A throughline is the core or central plot thread of your story, the problem introduced in the beginning and resolved in the climax. It’s what ties everything together and keeps the audience engaged. Novels without strong throughlines have a difficult time building tension or creating satisfaction, two critical elements of fiction. Readers feel little need to finish such a novel, and if they do finish it, they’re often left wondering what the point was.
Throughlines are a fuzzy concept, and it can be difficult for new writers to understand them. Fortunately, a number of talented authors have left great examples to learn from. Each of these novels has a strong throughline, though they manifest in different ways. Let’s explore your new 2018 reading list!
Spoiler Notice: Sorcerer to the Crown, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Storm Front, Maplecroft, and Thud!
After reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, I thought how much more I would have enjoyed the book if it had a strong throughline. I can only assume Zen Cho is some kind of precognitive mind reader, because she’d already written Sorcerer to the Crown, which is exactly what I wanted: a story about magic in Georgian Britain that has a coherent plot!
This novel’s throughline is the disappearance of British magic. In the first chapter, protagonist Zachariah Smith* establishes that the levels of magic in Britain have been dropping steadily for some time, though no one knows why. With less magic, it’s harder for magicians to practice their craft. From there, this conflict drives the plot until the cause is revealed and dealt with in the climax. Cho wastes no time before getting to the core of her story and keeps a tight focus on the problem until the end.
Just as importantly, Cho quickly demonstrates three reasons why this conflict matters. First, magic is a beautiful and wondrous thing. The book gives magic enough novelty that the reader will instinctively want it to stay around. Second, Britain is at war with France.* Without the threat of magically assured destruction, France’s own magicians may join the fight. Third, Zachariah is likely to be blamed for the disappearance. He’s a black man who’s worked his way up to the rank of Sorcerer Royal, and his enemies despise him for it. They’ll take any chance to destroy him.
Sorcerer to the Crown’s throughline has personal and political stakes as well as audience investment. That’s a powerful plot if ever there was one, and it makes the novel a page turner. Cho uses her engaging story to make important social commentary, critiquing everything from imperialism to self-proclaimed allies who think marginalized folks should be grateful for what they have. Because the novel is so entertaining, far more people will appreciate its important messages.
The only fly in the throughline ointment is the novel’s secondary protagonist, Prunella. While it’s good to have more women of color in fantasy stories, Prunella often feels ancillary. Most of the plot would happen exactly the same way if she were removed. She also feels exceptionally overpowered. The one time she is important to the plot, she easily defeats the main villain offscreen. Prunella stands as a warning that even good plots can be hurt by extraneous characters.
With the exception of the Deathly Hallows, every book in the Harry Potter series benefits from good plotting, but the third book takes the cake for strongest throughline. For most of the book, that throughline is the threat of Sirius Black. This is introduced very early, with Harry seeing reports of an escaped prisoner on muggle TV. From there, Sirius will dominate the plot until the climax.
The only problem is that in the early chapters, neither Harry nor the reader know who Sirius is or why he’s important. That’s okay, Rowling is ready with a warmup conflict that will meld seamlessly into the main plot. That conflict is between Harry and the Dursleys, who are acting even more horrible than normal this year because Aunt Marge is coming to visit. The mini-conflict climaxes with Harry running away, and shortly after, we learn who Black is and why he’s so dangerous.
Don’t think the Dursley arc was mere filler, though. On the contrary, it was important setup because it brought home how much Harry wants a real family. That comes to a head when Harry learns that Black is the one who betrayed his parents to Voldemort. Black is the reason Harry has to deal with the awful Dursleys.
From there, the threat of Black is built up further, with important characters talking about how dangerous and unpredictable he is. Rowling uses the structure of the school year to keep things interesting, with Harry and co learning new spells and dealing with minor problems while Black grows in the background.
The turning point comes when Harry discovers Black is innocent, that Black is in fact Harry’s godfather. The throughline changes from the threat of Sirius Black to the threat to Sirius Black, as ministry wizards close in to execute him for a crime he didn’t commit. This reversal works beautifully. Not only is the reader already invested in Black, but the Dursley arc from the beginning also takes on more importance. Now Black represents Harry’s real family instead of the reason he lost them. It’s a master stroke that ties the whole novel together for a wonderful climax.
3. Storm Front
The Dresden Files is a mystery series that combines noir and urban fantasy into a magical extravaganza of tropes. Storm Front is the first book, and like most detective stories, it depends heavily on the quality of its throughline. Fortunately, author Jim Butcher delivers.
Storm Front opens in true noir fashion, with Harry Dresden getting hired to find a missing husband, Victor Sells. The twist is that Dresden is a wizard, and so is the person he’s been hired to find. This opens the throughline: the fate of Victor Sells.
