Tag Archives: Structure

Don’t Drop That Line

You know what I wish I’d figured out earlier in my writing journey? The importance of through lines.

Take right now. I’m working on a revision of THE DEFIANT HEIR (Book 2 of Swords & Fire). I got about two-thirds done with a first draft, then realized I needed to go back and revise before I wrote the last third where everything comes together. Why? Because the Everything that needed to come together was pointing all over the place, like a pile of dropped sticks, rather than forming a bunch of lines converging inevitably toward the climax. And I had a whole section of the book that was kind of just sketched in, with caution tape strung around it saying “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.”

I didn’t have a clear through line.

A lot of definitions will describe the through line as a theme, idea, or goal that continues from the beginning to the end of a story. I personally find it more useful to think of the through line visually, as a pure structural element.

The scenes and events in a story are beads, and the through line is the thread that strings through them all to make a necklace. Without the through line, you just have a pile of beads. The through line is what makes it a story.

If your through line is working, every scene leads to the next in a natural progression of cause and effect. Your protagonist has a goal, and is driving the action toward that goal. The core conflict runs true at the heart of the story. There’s a clear emotional arc to the story, too, as well as a plot arc; everything bends toward the climax.

It’s all too easy to drop your through line. For instance, I know one way I often do it is when something unexpected happens to cause a plot turning point. That’s good! Yay surprises! But if now suddenly my characters are doing and feeling all new things that have nothing to do with everything they were doing and feeling before, it’s going to feel disjointed to the readers. Even if the new things are all exciting and cool, if we’ve dropped all the threads the readers were invested in and excited about, they may lose interest or feel lost. We need core elements of the story to continue, sticking with us through every zig and zag, propelling us through to the end.

Another common way to wind up with a dropped through line is when you have insufficient agency for your main character. They have to be the one threading that string through those beads. If they’re running around reacting to things that fate or the antagonist keeps throwing at them, without having driving goals of their own which they’re actively pursuing, there’s no clear thread to connect the events of the story and carry it forward…and the readers with it.

The through line gives the readers something to wonder about, to be excited about, to be emotionally invested in. It’s what keeps them turning pages to the end.

I don’t think you necessarily need to be able to define your through line in an explicit word or phrase or statement. Really, it’s a combination of things: core themes, your character’s emotional arc, the main plot arc, the central conflict, your character’s goal. It’s the heart AND the spine of the story.

But you should KNOW your through line. At a deep, instinctive level—and you should also be consciously aware of it. You should be able to trace its passage through your story.

In this particular revision, I realized I didn’t know my through line well enough. I had a bunch of events, and I saw how they lined up with cause and effect to create a story, but I needed to clarify my character’s motivation and goals and emotional arc to give those events life and purpose, and to bring them all together. Once I got a better understanding of my through line, suddenly all the pieces I’d been having trouble fleshing out or fully integrating came clear. A lot of the bits that were giving me trouble or that I didn’t have energy for suddenly seemed easy to tackle.

To map the path of your story, you need to know where it starts, and where it ends, and the lay of the land along the way. But just as much, you need to know who is walking that path, and why, and where they thought it was leading when they first set foot on it.

Your through line is Ariadne’s string, to guide your main character—and you, and your readers—through the Labyrinth. Lose it at your peril.


Breaking a Scene List into Arcs

In a previous post, I talked about color coding my scene list by stakes. That’s only one of the ways I use my scene list, which is really a super handy all purpose tool to look at a book’s structure in all sorts of ways. (To review, it’s just a list of all scenes in order, with a short phrase naming each scene.)

Another way I’ve used it that came in really handy on my current revision is to use the scene list to break the book up into arcs or acts.

I look at the scene list and try to identify turning points in the book, and map out arcs connecting those turning points. You can look at varying sizes of arcs, from a few major acts to lots of shorter arcs—whatever’s useful to you—and even nest them if you want to get fancy. For my current round of revisions on THE TETHERED MAGE, I wound up identifying 10 arcs of varying sizes.

After I identify these turning points, I break up my working copy of my scene list accordingly, and I try to name or label each section based on its overall arc. If I can’t identify an overall direction, or I want to label a section “A Bunch of Random Stuff Happens,” it probably means I have a bunch of disconnected scenes without a clear through line. (This happened to me on this latest pass, and it was super useful to catch it so I could find/make a through line.)

Here are a few of the redacted-for-spoilers labels for my current working arcs in THE TETHERED MAGE, for example:

  • Meet [REDACTED], Your New Problem
  • [REDACTED] Is Getting Worse And Maybe It’s [REDACTED]’s Fault? LOOK ALL THESE THINGS ARE CONNECTED!
  • Starting to Figure Stuff Out & Have Victories & Solve Stuff…
  • OH WAIT NO EVERYTHING GOES TO HELL

(Those aren’t consecutive, except for the last two.)

