The One Big Thing That Most Manuscripts Lack

I’ll admit it: my title is pretty sensationalist. But I can’t bring enough attention to this issue. When we’re hired to do content editing, 95% of the manuscripts we look at need significant work in this area. Before we look at their work, most writers have already wasted countless hours – likely hundreds of hours in the case of novels – writing in the wrong direction. We correct their course so they can get results much faster, but it usually requires a large revision to their manuscripts.

What’s the problem? Most writers don’t understand what their story is about.

I know – it sounds too easy and simple. Of course you know what your story is about; it’s about a badass space pirate who fights in a civil war or a young farm worker who discovers magic. But while those things are in the story, they may not be what the whole story is about.

Every story needs one plot arc that it’s focused on. This is the glue that holds the story together; everything else is secondary. Nowadays at Mythcreants we call this plot arc the throughline, because it should be present throughout the story, from the opening scene to the resolution. But in most cases, manuscripts either don’t have a sufficient throughline or the throughline they have isn’t what the storyteller wanted to write.

Signs Your Story Doesn’t Have It

If so many stories lack a strong throughline without writers noticing, how can you tell if your story is one of them? We’ve seen many signs of trouble over and over again. I’ll list the most common for you.

  • You don’t know how to start or end your story. Your throughline binds the story together from start to finish. If you are having trouble figuring out how to get your story going or what your ending should be, it’s likely because you don’t know your throughline.
  • The opening conflict doesn’t match the climactic conflict. If your throughline is in order, your protagonist should encounter a problem in the beginning and then finally overcome that same problem at the climax. If your protagonist struggles with something entirely different at the beginning of the story than what they deal with in the climax, you’ve probably got a throughline issue.
  • A side character has the most compelling problem. The main character needs to face a compelling problem and solve it. If the most urgent problems in the story revolve around a side character, it will damage the throughline.
  • A side character has the biggest role at the climax. Your main character should be at the plot’s center from start to finish. If a side character swoops in at the most pivotal moment of the story and saves the day, you’ve got a problem.
  • Your main character is not your favorite character. Time and time again, writers decide one person is their main character, but then fall in love with a side character. Then these writers start making the story more and more about their favorite character instead of the main character. As a result, the story loses focus.

A well-planned throughline can technically include more than one main character, but in practice, multiple protagonists almost always pull the plot in different directions.

What Happens to Stories Without It

The throughline is the core of the story. Without an obvious throughline, your narrative is just a list of things that happen. That has severe consequences.

  • Boring tangents. A throughline defines a story, telling storytellers which events are part of the story and which are scenic side trips. Without knowing their throughline, storytellers can’t distinguish between story and tangent. They end up writing huge swaths of material that will bore readers until their editor tells them to cut it.
  • Excess complexity. Throughlines help storytellers prioritize. Without that, storytellers add everything they think is cool, wherever they can stuff it in. They end up with an over-burdened story that has too much going on, making it slow and confusing.
  • Low tension. Your throughline is the foundation of your plot. If you don’t have a strong throughline, you won’t be able to plot effectively. Plot is responsible for making stories feel gripping and, to a large extent, entertaining.
  • Dissatisfaction. Making your audience feel satisfied is the other big thing your plot is for. Without a strong throughline that matches your beginning with your end, it’s difficult to create a satisfying finish.

If the throughline of a manuscript isn’t strong, that’s the first thing we focus on in editing. Strengthening the throughline will make the biggest difference to your story. What’s more, working on anything else could be a waste of time until you know what will fit into your throughline.

Finding Your Direction

Sometimes correcting a missing or broken throughline is a simple matter of realizing the problem and making a few corrections. However, having a strong throughline often means making tough choices. If you’re torn between different choices for your central conflict and main character, here are some exercises that can help.

  1. Rank your characters. Put all your characters in a list, and rank them from your most to least favorite. Then ask yourself: if you could only keep three characters in your story, which would you keep? A good main character is someone you don’t want to part with.
  2. Look for character arcs. Take your three characters from the previous exercise. How do things change for them between the start and the end of the story? Do they have a different status than before? Do they have different beliefs? Have they learned any lessons? Characters with lots of change also make good main characters.
  3. Identify character problems. List all the problems your three favorite characters have. Maybe one of them is on the run from a creditor, or another is a sailor with a severe phobia of drowning. Which character has problems that feel urgent? Which problems are you the most interested in writing about? That will help you center the plot around them.
  4. Examine the villains. Find all of the antagonists in your story. An antagonist could be a specific villain, a government conspiracy, a monster, a struggle against starvation, or anything else that gets in the protagonist’s way. Of these villains, which feels the most threatening? Which ones could your favorite character reasonably struggle against and defeat in this story? A threatening antagonist that’s too difficult to defeat is a good candidate for the series’ climax, should you write any sequels.
  5. Find your themes. List some conceptual themes present in your story. This might be “making hard choices to survive” or “full automated luxury gay space communism.” Put down any ideas you want to explore in your story. Once again, rank them. If you had to keep just one, what would it be? Is that a theme your favorite characters can participate in?

Look for a confluence of the characters you love, the themes you want to cover, and the problems your protagonists should struggle with. Usually, whatever you’re most excited about is the best thing for you to focus on. Occasionally, we have to tell writers that they are 90% of the way to completing a story they didn’t want to write and 30% of the way toward completing the story they wanted. If you’re excited about things that barely appear in your tale, it might be easier to write a different story about them.

Learn More About Throughlines

We’ve written about them before, but our changing terminology and our large archive can make things hard to find. Here are some links to help you understand throughlines and how to implement them in your stories.

