Throughlines are the conflict that ties your story together from beginning to end. The throughline is a story’s core, and if it isn’t working, chances are that very little else is. Unfortunately, a weak or missing throughline is easily the most common problem my content editing clients have, and this problem is often difficult to spot. That’s why today I’m going over a number of warning signs that’ll let you know it’s time to give the ol’ throughline a closer look.
1. Someone Else Has More Urgent Problems
Your protagonist must have some kind of problem, but it doesn’t have to be world ending, or even life or death. With the right techniques, you can tell a great story about a character who’s trying to stop the bank from foreclosing on their house, looking for love in a new town, or aiming to break discrimination barriers on the local robotics team.
However, if you introduce another character with more urgent problems, it’ll hurt the story. A problem’s urgency is determined by two things: how high the stakes are and how immediate the situation is. So if your hero is trying to keep their house, but a friend is trying to keep their family safe from a mafia assassin, the friend’s problem is way more urgent. Audiences gravitate toward the most urgent problem, so a good chunk of them will be more interested in the friend’s mafia story than the hero’s financial conflict.
Sometimes this more urgent problem isn’t around long, in which case removing it is relatively painless. But in other cases, it sticks around and overshadows the actual throughline. This is often the result of a writer thinking of a shiny new conflict after they’d already started the story, or maybe they envisioned the conflict from the start but thought it would be cool if the protagonist was an outsider to it. Either way, there’s now a second conflict competing with the throughline for screen time and audience attention.
Usually, the best solution is either to extract the higher-tension conflict and focus on your original throughline, or give in to temptation and make this new problem your throughline instead. However, a third option is to raise the urgency of your main conflict until the two work together. If your protagonist is trying to take down the mafia’s power structure, then dealing with a single assassin who’s after their friend makes for a great child arc.
2. Quiet Scene Follows Quiet Scene
Pacing is a complex subject, but you generally want to alternate between high tension and low tension scenes. If your hero has just had a blowout fight with their parents, the next scene might be a quiet cry with their best friend or an episode of bitterly drinking their sorrows away. Then the next scene can be a confrontation with the grandparents over a disputed inheritance, then another quiet scene, and so on until you create the upward-trending line that stories need.
A common way for a story’s pacing to be disrupted is to have two low tension scenes in a row. The hero has a cathartic cry with their best friend, but instead of continuing the drama plot, they spend the next scene peacefully browsing the library. This not only bores readers but also signals a major weakness in your throughline: there’s not enough for the hero to do.
When a client’s manuscript lines up multiple quiet scenes in a row, the most common reason is they simply don’t have enough content from their throughline. If the hero did return to a higher tension sequence, the story would be over. There’s only one suspect left in the murder mystery, or the dark lord’s plan would be undone by even a single heroic appearance. Since the author doesn’t want the story to end yet, they add low tension scenes to run out the clock until the climax.
If you encounter this problem, your first option is to shorten the story. It’s tempting to think every manuscript has to be an epic fantasy doorstop, but quality is more important than length. If there’s only a novella’s worth of plot, then make the story a novella. A good novella is worth ten overstretched novels. Your second option is to make the throughline meatier so the hero has more to do. There’s no single way to do that, but possibilities include:
- Add evil lieutenants for the hero to defeat.
- Give the villain goals that the hero can fail to stop.
- Add red herring suspects who provide a clue for the real killer.
- Create collateral damage from the villain’s plan that the hero has to prevent.
Remember, your goal is to add more content, but it has to be related to the throughline. Otherwise you’ll end up with a story where…
3. The Hero Runs Errands
Sometimes, you’re reading a story and the hero stops whatever they’re doing to go do something else. They were hot on the heels of a rampaging werewolf, but now they have to put that on hold to attend an unrelated vampire party. After that, the hero needs to pick up their younger sibling from a school of evil witches, and then they need to fight some zombies to buy fresh apples at the farmers’ market. What’s going on?
This is actually a similar problem to our last entry: the throughline isn’t robust enough to provide our hero with stuff to do. The difference is that instead of filling the gaps with low tension sequences that put the audience to sleep, the author is adding unconnected conflicts instead. That might sound like a better option because at least it’s exciting, but it’s still a serious problem.
When a hero is running around addressing unrelated conflicts, the best-case scenario is that the story feels crowded, like the writer is trying to tell two interesting stories at the same time. Neither plot will end up getting the development it deserves. A less rosy outlook is that the protagonist just seems to be killing time until the real plot arrives. The story is in trouble either way, but this second scenario is worse.
It’s easy to see why too many low tension sequences can make a story boring, but a bunch of unrelated fight scenes have the same effect. Conflicts aren’t entertaining unless they are about problems that matter. It’s hard to create compelling stakes for all the errands a protagonist might run, and even if you manage it, audiences can only care about so many things at once. If you get them invested in one conflict, then pump the brakes and introduce half a dozen more, they’re unlikely to accommodate you.
On the bright side, fixing this problem is often as simple as connecting the various errands together. The hero might have to attend a vampire ball because that’s where they can find information about the werewolf’s identity. Then they send their sibling to steal a werewolf-slaying spell from the evil witches, and so on, until you have a single throughline with several child arcs.
4. The Climax Leaves Unresolved Conflict
A good throughline is introduced at the beginning, drives conflict throughout the story, and is resolved in the climax. It’s that third part we care about in this section, as a weak throughline can leave some pretty important things unresolved.