For other projects and past drafts, I’ve sometimes used more specifically descriptive phrases, as opposed to the more abstract and structural ones above. Here’s a made-up example of this approach:

  • Part One: Searching for the Golden Potato
  • Part Two: Potato Found, but Stolen by Void Bunnies!
  • Part Three: Hunting Down the Void Bunnies
  • Part Four: NOPE! Running From the Void Bunnies
  • Part Five: All Seems Lost (Void Bunny Ambush & Aftermath)
  • Part Six: Unlocking the Inner Potato (It Was Within You All Along)
  • Part Seven: Stealing Back the Golden Potato
  • Part Eight: Void Bunnies Destroy Seattle
  • Part Nine: Unleashing the Golden Potato
  • Part Ten: Post-Potato-splosion Wrapup (soup w/leeks & bacon, mmm)

It’s kind of like the scene list zoomed farther out.

In addition to helping spot structural issues, I also find breaking up the scene list into sections to be really helpful for tackling my edits in bite-sized chunks. For instance, if one of the 25 things I want to work on in this revision is strengthening character X’s voice, and character X doesn’t appear until my 3rd arc, I don’t even have to worry about that item on my list until I get to that section.

It helps me manage the revision a piece at a time, without having to juggle too many things in my tiny brain. And I can identify what I most want to focus on in each arc, and keep that focus in mind as I revise that section.

I’m sure there are a ton of other ways you could use this, too — and other writers probably have their own variations on this technique. I like making lists, because that’s how my brain works. Some people may prefer to map out acts more visually, or go crazy with sticky notes, or make an Excel spreadsheet, or name their cats after various plot themes and throw out some catnip mice and see what happens.

Some people may even be so awesome they can keep track of all this stuff in their head and not need 32 pages of notes to do a revision. (HA HA WHAT KIND OF LOSER HAS A 32 PAGE REVISION PLAN ANYWAY? NOT ME.) (*Switches tabs while you’re not looking*)

For me, though, the scene list is the X-Ray that lets me look at my story’s skeleton. And this is one way to make sure everything’s all connected properly, and not just a loose pile of bones.


Stakes Map

I did a new structure thing today which worked really well for me, so I wanted to share it with all my fellow writers!

I was side-eyeing my current revision, which involves adding a bunch of new scenes, and thinking there might be some patches where I had too many sitting-around-and-talking scenes in a row. I needed a way to zoom waaaaaay out and look at the story structure to check for places where I let the tension drop for too long.

Here’s what I did:

First, I had already made a scene list. I find this is super handy for looking at big structural things. It’s just a list of every scene in the book, in order, with short names (usually just a handful of words) for each scene. Here’s a made up example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one

Etc. You get the idea.

The new thing I did was to color code each scene in the list by the stakes. I might use a different color code for a different type of book, but for this one I did red for high-stakes action scenes, blue for high-stakes non-action scenes (the character has a lot to lose), and green for low-stakes talky scenes (the character doesn’t have much at risk, though plot points still happen).

This was awesome, because it made any places where I had a bunch of low-stakes talky scenes in a row really jump out at me. See what I mean in this example:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Sophie fills Greg in over donuts
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg fails math test
Greg moping over lunch
Greg goes home, gets in trouble w/mom for missing bus
Greg catches bus fine next day
Greg has to do makeup work in math class
Ninjas kidnap Stanley

The middle has way too much green. I can see immediately that it’s a problem. Then I can experiment with different solutions in my scene list until I have a better balance of colors.

For instance, in this example story I might cut a bunch of scenes and insert a higher-stakes one to avoid dropping the dramatic tension on the floor while Greg messes around:

Greg misses bus, starts walking
Ninja attack
Running away, rescued by Sophie
Sophie reveals Greg is chosen one
Greg in school crushing on Stanley
Greg tries to ask Stanley out
Ninjas kidnap Stanley
Sophie fills Greg in while they track down ninjas to get Stanley back

That might be too little green. Readers do need time to take a breath, dig in, and get to know the characters when they’re not in the middle of a huge crisis. But this color code technique will let me spot those problems, too, and identify spots where I need to give the reader a bit of down time or breathing space between epic fight scenes and shocking revelations.

When I tried this with my current draft, it let me get a bird’s eye view on stakes and pacing, move stuff around to fix problems, and make changes to up the stakes where needed. It not only made it easier to correct the issue I’d already identified, but it helped me spot another potentially slow stretch I needed to fix.

I’m totally doing a stakes map like this for every book from now on.