  • How to Turn Your Concept Into a Story: Instead of realizing 200 pages in that you have to redo half your draft, it’s better to think about your throughline as soon as you start thinking about your story. Turning a concept into a story is very tricky, and this article is here to help you start out strong.
  • Setting Your Story’s Direction: This three-part series is all about what expectations your audience will have and how to satisfy them. In particular, the middle article, Establishing and Satisfying Plot Threads, is there to help you identify your throughline and weave it with other plot arcs.
  • Six Novels With Weak Throughlines and Five Novels With Strong Throughlines will provide in-depth examples of throughlines done wrong and right.
  • If you’re still not sure what to do, hire us to give you a boost. Sure, it costs money, but getting a professional assessment and clear directions on your story will save you lots of time and heartache. With professional guidance, you could finish your novel years earlier than you would otherwise.

I’m sorry to say that most fiction courses don’t provide the information that writers need to know. Throughlines should be the first thing that every storyteller learns. Instead, most writers find out about them the hard way.

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  1. Passerby

    This seems to me too much like a script writing advice, since movies have to have this tight three arcs structure. Books don’t need to have one, and they’re multiple bestsellers out there that you can’t really put down to single plot or idea. “The Stormlight Archive” for instance – it has lots of characters, and yes, they are each pulling the plot with their own throughline, but this is what makes these 1k pages long books so absorbing. “A Song of Ice and Fire” too, can you even find a main character in it? And what’s wrong with having a strong supporting cast? If anything, I find it refreshing if the main character isn’t the only one standing up to the big bad in the finale, since it’s so typical.

    While I suppose it is easier to debiut with a tight, single-themed book, I don’t like how this article makes it sound that this is “the only right way”. Having your book plot restricted to a single thread makes it really movie-like, and I don’t think that written world can compete with Hollywood on that. But there’re things and plots that cannot be told on screed, and I think this is what writers should look for nowadays.

    • N

      While I agree that A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t have a single main character, and benefits greatly from it, as I recall the first book was quite different from the direction the series has taken now. The first book was Stark-heavy (6 of the 8 pov characters, 53 of 73 chapters); we expected Ned Stark to be a protagonist; the story arc given the most weight was the Stark-Lannister conflict. Daenerys and Jon were the only pov characters who were completely divorced from the Stark-Lannister plotline. And even then, Jon is emotionally invested in the Starks (he’s not just Some Guy in the Watch), his story ties in with the overarching theme of the series (Ice and Fire); and Daenerys looked like she was going to be relevant to the political scheming in Westeros sooner rather than later. The series is blessed/cursed with innumerable plotlines that don’t affect anything but add to the richness of the world and character development: but that is a feature of the later books.
      Additionally, I’ve always considered the series as a whole to have a single throughline: the white walkers want to take over the world but humans are too mired in petty squabbles to notice. (Although some characters’ plots relate to the throughline much better than others…)

  2. SunlessNick

    The parts about main vs side characters reminds me that every single time I see a recap of an episode of Magicians, I wonder why it’s about Quentin and not Julia.

    • AndrewSublime

      Spoilers for The Magicians below.

      Part of it has to do with the source material. From what I understand about from reading about the original book online, Quentin was deluded into thinking that he was the hero, falling for the classic fantasy trope of a geek who, upon being transported into a magical world, uses his powers to save the day. Lev Grossman inverts this trope, playing against audience expectations.

      The television show creators diverge significantly from the book at the end of the first season, granting a large amount of agency to Julia in the process. The book already featured a sympathetic, but non-heroic protagonists; the show takes it further with the focus on Julia. Quentin does become more heroic when he slays Ember at the end of the second season.

      I do not mind the focus on Julia, as she is far more interesting character than Quentin.

  3. river

    This was my problem for years. Manuscript after manuscript, rewrite after rewrite, every plot decision was a struggle and side characters kept intruding with their interesting but ultimately pointless tangents. My plots felt like an unsolveable tangle because anything was possible. How do you make decisions when there are ten thousand options at every turn?
    Once I learned to figure out and focus on what the story was truly about, the plot became clear, the relevant characters obvious, and plot decisions fun to make rather than tear-your-hair-out frustrating. Thank you Chris.

  4. tob

    What if the story has one of these themes:
    * the world does not revolve around you
    * other people can be more interesting/important than you
    * it’s okay to be mediocre
    * you do not matter in the grand scheme of things

    • Chris Winkle

      If the entire point of the story is demonstrate something that goes against normal storytelling rules, that’s a reason to break the rules. It’s still tricky, you have to make your point very loud and clear so your audience knows the deviation is intentional.

      However, none of those particular themes conflict with having a throughline. The things I mentioned about main characters are just signs of trouble, they don’t indicate with 100% certainty that your throughline needs work.

  5. Kathy Ferguson

    This discussion has useful implications for writing non-fiction as well. I am currently struggling with an essay that lacks a strong through-line because it is about too many things. All are, in my view, interesting but they are “scenic side trips,” as you say. They don’t actually need each other. I’ve known that for a while, but I am fond of all the scenic side trips so it is hard to give any of them up. I think I can adapt two of your exercises to address my problem: “rank the characters” could be rank the ideas; and “look for character arcs” could be develop the relations among the ideas.

  6. I. W.

    Lots of new spec fic writers are starting out with book 1 of a series (like me, how about that). My series has a throughline, and each book in the series has (will have) a throughline, but I’m finding it challenging to use the advice in the “Finding your Direction” section, on account of I get my throughlines mixed liked chocolate and peanut butter (yes, I’m that old).
    “series” is not a great search keyword. I know you have some posts on this topic, but I’m not sure if you have any that address the interplay of throughlines. Can you recommend a post, or write one? Someday, when my books are published and selling, I will be a sponsor (like the man in Popeye who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!) Thanks.

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