The Gentleman and Norrell from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Make a deal with me or the throughline gets it.

A throughline is a story’s core, the problem that’s introduced at the beginning and resolved at the end. Sometimes throughlines are called “central plot threads” or a story’s “main arc.” But whatever we call it, it is the single most important element of a story. When you tell someone what a story is “about,” you’re usually describing the throughline. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the threat of the Deathstar is the throughline. It is present from the moment Leia tries to escape Vader with the plans and finally concluded when Luke makes his one-in-a-million shot.

When the throughline is weak, readers have less reason to turn the page. The story loses urgency or falls apart into unrelated chapters. Of all the manuscripts I edit, this problem is probably the most common. It’s easy for new authors to lose track of what ties their stories together during the fun of worldbuilding and creating character arcs.

As a cautionary tail, let’s look at six published novels with weak throughlines, and see how each was affected.

Spoilers for: A Stranger in Olondria, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Queen of the Tearling, Pacific Edge, Ninefox Gambit, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

1. A Stranger in Olondria

Cover art from Stranger in Olondria

Told in the style of a memoir, this is the story of Jevik leaving his remote pepper plantation to see the wide world. That’s not a super interesting premise, but it can still work. Some of fantasy’s most celebrated entries are made up entirely of characters walking from place to place. The problem with Stranger in Olondria is that there’s no point to Jevik’s journey.

The Amazon sales blurb for this book emphasizes how Jevik will be haunted by an illiterate ghost and become a pawn in the power struggle between two powerful cults. One of those could certainly be an interesting throughline. But when you open the book, neither are to be found. Chapter upon chapter of Stranger in Olondira is spent describing Jevik’s backstory in painstaking detail, everything from his abusive father and step-mother to his powerful desire for literacy. Maybe one of those is actually the throughline? Nope. Jevik learns to read without much struggle, and his parents cease to be important after he leaves the plantation.

After that, it’s quite some time until Jevik encounters the illiterate ghost and the two cults. While everything that happened before was unnecessary backstory, things could have picked up from here.

They don’t. The entire ghost storyline consists of the ghost’s demanding Jevik write down her life story, and he refuses because otherwise there’d be no conflict. Just joking, his actual reason is that he doesn’t want to taint his enjoyment of writing by using it to rid himself of an annoying ghost. I won’t say it’s impossible to write a good story about a protagonist being unreasonably stubborn, but Stranger in Olondria isn’t it. The entire conflict feels forced and a little ridiculous.

The cult storyline has a little more going for it. The two sides are well established as stand-ins for order and chaos, so it’s easy to understand what they’re fighting over. The problem is that Jevik doesn’t really care about the fight. He’s marginally allied with one cult because the other one wants to imprison him for being haunted,* but he’s not really interested in who wins. Worse, he has no agency in the conflict. He’s shuttled from one area to the next until nearly the end of the book.

Stranger in Olondria’s weaknesses are twofold. First, it waits way too long to introduce its throughline. The story could have started when Jevik steps off the boat from his farm and nothing else would change. Second, neither potential throughline is compelling. This makes it harder for readers to be invested in the story’s outcome. Readers who don’t care how a story turns out won’t read for long.

2. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The ship from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

This book is a scifi story with many parallels to Firefly. It features a beat-up but lovable spaceship and an eccentric crew of misfits. It also starts with a really strong hook: a mysterious woman in a space capsule on the run from some unknown problem. Clearly that’s the throughline, right? We’ll spend the rest of the novel finding out who this woman is and dealing with whatever problem was bad enough to make her leave her entire life behind.

Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. We soon find out that the mysterious woman is named Rosemary, and then her story quickly takes a back seat to random shenanigans happening on the ship. It’s brought up later, turns out not to be a big deal, and is quickly resolved. Great sadness.

What about this small angry planet and the journey to get there? Maybe that’ll provide a strong throughline. It certainly could have, but the author seems remarkably uninterested in it. Instead of building towards a greater whole, each problem that comes up is unrelated to what came before and what comes later. The ship is raided by pirates, but they eventually leave and insurance pays for the damage. A side character reveals she has difficulty controlling her fear in a crisis, but this problem never hinders her, and she resolves it in a single conversation.

