The first thing a new fiction writer needs to learn is how to create a throughline. That’s because a throughline determines which events belong in the story and which don’t. Without knowing your throughline, you might have to write your whole story all over again!
Let’s go over what a throughline is, why it’s important, and how you can create your own.
What Is a Throughline?
A throughline is the overarching structure that holds any story together, giving the whole tale a sense of purpose. It determines where the story begins, what makes a strong ending, and which events fit in the middle. A throughline is what the story is about.
Even if you’ve never heard the term “throughline” before, you’ve experienced its effects. Imagine you were watching a movie that cut off halfway through. You probably wouldn’t like this, because you’d miss the story’s end. But how would you know the last scene you saw wasn’t the ending?
Depending on the movie, it might be because the hero is still in grave danger or because they’re still struggling to achieve happiness. Before the end, you’ll feel a sense of uncertainty and concern over a big question such as “Will the hero survive?” or “Will the hero find happiness?” That feeling is called tension; it’s the glue that holds a story together.
A story’s throughline creates tension in the beginning with a big problem that needs to be solved. The middle of the story shows one or more characters struggling to solve it, and the ending determines whether or not the characters succeed. This answers the story’s big questions and dispels the tension. Once that’s done, the audience can walk away satisfied.
Elsewhere, you might hear editors or writing instructors refer to the throughline as “the dramatic question” or the beginning of the throughline as the “inciting incident.” A series of story events that create and resolve tension are commonly referred to as an arc, a thread, or a line. The “throughline” is the most important line that goes all the way through the entire story.
Let’s look at some examples of throughlines in famous stories.
Star Wars: A New Hope
The problem: A massive weapon called the Death Star is threatening the galaxy.
How Luke Skywalker and the other heroes struggle to solve this:
- Carrying plans showing a fatal weakness in the Death Star, R2-D2 escapes from Vader and finds Obi-Wan, meeting Luke along the way.
- Obi-Wan determines they must get the plans to the rebellion, so he hires Han Solo to bring himself, Luke, and the droids to Alderaan.
- Outside the ruins of Alderaan, the ship is caught by the Death Star. The group manages to rescue Princess Leia and escape, but Obi-Wan is lost in the process.
- Princess Leia directs the group to the rebel base to deliver the plans just as the Death Star arrives to destroy the rebels.
The resolution: Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star.
A Christmas Carol
The problem: Scrooge is a miser who makes the people around him miserable. If he doesn’t change his ways, he’s headed for damnation.
How Scrooge and his spirit guides struggle to solve this:
- The night before Christmas, the ghost of Scrooge’s old business partner shows up to warn him of the consequences he’ll face in the afterlife if he doesn’t change.
- The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to visit his earlier years. This helps Scrooge remember that his fiancée left him because he prioritized money over her. Scrooge cries in regret.
- The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to visit the house of his employee, Bob Cratchit. The Cratchit family is barely getting by, and they have an ill child, Tiny Tim, whom the ghost tells Scrooge will die if nothing changes.
- The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge that after he dies, no one will mourn him, and some will even celebrate.
The resolution: Once he wakes up on Christmas Day, Scrooge rejoices that he has a second chance and spends his money generously.
The problem: Suitors threaten Odysseus’s wife and lands, but a dangerous voyage has made it difficult for him to return home.
How Odysseus and his patron, Athena, struggle to solve this:
- A storm drives Odysseus’s fleet of twelves ships off course, putting them in the land of lotus-eaters. The lotus makes the men forget their homecoming until Odysseus drags them back to the ships.
- Next, the ships land near the home of the cyclops Polyphemus, who captures and starts eating the men. Odysseus comes up with a plan to get Polyphemus drunk and blind him so they can escape and head home again.
- Odysseus continues to face antagonists who destroy more ships and crew before he escapes. After Odysseus’s men hunt animals sacred to Helios, the last ship is destroyed and everyone but Odysseus is killed.
- Odysseus is trapped by the nymph Calypso for seven years until Athena pleads with Zeus on his behalf. The gods order Calypso to let Odysseus go. He makes it to the island of the Phaeacians, who get him back home to Ithaca.
The resolution: Odysseus sneaks into his home and kills all of the suitors.
Read more throughline examples.
Why Is a Throughline Important?
A story’s throughline is essential for entertaining readers and motivating them to continue. It’s why readers want to know the end. During the middle, the throughline allows readers to witness the story making progress toward a conclusion, which keeps them satisfied.
This is especially important for novels, because they’re longer works. A short piece of flash fiction might motivate readers just by being funny, whereas longer works rely on longer-lasting means of entertainment and motivation.
Plus, a matching problem and resolution gives the story a sense of meaning and purpose for readers to walk away with. That will make them more likely to recommend the story to their friends.
You can see the difference for yourself. Let’s compare two sequences of events: one with a throughline and one without.
Below is a series of events without a throughline.
- Naya bakes an elaborate cake for her sister’s birthday.
- The next day, Naya goes to her boring job.
- Some friends have a movie night. Naya attends.
- Naya buys a sweater for her dog.
Now look at the following series with a throughline.
- Naya is miserable at her boring job, so she leaves to open a bakery.
- The bakery has no customers. The only person to stop by asks for gluten-free goods, which Naya doesn’t have.
- Naya makes a variety of baked goods for special diets and advertises them.
- People who have special dietary needs flood the bakery, making Naya’s business a big success.
