Throughlines for Stories

Once you conceive your basic story idea and characters and start writing, you’ll reach the heart of the book, that painful place where, like Hansel and Gretel, it’s not uncommon to become lost in the dark, savage woods. It’s scary in there. Intimidating. Confusing. It’s easy to become frightened and lose your way as you try to move forward. But as someone said who must have once found herself in a similar position, “The only way out is through.” Nancy Lamb gives clear advice.

The best way to travel the length of your story is to grab hold of the throughline—the driving force of the book—and refuse to let go. There can, of course, be more than one throughline in a book. But as you will see, there should always be one fundamental throughline that pulls the reader from beginning to end. And this is never more important than when writing for young readers.

In Hollywood, screenwriters speak of the throughline as an unwavering given in a screenplay. The throughline creates the forward momentum that makes the story absorbing and the protagonist spring to life. Some writers think of the throughline as the embodiment of the main character’s conscious desire. The character knows what he wants and knows that he wants it. This personal hunger, shared by the viewer, drives the story and shapes the narrative.

Somewhere at the closing of the second act of a screenplay, or at the end of the middle of a book, the character’s conscious desire breaks down. What she wants is denied, either by her own choice or by the force of outside circumstances. This breakdown exposes a deeper motivation that propels the character forward, a motivation she was originally unaware of.

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This thirst—this force that motivates the hero and drives the action—becomes a secondary, but equally powerful, throughline. Just as a screenwriter constructs a throughline for his story, an actor constructs a throughline for his role in a play or movie. As he moves through the play, he thinks of the throughline as his objective. Each actor has an overall objective, a guiding light he follows throughout the play from beginning to end. Whatever situation in which he finds himself, he does not lose sight of this goal, the throughline. The actor also has an objective for each scene—a mini throughline, a driving motivation that guides him from the beginning to the end of the scene. The throughline is there to keep the actor on track, which is precisely what it does for a writer.

Propel your hero forward.

In Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, Jess Aarons wants more than anything to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade—“not one of the fastest or next to the fastest, but the fastest. The very best.”

This ambition constitutes the initial throughline that defines the overall momentum of the book. Then Jess meets Leslie Burke, the new girl in school. She’s a tomboy and a faster runner than Jess. In spite of their competition, the two forge a powerful and lasting friendship. Jess and Leslie bond in their defense against a hostile world and their embrace of a world of art and imagination. The two build a magical castle in the woods, a place that can be reached only by swinging over a rain-swollen creek, where Jess must eventually confront his fear of water: “He may not have been born with guts, but he didn’t have to die without them.”

Beginning with his goal of becoming the fastest runner in the fifth grade, Jess’ multifaceted desire for self-realization becomes the primary throughline that runs through the story from beginning to end. We see this throughline manifested in his need to confront his fear and affirm his artistic talent, and we see it in his need to overcome the obstacles life has set before him.

Leslie’s accidental death gives rise to the final throughline of the story. Here, Jess must learn to cope with his grief and believe in himself. Until that point, he has been convinced he needed Leslie to “make the magic.” Now Jess is alone and must learn to call upon his own creative spirit without the help of his friend. He must also celebrate Leslie’s memory by confronting his fear of water and honoring the artist within him.

All of these thematic throughlines propel the hero forward into and through the action. Each one is powerful in its own right and grows out of the action that preceded it. And each one is presented in a true and spellbinding way.

Allow the throughline to evolve.

On a more basic level, in Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could, the story begins with a train carrying toys and food to the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain. The desire to make the delivery is the original and sustaining throughline of the book. The train has toys. The children are waiting.

Before the train can go over the mountain, however, the original engine breaks down, jeopardizing the delivery of toys and food. The dolls on the train ask three engines for help, but they all refuse. Finally, the dolls ask a tiny blue engine, and she agrees to help.

Here, the throughline shifts from the need to deliver toys to the engine’s challenge of pulling the train over the mountain. Will she or won’t she be able to accomplish this daunting task? The last third of the story is then propelled by this secondary throughline, moving from, “I think I can,” to, “I thought I could,” in a tale that has entertained and encouraged young children for generations.

Although the focus shifts midway through the story to the new throughline of finding and receiving help—along with whether the Little Engine will make it over the mountain—the overarching throughline of the book still remains. Even as we cheer for the success of the Little Engine, we never forget that the boys and girls on the other side of the mountain are waiting for their goodies.

