good and it’s going to get to some point of resolution that you’re going to be satisfied with. And hopefully, it’s not some kind of crazy, winding path to get there. You want to feel that all the time you’re investing in reading and enjoying it is going to pay off and you don’t want to get halfway through and wonder what’s going on.
You want to make sure that you know what you’re reading from the get-go. You know what you’re writing from the get go. Nothing’s more frustrating than picking up a book and somebody asking: “What are you reading?” and then you have to say: “I’m not sure”. Then they say: “How far are you into it?” And I’m like, “I’m about half done…”
Oren: “…I don’t really know what it’s about.”
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to frame it. A lot of writers want to rope in lots of different viewpoints and little different plot lines and stuff. I think that the big question I always ask with all this stuff that you include in your story is: Why should they be together? Why should these not be in separate stories? Because if they’re in separate stories, then the reader can pick and choose what they’re interested in and what they’re not.
If suddenly you rope things together in one story, and the reader is forced to go through all of them together. If you spend your beginning investing in one character and one plot line, and then suddenly change it, you have to start all over again with getting the reader invested. Oftentimes they’re not going to like that thing you changed it to. So the throughline is really there to define what should be in this story and what shouldn’t. If you don’t stick to it, you’re likely to end up with a less engaged reader.
Oren: I think probably the most common symptom of a story that’s lacking a throughline or has a weak throughline is people being like: “Why did I just read that?” when they get all the way to the end. On television, this is what’s usually referred to as a filler episode. If it doesn’t have a strong throughline, it feels like this was just some stuff that you threw together to have an episode to show on television. It doesn’t really feel like it accomplished anything. Right?
Chris: Yeah. Personally, I’ve found that a lack of a throughline is probably one of the biggest problems that people have with their stories when they are first starting out. This doesn’t translate to a lot of published works. Most of the time, by the time works are published, they have a throughline. When somebody is brand new, it’s the big thing that they don’t know that they need. Because of the language learning, it’s very vague and different. It’s very hard to get through to everybody that this is the thing that they’re missing. Some big signs that you don’t have a throughline for your story are: not knowing how to end your story, not knowing where to start your story, and having a story that just starts one way and then turns into something entirely different. Those would be symptoms of not having a throughline.
Oren: Yeah, it’s definitely one of the most common issues that I deal with when I am dev editing. Only looking at published work, I think maybe A Stranger in Olondria is an example of a story that if it has a throughline, it’s very weak. But in general, it’s something that gets filtered out by the time the story is sent to publication.
Chris: That’s how essential it is. If all or most of the works that don’t have a throughline are filtered out and don’t get published, then that’s saying something.
Oren: But something more common that I found is not leading with it. I’ve read a number of published stories that have a throughline, but take a while to get to it. That’s often symptomatic of a slow beginning. It’s like, “This beginning feels really boring? Why am I reading it?” It’s because the throughline hasn’t started yet. Very often, authors start with a lot of world-building, instead of the throughline.
The Malazan series definitely had this problem, where it was like: “Hang on, we need to talk a lot about this fantasy Roman empire that I have created. I have to explain all of it to you.”
Wes: “It’s very necessary.”
Oren: Yeah, it’s very important. And maybe that was necessary. Maybe I needed to know all of those things. But they certainly didn’t feel particularly important.
Chris: It’s important to remember with any story that it’s not just what the reader learns later that matters, it’s the experience of learning it at the time. If something feels unnecessary at the time, even if it is important later, there’re improvements to be made. Certainly.
Wes: I’m curious with the slow starts, or maybe the author finding their throughline… I’m just curious about your experience, guys, with doing dev editing and reading a lot of stories. Is it that they started writing, found the throughline, and didn’t edit very much out of the beginning? Because I don’t know. I’m curious if that’s just, ‘I’ve got a rough idea for a story. I’m going to start writing. I’ll find the throughline eventually.” As opposed to somebody sitting down and deliberately saying, “Well, I need to get all of this Roman history future reality in. Now I have to set up my alternate history or future reality stuff, and then I’ll get to the throughline.” It seems that a lot of stories that find their footing were probably the result of the author just taking a while to get there, in my experience.