Technically, the book is about the characters and their ship traveling to the desolate world of Hedra Ka, but the journey itself provides very little conflict. Other than the abortive pirate attack, there’s never a moment when it seems like the characters might not complete their journey. It feels more like an exercise in running out the clock than an exciting space voyage. The only element that comes close to being a throughline is the romance between a secondary character and the ship’s AI, but it involves too few of the other characters to qualify.

The book’s lack of a throughline is really disappointing, especially after such a strong opening. Without anything tying it together, Small Angry Planet is left with a handful of low-stakes side stories. The world is still interesting, and the description is charming, but without a throughline, none of it has any substance.

3. The Queen of the Tearling

Like Small Angry Planet, Queen of the Tearling starts with what seems like a strong throughline. Protagonist Kelsea* is the heir to a queendom, raised in hiding to protect her from an evil uncle who wants the throne for himself. Obviously this is going to be a story about Kelsea defeating her uncle and winning her birthright. There’s even talk of an evil sorcerer who rules the queendom’s more powerful neighbor. Defeating her could be a throughline for the rest of the series.

Sadly, it was not to be. The first few chapters are promising enough, with Kelsea and her handful of guards fighting their way past her uncle’s assassins to reach the capital. Granted, she meets an irritatingly over-candied romance interest along the way, but we can forgive that. Now that she’s reached the capital, it’s clearly time to engage in some political intrigue. She’ll have to chip away at her uncle’s power base and rally the people to her side, all without sinking to her uncle’s level.

Or at least that’s what I was hoping for. Instead, after one last attempt to kill Kelsea, the uncle gives up. He is banished shortly afterward. This is less than halfway through the book, and already the main antagonist is gone. As if that weren’t enough, the book spends several scenes showing us just how incompetent the uncle was in the first place. Then he’s killed by the romance interest, so he can’t return to cause trouble.

Well, that’s disappointing. But all is not lost; maybe the evil sorcerer is actually the villain of this book. Things look good when the sorcerer announces her plans to invade, but then she spends the rest of the book gathering her forces like a Dragon Ball Z character. At best, she’ll be a threat next book. We also get some indication that she’s not particularly competent either. So she’s right out.

You might be asking what Kelsea does for the rest of the book without any villain to keep her company. The answer is that she… has long audiences with nobles who waste her time. That’s not completely fair, she also has to deal with a secondary villain causing trouble, but he has little in the way of resources and clearly isn’t a real threat.

Similar to Small Angry Planet, Queen of the Tearling’s second half feels mostly like it’s running out the clock. But at least with Small Angry Planet, the characters eventually get where they’re going. In Tearling, we spend chapter after chapter waiting for the sorcerer to invade, and she never does. It’s all setup for next time. However, if a series’ first installment isn’t exciting, readers aren’t likely to stick around for the second.

4. Pacific Edge

An idyllic California town, cover art for Pacific Edge

This book is unique among the entries on this list, because it has a throughline that starts at the beginning, is present for the whole story, and is resolved at the end. That sounds like a strong throughline, not a weak one. The weakness comes from the throughline’s being really boring.

Pacific Edge* takes place in a utopian-future California. That’s a red flag right there, since utopias are notoriously difficult to tell good stories in. Bizarrely, half the book is taken up by a side character’s flashbacks, but we’ll focus on the part that takes place in the present. Well, the book’s present. For us it’s the future.

Protagonist Kevin has a problem. A rival of his wants to build on an undeveloped hill in his neighborhood. Kevin likes this hill. That’s the throughline of the novel, and it’s exactly as dull as it sounds. No one else has much investment in this hill. Kevin’s rival doesn’t have an evil plan. He just wants to build a new business on a hill no one else is using.

Believe it or not, Pacific Edge commits to this throughline with tenacity that’s almost admirable. Kevin tries as hard as he can to turn his neighbors against the development. He tries to get the project’s environmental impact statement overturned.* He even tries to pull political strings. The man really doesn’t want his hill built on.

By the end, I ended up sympathizing more with the rival than with Kevin. The man’s just trying to open a business, leave him be! If this story was meant to be about Kevin learning not to be a jerk, it could have worked, but there’s no sign that he’s learned his lesson or that his behavior is meant as unreasonable.