Continuing the train motif, think of the throughline as a locomotive carrying your main character on the journey through your book. You move down the track in one direction only. You might stop at stations, take on new passengers and let others off, admire the views, even grab a bite for lunch. But you always maintain a forward-moving trajectory. You never lose sight of your goal. You might change tracks, but you don’t bring the throughline to a halt before it connects to the next throughline or reaches the final destination. Even if you employ the liberal use of flashbacks and multiple subplots, the momentum is always and inevitably forward toward your destination.

From beginning to end, the throughline is a constant in your story. Any number of other things can happen, but what drives the hero and compels her to act is never in question because the throughline is there to maintain your readers’ attentions and to pull them through the story. Follow Nancy Lamb’s advice to keep you story on track.

SA

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7 Rules For Choosing Character Names

 I stumbled upon these seven great rules for choosing character names offered up by popular mystery writer Elizabeth Sims (the Rita Farmer Mysteries). Consider each of these tips before choosing a name.

 

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1. Check root meanings.

It’s better to call a character Caleb, which means “faithful” or “faithful dog,” than to overkill it by naming him Loyal or Goodman—unless you want that for comic/ironic purposes. Some readers will know the name’s root meaning, but those who don’t might sense it.

2. Get your era right.

If you need a name for an 18-year-old shopgirl in a corset store in 1930s Atlanta, you know enough not to choose Sierra or Courtney, unless such an unusual name is part of your story. Browse for names in the era you’re writing. A Depression-era shopgirl who needs a quick name could go by Myrtle or Jane; it will feel right to the reader. Small public libraries will often have decades’ worth of local high school yearbooks on the shelves. Those things are gold for finding name combinations from the proper era.

3. Speak them out loud.

Your novel might become an audiobook or an e-book with text-to-speech enabled. A perfectly good name on paper, such as Adam Messina, may sound unclear aloud: Adam Essina? Adah Messina?

4. Manage your crew appropriately.

Distinguish your large cast of characters by using different first initials, of course, and vary your number of syllables and places of emphasis. Grace Metalious (a great name right there) demonstrates this in her blockbuster Peyton Place, as do any of the successful epic writers like James Michener and Larry McMurtry.

5. Use alliterative initials.

Employ this strategy to call special attention to a character: Daniel Deronda, Bilbo Baggins, Ratso Rizzo, Severus Snape.

6. Think it through.

You might notice that in most crime fiction the murderer rarely has a middle name or initial. Why? Because the more you explicate the name, the more likely there’s a real person out there with it. And reading your story they might become upset and try to sue you or come after you some night with a bayonet.

7. Check ’em again.

When choosing a name for a Japanese-American criminal defense attorney, and the name Gary Kwan sounded good. I loved the name and used it in the book. Only thing was, Kwan is a Chinese surname so ALWAYS check name origins!

Naming characters is a challenge, but give it some time and thought, and you’ll start to find the fun in it. Study the names great authors have come up with, let your mind loose to play, do your research, and above all, trust your ear.

SA

Believe It

Ultrasound then surgery

C T scan – lumpectomy

Felt great before they worked on me

Can you believe it?

To Glasgow for a Hickman line

On good days, though I do feel fine

It hardly seems this life is mine

Can you believe it?

Coloured capsules: lots of pills

Hygiene, mouthwash ulcerous ills

Nosebleeds leaving bright red spills

Can you believe it?

Lethargy and long, long naps

Daytime TV: memory gaps

Sleepless nights spent reading pap

Can you believe it?

Urine dark as Grandpa’s tea

Baldy pate & sore left knee

The doctors say they’re curing me –

Can you believe it?

By Christmastime – I’m truly blessed

Accepting someone else knows best

Cured and  healed with time for rest

You can believe it.

S A

Quotes on Writing by Gore Vidal

“You can improve your talent, but your talent is a given, a mysterious constant. You must make it the best of its kind.”

“I’ve always said, ‘I have nothing to say, only to add.’ And it’s with each addition that the writing gets done. The first draft of anything is really just a track.”

 

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“The reason my early books are so bad is because I never had the time or the money to afford constant revisions.”

“That famous writer’s block is a myth as far as I’m concerned. I think bad writers must have a great difficulty writing. They don’t want to do it. They have become writers out of reasons of ambition. It must be a great strain to them to make marks on a page when they really have nothing much to say, and don’t enjoy doing it. I’m not so sure what I have to say but I certainly enjoy making sentences.”