Oren: Yeah, I know that with my stories, whenever I have a story where one of the problems is that I’m taking too long before I establish the throughline, then it’s usually that I have this idea of wanting to start a story, showing what life is normally like, and then there’ll be a big change when the plot starts. I think that’s something a lot of authors want to try to do and that there are stories that do that, but very often it feels like what ends up happening instead is that you just started off with a bunch of stuff and then it’s like: yeah, none of that really ended up mattering.
So, I think that when actual stories feel like they’re doing that, they are actually just starting very subtly in terms of what the throughline is, and it’s not always obvious. On a subconscious level, you get it. That has always been a problem with my stories, anyway.
Chris: Yeah. I think that the problem of starting the story… although I shouldn’t even say ‘the story.’ In my opinion, is that until the plot hook for the throughline shows up, it’s not even part of the story. It’s like prologue. But starting the work too early, before the story beings, is a very common problem. And my guess is that it happens for a variety of reasons, including misjudging what readers need to know and feeling that you need to establish, as Oren mentioned, what normal is before we disrupt the normal. This is sometimes actually important. For instance, in the Lord of the rings or the Hobbit, that’s pretty important. Granted, Tolkien took way too long to do that, but it still was a constructive part of the story.
Sometimes when that happens, you kind of have to touch things up or make it exciting in other ways. You also have writers that are discovering the story as they go. I think that when a discovery writing is done well, oftentimes somebody will come back then and lop that beginning off. I think a strong revision process is an important part of discovery writing, but everybody does it differently. So I think there’s a whole variety of reasons why that ends up happening.
Oren: Yeah. Another common mistake that I have found is opening with one throughline and then switching halfway or maybe two thirds of the way through. This is what I like to call the “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet problem,” because that novel starts with an opening of, like, “What is the mysterious backstory of this woman in the space pod? How is that going to play out and what will the weird reveals be?” Then it turns out to be absolutely nothing. There’s nothing interesting, nothing dangerous. It’s all resolved very easily. Then the rest of the story is like, “No! It’s actually about this job that they’re doing to go this small, angry planet and to set up a hypergate.” It’s like, “What does this have to do with the opening of the lady in the pod and her mysterious background?” The answer is: nothing at all.
That was really irritating, partially because opening with the pod and the mysterious woman is super intriguing. It’s like, “Oh, that’s cool! What’s that all about?” If you open with a throughline that seems really cool, and then it peters out because you wanted to start another one, that will annoy readers, or at least it will annoy me. I don’t know if it annoys anybody else, but if you want me to read your story, don’t do that.
Wes: You’re absolutely right. That’s annoying. It seemed like somebody really should have taken that and just made a nice short story. Just get it over with, put it into a different format.
Chris: People often have to add conflict to the beginning to make it more exciting. I think having a disingenuous conflict in the beginning is a fairly common problem, where, in this case, there’s a prologue, basically. Prologues are often used to hint or foreshadow big threats. When you spend some time in the Shire, for instance, you can do that for a little while without worrying too much about losing the reader’s interest. But in this case, it was a prologue that perhaps was written before the rest of the story and then kind of forgotten about. Or perhaps it was put in later, in a kind of a disingenuous way to make it interesting.
But, unfortunately, having those kinds of openings conflicts where, for example, there’s a big dramatic first line or first sentence of the novel, and then it turns out it’s not a big deal at all… It’s super anticlimactic. If that’s how the novel opens, that’s a really disingenuous hook that misleads readers. I think that’s just one of the problems of writing the whole work and then needing to add conflict or prop up the beginning. It’s really easy to get into that bad habit.