If the story is about a young socialite trying to overthrow an evil king, then it won’t work for the climax to be a sword fight with the protagonist’s estranged uncle who has no relation to the king. Even if the antagonistic relationship between hero and uncle is well established, that climax doesn’t do anything for the story’s main plot, leaving the story without much satisfaction at the end.
Alternatively, sometimes a story just has too many things going on to realistically resolve all of them. If your hero is prosecuting corrupt politicians, learning magic from their grandmother, hunting down an ancient demon, and wooing a fey from far Arcadia, it’ll be difficult to bring all of that together for a satisfying climax, and it shows that your throughline was fractured from the start.
Further complicating the situation, it can be difficult to distinguish between an unresolved plot and a hook for the sequel. If you’re planning more books, it’s usually best to leave some hint about what your hero will be doing in them. The key here is whether the climax shows progress or simply ignores a problem. If overthrowing the king is a series arc, then the first book’s climax might be a battle with the king’s lieutenant. That’s clearly related, but it doesn’t resolve the entire king conflict.
Once you know whether you’re planting a sequel seed or leaving a plot unresolved, it’s time to figure out why. Sometimes it’s a simple case of discovering a more appealing final fight at the last minute. In that case, you need to be disciplined and stick with the ending you were building toward. I promise the evil uncle will still be there later.
If there’s simply too much to resolve at once, then it’s time to consolidate. If you make the evil uncle a retainer for the king, then boom, now you’ve got a climax that makes progress on the king plot while still leaving it open for sequels. Meanwhile, those corrupt politicians could be the king’s ministers, and the hero could be learning magic to dodge the king’s sorcerers. No story can be about everything, but you can get a lot done with multitasking.
5. Brand-New Story Elements Appear
If you’re reading a space opera scifi story, it would be pretty weird if a group of wizards in robes and pointy hats showed up. If your gritty cyberpunk mystery suddenly featured Victorian adventurers with top hats and monocles, you might ask what the heck was going on. Similarly, it’s not a great sign when a martial arts tournament breaks out in the middle of your tea party etiquette story, or a foreign nation invades in the middle of your noir detective story.
Stories have a limited window to set audience expectations. Even if something won’t show up until near the end, the possibility should be present. If the hero fights a dragon in the climax, this has to at least seem like a world where dragons could exist. Likewise, once you establish the story’s plot, that’s generally the plot you should stick to. Any twists need to be properly foreshadowed, and should still be a natural, if nonobvious, extension of the story you were already telling. Vader’s “I am your father” reveal works specifically because the previous Star Wars film had already made a big deal about who Luke’s father was. Otherwise, it would have just been an awkward moment.
When authors suddenly veer off into unknown territory, it breaks the throughline they put so much work into building. Sometimes they manage to construct a new throughline, but it will never operate at full strength because it was introduced so late in the story. Or the new element might not be a throughline at all, sticking around just long enough to punch a hole in the plot before darting off to the void.
Why do authors do this? Usually because it’s difficult to resist the temptation of something new and shiny, especially if you’re struggling with a manuscript that doesn’t have the same spark it used to. But what seems like the perfect thing to revitalize your story is actually a major disruption, like throwing your car into reverse when you’re cruising down the highway.
I’m sorry to say that there’s no clever way to painlessly fix this problem. You just have to decide which part of the story is most important and focus on that, even if it means cutting the steampunk time travelers.
6. The Hero Has No Goal
Heroes often start the story reacting to problems. For a good chunk of Alien, Ripley and the other humans are just rolling with whatever the xenomorph throws at them. In Black Panther, T’Challa is on the back foot against Killmonger until near the end. During these sequences, the villain demonstrates how threatening they are and how difficult they’ll be to defeat, which is a fine way to tell a story.
However, a good main character has to get proactive at some point. Otherwise, why are they the main character? If the villain is the only one with ideas of what they want to accomplish, the audience will gravitate toward them because at least they have goals in life, even if they’re evil goals. A hero who is eternally swept along by other people’s actions or random chance just isn’t that compelling.
When I find an overly reactive protagonist in a client’s manuscript, it’s usually another manifestation of the problem we’ve already covered a few times: the throughline doesn’t have enough content. There’s no slack in the villain’s plan, so if the hero actually took proactive action, the story would end before it reaches the author’s preferred climactic confrontation. Of course, this can be a sign that the author just likes their villain too much, which is also a problem even if it’s not directly related to the throughline.
But that’s not the only way this problem can indicate a weak throughline; it can also mean that the hero isn’t the one at the throughline’s center. This is easy to check: Is someone else making all the plans while the hero just hangs out? That’s the character who’s really engaging with your throughline. It might be because the problem affects them more than it affects the hero, or they might simply have the necessary skills that your hero lacks. You never know, it could be both.
How you fix the problem depends on exactly what’s causing it. If there just isn’t enough for the hero to do, then the plot needs restructuring so there’s more content. If the protagonist isn’t strongly affected by the story’s problem, then they need to be revised until they are. Compared to those options, fixing an underleveled hero is fairly easy: just make them more competent, whether that means additional skills or extra powers. Then they can take charge when the story needs them to.
The first thing I do when reading a new manuscript is try to identify the throughline. It’s so important that if it’s not working, almost nothing else matters. While I’m happy to help authors fix their throughlines, any work you do on your own will not only improve the work, but it’ll also allow any editor you might hire to focus on finer details. That means a more efficient edit and fewer revisions for you, which is a goal I think we can all get behind.
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