“Constant work, constant writing and constant revision. The real writer learns nothing from life. He is more like an oyster or a sponge. What he takes in he takes in normally the way any person takes in experience. But it is what is done with it in his mind, if he is a real writer, that makes his art.”

“I’ll tell you exactly what I would do if I were 20 and wanted to be a good writer. I would study maintenance, preferably plumbing. … So that I could command my own hours and make a good living on my own time.”

“If a writer has any sense of what journalism is all about he does not get into the minds of the characters he is writing about. That is something, shall we say, Capote-esque—who thought he had discovered a new art form but, as I pointed out, all he had discovered was lying.”

“A book exists on many different levels. Half the work of a book is done by the reader—the more he can bring to it the better the book will be for him, the better it will be in its own terms.”

 

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[When asked which genre he enjoys the most, and which genre comes easiest:]
“Are you happier eating a potato than a bowl of rice? I don’t know. It’s all the same. … Writing is writing. Writing is order in sentences and order in sentences is always the same in that it is always different, which is why it is so interesting to do it. I never get bored with writing sentences, and you never master it and it is always a surprise—you never know what’s going to come next.”

[When asked how he would like to be remembered:]
“I suppose as the person who wrote the best sentences in his time.”

The 12-Day Plan of Simple Writing Exercises

The first day of the month is always the perfect time to restart your engine and get back into writing. Here, I offer up a 12-day plan of simple writing exercises to help you keep your creative juices flowing without eating up too much of your time. Follow this plan and by halfway through the month, you’ll not only be impressed with what you’ve accomplished, but you may also have something worth publishing.

Day 1:

Write 10 potential book titles of books you would like to write.

Day 2:
Create a character with personality traits of someone you love, but the physical characteristics of someone you dislike.

Day 3:
Write a setting based on the most beautiful place you have ever been.

Day 4:
Write a letter to an agent telling them what a good writer you are.

Day 5:
Write a 20-line poem about a memorable moment.

 

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Day 6:
Select a book and pick two chapters at random. Take the first line of one chapter and the last line of the other chapter and write a short story (maximum 1000 words) using those as beginning and end to the story.

Day 7:
Write a letter to yourself detailing what you need to improve in the next 6 months.

Day 8:
Rewrite a fairy tale from the point of view of the villain.

Day 9:
Turn on your TV. Write down the first sentence you hear and write a story based on it.

Day 10:
Go sit in a public place and eavesdrop on a conversation. Turn what you hear into a short story.

Day 11:
Write the acknowledgments page that will be placed in your published book, thanking all the people who have helped you along the way.

Day 12:
Gather everything you’ve written over the previous 11 days. Pick your favorite. Edit it, and try to get it published or post it on the Web to share with the world. Take pride in your work.

SA

Megrahi is Dead

There was only one person convicted of the terrorist outrage that killed 270 people in December 1988. A Libyan, Megrahi, was convicted of the crime.

Pan-Am flight 103 exploded over the dark winter sky over Lockerbie, Dumfriesshire in Scotland. Everybody on the plane was killed. Many people on the ground also died.  

Is it possible that the carnage that day resulted from the actions of only one man? Two individuals were tried but only Megrahi was convicted. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a Scottish jail where they built a mosque to allow him to worship while he served his sentence. No other prisoners in Scotland have had the benefit of specifically designed places of worship, although freedom of worship is a human right permitted to all prisoners in Scotland.

Megrahi’s life sentence was the punishment that many relatives, particularly of his American victims, believed should mean that the prisoner lived the rest of his life behind bars. It would have meant at least that had he been tried in the USA.

However, Scotland has always prided itself on having a compassionate legal system. As a result of this, when Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer he was released from jail in Scotland and allowed to return home to Libya. This, the Justice Secretary Kenny McAskill said, was a decision taken on compassionate grounds as Megrahi would be dead in 3 months.

Mr McAskill’s judgement has been called into question many times. What compassion Megrahi showed to his victims was not clarified by the Justice Secretary or his cabinet colleagues.

However, Megrahi died on 20 May, 2012, almost 3 years after his release from a Scottish jail. Gone, but not forgotten, by the relatives of his 270 victims, nor by Kenny McAskill.

SA