Oren: Yeah, I’m not unsympathetic. I know, as a writer. I have done that. For me at least, the most common cause of this is that I start off with a conflict that I’m super interested in and then I lose faith in it, or I lose interest, or I realize I don’t know how to resolve it. Then I think of something else that I’m interested in. But I don’t want to throw the other stuff away, because I worked really hard on it. So I’m like, “If I just put them together, it will magically form a seamless transition. That’s what happens when you put two different things together; they link up immediately and become a single thing. [ironic] Certainly that has been in my experience.”
Chris: I think the issue with A Small Angry Planet – and this is simply based on my read of it, and of course I could always be wrong – is that the writer doesn’t actually want conflict in her story. Not really. Because occasionally, and I have met them before, there are people who don’t write for this reason. Some writers just want to write about happy things and don’t want to mar those happy things by writing about problems. In the end, though, to make a compelling story that is entertaining to most people, you have to have to add problems. The characters have to go through some level of suffering, even if it’s sometimes mild. Small Angry Planet very much downplays that.
And you know what? There are some readers like that too, who would almost rather have a leisurely, fun ride than something that is actually gripping. So there will be a few people who will like that. In general, you’ve gotta allow problems in order to make a story, and the throughline or plot head is best described as a problem that you’re using to introduce the problem in the beginning, which you then resolve or permanently not resolve at the end.
Oren: I would say that if your audience is composed of people who don’t want conflict in their story and just want to read about happy things, then more the power to you. If not, please don’t start your story with a really interesting-seeming conflict, then. If going to do that… Have you guys ever heard of slow TV?
Chris: Eh, no?
Oren: It’s a thing. I think it comes from Scandinavia and it’s just hours and hours of continuous footage of just, say, a location. I think trains are popular too. People set up a camera in a train and film on a train for hours and people watch that. It’s a thing they enjoy.
Chris: Not just running in the background? They actually sit down and stare at the TV?
Oren: I have been told this. And I don’t understand it. It boggles my mind that this is a something anyone would do. But they enjoy it. That is totally cool and I’m glad they have a thing that they like. But it would be really disingenuous to start your movie with a fast-paced opening action sequence and then the rest of it is slow TV. The rest of it is people on a train. That’s kind of a rude thing to do.
Wes: Especially since so many great plot points start with trains!
Chris: Having a train is almost like having a helicopter in the story. As soon as the helicopter shows up, you’re like, “Oh, that helicopter is going to explode!”
Oren: It’s got to explode!
Chris: On a train, you know that there’s going to be something on the tracks, that you’ll have to stop the train or whatever. Who puts a train in their story without it being used for certain kinds of tense conflicts?
Oren: Okay, so here’s another problem that I have with throughlines that I don’t entirely know how to solve: How do you set up throughlines for a series? Because theoretically, if you have a trilogy, as an example, then you want each book in the trilogy to have its own throughline, because it needs to have a conclusion at the end that makes it feel like you got something out of reading that book and that they shouldn’t all have been crammed together in one book. But at the same time, you want the series to feel like it’s building to something as a whole. How do you do this?
Chris: Fractal plotting. I call it fractal plotting. At one point in time, I realized that the thing an individual scene needs, as far as structure goes, is in essence, the same as what an entire book needs. And that plotting, in its essence, is actually very fractal. You have the same structure. If anybody’s not familiar with fractals, they are usually visually represented. It’s basically a thing within another thing that is exactly like it. It’s a pattern that repeats itself, at a huge scale and a small scale.
The plots are not infinite fractals cause you can only get down to the unit of a single word. You can’t get smaller, but essentially, plots are fractal. And how many times the same pattern repeats on a small scale or a large scale will vary from work to work. But the basic essence is, when we’re talking about with a throughline, when you have an initial hook or introduction to the problem, then a sort of climax where everything comes to a head, and then a critical turning point. Shortly after that, you have a resolution, where you show that the problem is resolved. That is the basic unit.