When a story’s material stakes are this low, it’s critical to establish emotional stakes, and Pacific Edge fails to do this. Sure, Kevin likes his hill, but he’s not passionately in love with it or any of the memories he has from there. Since there are no stakes of any kind, it’s hard to get invested in the throughline, and so the entire story bogs down.

5. Ninefox Gambit

Three ships approaching a space station in Ninefox Gambit.

We now leave utopian California behind for a space opera where a tyrannical hexarchate rules the galaxy, and technology only works if people believe in the right calendar system. Weird I know, but bear with me.

Ninefox Gambit is frustrating because it comes close to a strong throughline, but doesn’t support it. In the first chapter, protagonist Cheris is disgraced when she uses a banned tactic to win a battle.* It was the only way to save her soldiers, but it was against hexarchate rules, so now she’s in trouble. This opens up two obvious throughlines: either Cheris must redeem herself, or she must realize the hexarchate is evil and she doesn’t want to be redeemed.

The book chooses the second option, which is a good idea. Throughout the rest of the story, Cheris slowly becomes aware of how evil the hexarchate is, until, at the end, she decides to go rogue.* In a vacuum, that sounds like a great throughline, but it wouldn’t be on this list if things turned out so well.

The problem with Ninefox’s throughline is it fails to take the audience along for the ride. This is a third-person limited story in Cheris’s point of view, which means the audience should be experiencing things roughly as she does. Cheris slowly realizing the hexarchate is evil doesn’t hit home because the hexarchate is obviously evil from pretty much the first page.

Normally, a story like this would obscure the hexarchate’s evil by having Cheris justify what she sees. It might seem evil that the hexarchate expected her to sacrifice her soldiers, but that was necessary to win the war against the evil rebels. When she gets orders to fire on her own civilians in order to route the enemy, she’ll interpret it to mean those civilians are traitors.

Ninefox doesn’t bother. Cheris just follows orders without really thinking about what she’s doing. Near the end, she finally decides the hexarchate is evil, and all the reader can think is “no, really?”

6. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

The Gentleman and Strange from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

More than any other entry on this list, Strange & Norrell is an odd book* because it introduces a strong throughline and then seems to immediately resolve it. The first few chapters are a lot of slow exposition in which we learn that England used to be a land full of magic, but at some point all the magic left. This raises the obvious question: what happened to English magic? Solving that mystery and bringing magic back to England certainly sounds like a strong throughline.

Then we meet Mr. Norrell, and he’s already brought magic back to England. The book never says how he did it, and none of the other characters ever ask. So that’s one throughline completely resolved. Norrell talks a lot about how he wants to “restore English magic,” but it’s never clear what he means by that. Nor is it ever explained why only he, and later his apprentice Strange, can do magic when no one else can.*

After the early chapters, almost none of the book has anything to do with what happened to English magic. Instead, it transitions into a bizarre arc where Norrell can’t figure out how to prove he can do magic, despite his god-like power. Then that arc ends, and the book devolves into chapter upon chapter of backstory and petty social bickering. Strange and Norell argue about the best ways to learn magic, but the book never establishes any real difference between their approaches. Then Strange goes off to war where he faces no significant challenges except a brief struggle to convince Duke Wellington, one of the age’s greatest military minds, that magic might be useful in defeating the French.

The book goes on and on like this. The closest thing to a throughline is an evil fae kidnapping people, but even that is almost entirely unrelated to what the other characters are doing. Then, at the end, there’s a sudden implication that maybe all of this was the master plan of an entirely different character, but that’s never explained either.

Strange & Norrell is long, over 300,000 words. To justify that length, a novel needs a meaty plot indeed. Instead, this book gives us a rambling series of subplots that have very little to do with each other. That’s not the book’s only problem, but it’s a serious one. Without an urgent plot holding the story together, there’s no motivation to keep reading for so long. Fans of the early 1800s can still get enjoyment out of all the historical detail, but anyone else will be badly put off.

I focused on novels in this list for a reason: weak throughlines are a problem endemic to the written word. TV shows and movies just don’t suffer from it to the same degree. I suspect that’s because onscreen mediums adhere to a stricter formula, but I can’t be sure. Whatever the reason, weak throughlines are something writers must always be on the lookout for. Nothing sinks a novel faster than a bunch of loosely related scenes with nothing to connect them.

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