To keep the clock from running out too fast, Butcher employs some clever misdirection. Before Dresden can get far in his investigation, he’s called to consult on some magical murders. Two dead bodies rank higher on Dresden’s priority list than a missing person, so he puts Sells’ case on the back burner. He returns to it a few times throughout the novel, but it seems that the murders are more important, especially since Dresden himself is a suspect.
Near the end we get a surprise reveal: Victor Sells was behind the murders the whole time. It was all part of his scheme to dominate Chicago’s magical drug trade. Not only does this unify the two plots, but it also provides a big bad for Dresden to fight. Everything before this reveal was a classic use of misdirection to keep the reader from guessing what had happened to Sells until just the right moment.
This classic technique is widely used in mystery stories. Introduce one throughline, then make audience think the throughline is something else, and then bring the story back around. This allows for a much better reveal. If Butcher had just started with the murder plot, Sells’ reveal wouldn’t have meant anything. He’d just be some guy. But because the reader already knows about him, it’s a moment of great satisfaction.
This cosmic horror novel is the story of Lizzie Borden vs. Cthulhu. Okay, not actually Cthulhu, but an as-yet-unnamed entity from the deep that transforms human beings into its gilled servants. The threat of this entity is the novel’s throughline, but it doesn’t come to the fore right away. Maplecroft is a slow burn story, which requires a specialized type of throughline.
The novel starts as you’d expect, by establishing the threat. Lizzie is caring for her bedridden sister, Emma, when a scaly thing from the deep tries to break into their home. Not to worry, Lizzie has dealt with this kind of thing before, and she takes care of the intruder with her axe.
In the next chapter, author Cherie Priest establishes the main antagonist. We see a university doctor open a mysterious biological sample, and then the sample latches onto him. This possessed doctor is the story’s big bad.
Priest sets up the threat and villain early, but after that, the plot is largely a waiting game. The possessed doctor wants a set of artifacts from Lizzie’s basement, but she can’t confront him too soon, or the threat will dissipate. Priest delays the confrontation by putting the doctor several states away. He’s got some ground to cover before he can try to claim the artifacts.
Putting the villain on a time delay like this means the throughline is a slow burn, which could have easily been boring. Priest keeps the reader engaged by creating smaller supernatural problems for the protagonists to deal with and by focusing on how dealing with the alien threat changes each character.
In some cases, these changes are emotional. Lizzie’s relationship with her sister strains and eventually breaks under the stress of defending themselves from the entity. In other cases, the change is physical. Lizzie’s lover, Nance, is transformed into a monster after she touches the strange artifacts. This transformation provides a lot of conflict, as the other characters argue about what to do with her.
This focus on how each character is affected by the horror keeps the novel’s throughline strong while also keeping the threat mysterious. Any horror writer can tell you that a threat is less scary once revealed, so Priest was wise to avoid a direct confrontation until the very end.
The Discworld series in general is notable for strong throughlines. Terry Pratchett* employed a holistic form of storytelling, where each element of the novel supported its throughline. In Small Gods, that throughline was the nature of religion in a setting with undeniably real gods. In Jingo, the throughline was how war affects people’s lives. But even among the Reaper Man’s lineup, one book stands out.
Thud! is a novel about the ancient enmity between dwarves and trolls. The story starts with the murder of a dwarven politician, which of course only makes things worse as everyone blames the trolls. Finding the real culprit and determining why the politician was killed becomes the main plot. It furthers the throughline as you might expect, exploring the grievances on both sides and uncovering the root of the conflict.
But wait, there’s more! Thud! is written in third-person omniscient, a challenging style if ever there was one, but Pratchett uses it to further enhance the throughline. The book takes brief detours away from the protagonists to focus on side characters, but each of them contributes to the throughline in some way. The first time this happens, we see the dwarven politician’s death, though with few details. Later, the novel has a brief section focusing on an evil spirit that’s feeding off the conflict. These asides create dramatic irony, as the reader knows something the characters don’t. Pratchett is careful to never dole out too much knowledge, as that would spoil the mystery.
Back in the main plot, Pratchett slowly turns up the animosity between dwarves and trolls while the protagonists try to solve the murder mystery. This raises the stakes and provides some variety. In addition to combing crime scenes for clues, the characters have to risk their lives keeping angry mobs of dwarves and trolls apart. In a less well-crafted novel, the two plotlines could have diverged until they bore little relation to each other, but in Thud, it’s clear that the murder and the larger conflict are inexorably linked.
Naturally, the climax involves both bringing the murderers to justice and making peace between the two factions. It’s not the kind of peace where everyone throws down their weapons and forms a drum circle, but it sets dwarves and trolls on the road to recovery. This resolution is enormously satisfying because the entire book has built up to it, even the asides that don’t have an obvious connection.
You can learn a lot from studying how stories went wrong, but at some point, you have to look at stories that got it right. None of these novels are perfect, but they all succeed at crafting a strong throughline. That’s something storytellers struggle with across all levels of skill and experience.
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