It appears at scene level, in most real strong scenes, at the level of an entire novel and in between. Generally, for a lot of novels, a chapter, for instance, will have its own structure just like that. When you expand your story to the full level of a series, what you do is you have another layer like that. For a series, you have an introduction to a problem and a central turning point, which will also be the turning point of the climax of your last book in the series and then a resolution as well. The best example is really Harry Potter. Rowling is very good at fractal structure. I would say that the Harry Potter books one to six, in general, are very well plotted.
It’s probably because she sticks to a very routine structure that she uses in every book. Actually, the first book starts out in an omniscient from other people’s viewpoints, but for the most part, the books are in third person limited from Harry’s viewpoint, and she sticks to that in general, with few exceptions. She follows one school year and right towards the end of the school year… finals exams are a very perilous time at Hogwarts! It kind of climaxes around the end of the school year. And at end, he goes home. The seventh book had a lot more plotting problems because it deviated from that structure. I think Rowling needed that structure; she wasn’t skilled enough at plotting, unfortunately, to really do a good job outside that structure.
Nonetheless, if you look at the Harry Potter series, it’s a really great example of fractal plotting, because the threat of Voldemort and the other dark wizards is basically what creates the throughline for the entire series. But each book has its own throughline. Each book, also, in some way, relates back to the series throughline, which I think is very helpful. Usually the villain of the book has to do with Voldemort. The villain is a minion of Voldemort, for instance, or is working with Voldemort, or even is Voldemort’s younger self. It works especially well for building up Voldemort, the threat he poses, and getting to know the threat better as the series goes on.
Oren: And it’s a good, neat trick because it allows Harry to triumph over each bad guy that he faces, without really diminishing Voldemort’s threat too much. Each person, each thing that he’s fighting is either a minion or some sliver of Voldemort. So it keeps Voldemort relevant, but not in a way where Harry has to defeat him every time. He’s not like: “I’ll get you one or these days, Harry!” It doesn’t create that impression.
Chris: So definitely this is what, for anybody who’s doing a series, I think, is the best. Because you can do a continuous series that has an outer layer that covers the series and not another layer of plot at the novel level, but then people are kind of unsatisfied when they get to the novel. Different storytellers will be different levels of okay with giving their audience a big cliffhanger at the end of something to keep them reading, but that will make some people mad. So I think that the balance is really great because you get some level of satisfaction when you end a novel. You are actually rewarded for finishing one, but you still have plenty of incentive to move on to them next novel.
Wes: Right. I’m curious, Chris, what are your thoughts on a trilogy like The Hunger Games? How strong do you think the throughline and the plotting through that story was? I know for me personally, I read the first book, I enjoyed it, and I kinda was tempted to just stop. I had a sense of what it was about. And then books two and three, to me, it felt like… You talked about fractal plotting and stuff like that. I felt like the throughline maybe for The Hunger Games was: here’s the conflict, and with each book, we just have to make it way bigger in scale. It’s like, okay, we’re going to do another game in the second book. But then, in the last one, the game is real life in the middle of a city… sorry, spoilers. But it just… I don’t know. I felt like it got away from me.
I did enjoy the first book, but I felt like it got too loose after that. It tried to raise the stakes to the point where it became massive, on a huge scale, toppling-the-government kind of stuff. That’s where I lost what was going on. I dunno. I’m curious what your guys’ thoughts might be about a trilogy like this one, in contrast to Harry Potter.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, I’ve certainly read worse than The Hunger Games, but I would say, plot-wise, that the first was definitely the strongest. My guess is what has happened is that maybe there was some planning about the series’ plot, but it feels like the first one was meant very much as a standalone. And it wasn’t too bad because in the first book, there’s a dystopia. When you’re writing in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, often just the setting itself almost introduces a plot hook. The Hunger Games uses that setting. The setting obviously has problems, so the throughline for the greater series was going to solving the problems the setting has. There are worse ways to go than that, certainly.