- Naya now feels happy and fulfilled.
Without a throughline, fiction feels more random, pointless, and aimless.
How to Create a Throughline
Here are some step-by-step instructions for creating a throughline. If you’re writing a short story instead of a novel, check out our more detailed directions for outlining a short story.
1. Choose a Problem
The first step is to create a problem that your protagonist will work on solving during the story.
A good problem:
- Has the right scope for the length you’re writing. For a short story, consider a small problem that one character could solve in a day. For a novel, you might want a big problem that a team could solve in a few months. As you get more practice, you’ll get a better sense of when a problem is too big or small.
- Must be dealt with to avoid consequences. To create enough tension, the problem should create a disastrous outcome if the protagonist fails to solve it. For instance, in A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s possible damnation serves as a consequence if he fails to change.
- Has some urgency. This doesn’t mean the problem needs to be solved in an hour; it just means the protagonist can’t afford to waste their time. This can be accomplished by adding a specific deadline or showing how the problem continues to get worse. In the Odyssey, Odysseus’s wife puts off her suitors by saying she has to weave a tapestry before marrying again, and that tapestry gets closer and closer to being done.
- Matches your personal interests or passions. Writing is hard work, so your own motivation is important. Look for a problem that could be solved by exploring what you like to write about. If you’re passionate about teaching, your story could feature a teacher that needs to help students in danger of dropping out. Whereas if the problem is that the school needs money, you could end up writing about political advocacy or fundraising instead.
Learn more about creating problems with tension or about the importance of passion in writing fiction.
2. Plan a Resolution for Your Problem
Decide how you’d like the throughline’s problem to be resolved. You can choose anything that settles the issue permanently, for good or ill.
- Happy endings are the most popular because readers like to feel good! A happy ending means the protagonist solves the problem and avoids serious consequences. You can still surprise your readers. Your protagonist might face an unexpected challenge such as a betrayal, or they might solve the problem in an unexpected and innovative way.
- Bittersweet endings usually involve a protagonist solving the problem at a great cost. If your protagonist has to make a personal sacrifice at the climax, that can make the ending powerful but still hopeful.
- Tragic endings feature a protagonist who fails. These stories are less popular with today’s audiences, but they can be a fantastic way to send a message. See our guide to writing tragic stories.
If you’d prefer to ad-lib your story while you’re writing the first draft, that’s okay too! Just keep in mind that your ending needs to show the protagonist solving the throughline problem or facing consequences for failing.
Learn more about solving problems in ways that readers find satisfying.
3. Design Obstacles for the Middle
Once you know the story’s beginning and end, it’s time to fill the space in between. Create obstacles that your protagonist must get past in order to solve the problem. These may resemble steps toward success, but each step should be a challenge that tests your protagonist. For instance, if your story is about Naya, who wants to open a bakery, the first challenge might be to convince the bank to give her a loan or to find a decent location she can afford.
The number of obstacles is flexible. You can have many small ones or fewer large ones, in the same way a book can have lots of short chapters or fewer long chapters.
After each obstacle, make the problem more difficult to solve. That way, your story will get more exciting as it moves toward the climax. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, Frodo and the other protagonists have to travel to Mordor. Along the way, they face dangerous terrain like the mines of Moria. Because Mordor is a perilous place, as they get closer to their destination, the journey becomes more difficult.
Learn more about filling in a story’s middle or how all stories are structured.
Let’s go over some common questions and misconceptions about throughlines.
Is a Throughline About a Specific Character?
No, a throughline doesn’t have to focus on a single character. However, choosing a single protagonist makes the story easier to write and often results in higher engagement.
You can choose a throughline problem that must be solved by a whole team, community, or even an entire civilization. However, the more characters you include, the harder it becomes to keep the story interconnected. Plus, focusing on a specific character your readers care about gives them another reason to keep reading.
Does a Character’s Goal Create a Throughline?
No, a character goal doesn’t in itself create a throughline, but it is often helpful for plotting. In many stories, the protagonist’s goal is to solve the throughline problem, making the goal and problem correlate strongly. However, it’s the tension of the problem, not the character goal, that makes readers anticipate the end.
Learn more about plotting with a character goal vs. a problem.
Can a Throughline Change During the Story?
No, the purpose of a throughline is to hold the entire story together, so by definition it shouldn’t change.
However, stories come in many formats. TV shows are often episodic, so the throughline of each episode is more important than the season’s throughline. Storylines can also become more or less important depending on how much tension they have. This is why a season arc in a TV show may be present in early episodes, but not take center stage until the last episodes of the season.
Can a Story Have Multiple Throughlines?
No, a story can have multiple plotlines that cover the story from beginning to end, but only the highest tension plot is referred to as the throughline. Tension captivates audiences, so the highest tension plotline feels most important.
In some unusual cases such as Game of Thrones, there may be two very high tension plotlines that could be considered the throughline. In Game of Thrones, there is both a violent struggle over the throne of Westeros and an invasion by the White Walkers.
It’s essential that plotlines don’t compete for space in a story. A story can only handle multiple big plotlines to the extent that characters can make progress on those problems simultaneously.
While it takes skill and practice to create a great plot, the first few steps will make a big impact. With a rough throughline in place, all of your other revisions will be at a smaller scale. If you’re still working on your throughline, it’s a great time to reevaluate what’s most important to you. Write your story about that.
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