I think with more planning or just different sequels possibly it could have done a lot better. One of the things is the hunger games, the actual games themselves, provide the throughline in the framework for the first book. But that is a small microcosm of the larger dystopia. The big problem is, that was very iconic. It’s pretty much impossible to keep the microcosm that really doesn’t have the power to affect the entire dystopia and then make the series about solving the dystopia. That is the central problem of The Hunger Games series.
I think Susan Collins, the writer, wouldn’t let that go. Her series is known for the Hunger Games, right? That’s what people remember. It’s iconic. But maybe if I just leave the Hunger Games behind, now the books won’t sell anymore. It’s a tough situation for sure.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, I feel like the catch-22 of The Hunger Games was that the first book, which I very much enjoyed and thought was quite good, sort of traps the sequels, because it’s all about this thing called the Hunger Games. They are there, it’s very novel and very cool, but you can only do it once and have those same effects.
So you see both. Neither solution really works well, because in the second book they’re like, “What if we had the hunger games again?” And it’s like, “Okay, this is just not as interesting as the first time, even though you tried to spice it up by having it with the winners of the previous games. But I’ve never seen these people, for the most part.”
Of course, it has the extra problem of a whole, really important subplot that Katniss can’t know about. But that’s a separate issue. Even with that aside, it’s just not as interesting the second time. And then the third one is like, “What if we did hunger games, but without a hunger games?” And it turns out that the hunger games were the really interesting thing. That was what made the setting stand out. I’m not going to say unique, but it made it stand out. Right. So I do think there was a bit of a catch-22 there. I’m not saying there’s no way to resolve it, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of one. Like if I was in charge of writing Hunger Games two and three, I would be like, “Well, I don’t know guys. Maybe in the next one she fights a giant monkey, I dunno. Whatever. Make it something novel.”
Chris: Yeah. It’s almost like you need to either build off of the dystopia and just leave the hunger games behind and find some other way to give it structure, or you need to focus on the hunger games and keep the overall scope small, but then push really hard on finding a way to make the hunger games different, which would have been really hard. So yeah, difficult choices there. I think, in some ways, even with those difficult choices she could have done a little bit better, but certainly that’s a hard task.
Oren: We are coming up on the end of our time here. So before we do, I just figured it might be useful to talk a little bit about what some of the common throughlines are. Because I know this is something that a lot of authors think about instinctively, but sometimes it’s hard to intellectualize it. I think that the two that I know that are, or the three that I know that are the most common, and there are probably more, but these are the three that are the most common.
Oren: that you start off with a protagonist who wants something and addressing that want is the throughline of the story. Two: you have some kind of big problem that the protagonist must react to. Three: the protagonist has a very deep character flaw that must be addressed one way or another as the story concludes. And those are the most common three that I can think of.
Chris: Yeah. I would say those are the most common today. A more traditional one, which I think Tolkien was following, is having a character go on a journey and come back home. It creates a more subtle sort of throughline, because when somebody sets out on a journey, there’re a lot of questions that come up about where they’re going, whether they will be safe… In itself, that kind of unresolvedness of setting off on their own, does form its own level of plot hook, and then getting back home generally resolves that. So that’s a more traditional one. And certainly, there are stories that are focused on relationships.
I really do think that I’ve gotten to re-remember and know Wes better during this episode. Buddy cop movies, for instance, might actually have this throughline. You have a couple of people paired together, they do not get along. Then they go through trials and get to be a smooth functioning team and that is their resolution.
Oren: Unless one of them is three days from retirement, in which case that just not going to happen. He’s too old. He is too old for this anymore. All right, well I’m glad that you guys are getting along, ‘cause that neatly concludes our throughline for this episode. We will go ahead and call it closed for now. Those of you at home, if anything that we said piqued your interests, you can email us at [email protected], otherwise we will talk to you next week.
If you enjoyed this episode, consider leaving us a review on iTunes so we can continue to grow like a swarm of nanites. [Closing Music]