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Throughlines - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
I just got most of the way through a long, philosophical post about why some books don't work for me, and I somehow or other moved the mouse, clicked on back... don't ask me how... and then ended up back at my main journal page. Everything I wrote... gone.

I'm too annoyed with myself to do the whole thing again now. Maybe later. Meanwhile, I'll just write about what happened to be my interest when I so rudely interrupted myself: the emotional throughline.

A throughline is generally something thought of in terms of plot--many things are going on, but here is the main story. Everything eventually comes back to it. Frodo may see all sorts of things and have all sorts of adventures, but whatever else there is to do, he's got to go drop a Ring in a volcano, and everything everyone else does is related to the Ring mission. It's the plot throughline, and pretty much any story has one somewhere (though I must admit, I've had trouble finding it in some books).

But I think it's another kind of throughline that makes some stories wake up while others remain pretty much dormant, and that's the emotional throughline. It generally is related to the plot throughline, but isn't quite the same thing--it's the personal and deeply felt need of the hero. The plot throughline is about something that's wrong in the world that needs righting; the emotional throughline is all about what's wrong or broken in the soul.

It's pretty easy to see in some examples. The Empire-era Star Wars trilogy is about the fight against the Empire, but what keeps it together emotionally is the story about Luke's search for his father, at first symbolically through his decision to "become a Jedi like my father," and finally literally, as his quest to end the Empire joins his father-quest and he rescues Anakin from the jaws of the Dark Side. In Harry Potter, the two throughlines are joined in Harry's scar, which marks him as the enemy of Voldemort (external) and also symbolizes the loss of his family (internal). Much of what drives the books isn't the standard "Go after the villain" theme, but the theme of his need to be a part of a family again. Ender's Game deals with the war against the buggers (or formics, as they've been renamed for the Shadow series), but it's driven by Ender's conflicted relationship with his family, especially his brother Peter--Ender loves and hates him, and wants to be loved and respected by him, and fears being like him. There's also his idealized love for his sister Valentine, who he sees as nearly perfect and doesn't want to disappoint. Card is very wise to make sure that, even though the siblings are separated for the vast majority of the book, they are never ever out of Ender's consciousness, and when the ending involves a reunion with Val an understanding of Peter, it makes emotional sense because whatever other issues there were in the book, it was that particular emotional dynamic that fueled it.

The emotional throughline has to be introduced early. There's a longish prologue in SW, but as soon as we get to the farm, we find a discontented Luke jumping to conclusions that involve his father and we hear ominous hints about it ("That's what I'm afraid of") when he's offscreen. Ender's conflicts with his siblings are introduced immediately by distant voices telling us that the government has been watching all three of them and noting their differences, then by jumping into Ender's head where the subject is more thoroughly addressed. The very first thing we hear about in HP--after the intro of the Dursleys (Lily's family)--is the death of the Potters, with only scarred baby Harry surviving.

In most of the books I've read recently that have disappointed me, I think it's the emotional throughline that tends to be most lacking. Godless had a lovely intellectual idea. A teenager who has some issues with his own faith randomly decides to start a religion worshipping water towers, and the book examines some of the darker consequences of this. Unfortunately, the teen doesn't really have a pressing need to ask questions about faith--he's not really suffering from his lack of it (he seems to kind of enjoy it) and he doesn't really learn much that he didn't start out knowing (yup, sometimes people do kooky things, I knew that), nor does he start out from a position of faith which ends up getting rattled. He's not going anywhere, so there's no reason to care whether or not he gets there. It would be like having Frodo's story be one where he opens up a jewelry box, saying, "There's an evil Ring in there," looking at the Ring and saying, "Yup, that's an evil Ring," then putting it back and saying, "I wonder what's for lunch." Montmorency and the Assassins (it's pre-pub, and I read a galley) is the third in a series, and I have a feeling the first one probably had a strong line in it, but by this one, it was just a guy named Montmorency and many, many side characters, happily head-hopping their way around an anarchist plot. A couple of people kinda-sorta learn lessons, but no one goes through any transformation. Everyone's in a holding pattern, and when someone meets a nasty end (no spoilers, in case there are some real Montmorency fans out there), you just... don't care. The author has to actually tell us that everyone left is a bit tweaked about it. And there's a whole subplot about X-Rays that's just... there. It's forced into the main plot once, but not in the context of what the rest of the subplot was about.

When you have an emotional throughline, you can meander almost anywhere. Harry can go explore Hogsmeade in the Invisibility Cloak, Luke can battle Jabba the Hutt, Ender can play endless games in Battle School while Peter and Val try to take over the world, Frodo can be captured by Barrow Wights. We can visit dozens of side characters and be exposed to their lives. It doesn't matter, because those questions remain, and the characters will always go back to them. They need, on a personal level, to finish the quest, so the reader can trust that he or she isn't going to be lost in a deep, dark forest forever. You're going somewhere, after all, and that landmark is always in sight.

Conversely, if you don't have a strong emotional throughline, even ruthlessly paring the plot down to include only absolutely relevant scenes isn't going to keep it from feeling like it's meandering and getting lost, because the plot throughline usually has a lot of surprises in it, and will have a surprising resolution, which you don't want to be able to see as you move through the story. (That's a major difference between the two sorts of throughlines.) You know it's going to come out somewhere, but really, there's no pressing need to get there. Everything begins to feel superfluous, because if there's no need for the characters to be living the plot, then all of the events in it are of questionable merit.

I think that's probably the biggest point of difference for me between the books that "catch" me and the ones that leave me going, "Meh."


20 comments or Leave a comment
sreya From: sreya Date: October 27th, 2005 12:20 am (UTC) (Link)
I have to agree with you, and it's actually the part of writing a story that I both struggle with and enjoy a great deal. Sure, a story can have a lot of interesting things happen, but unless we see how that affects the character(s) (who are in a way us/the readers), the story doesn't mean anything.
valis2 From: valis2 Date: October 27th, 2005 12:31 am (UTC) (Link)
A small question...do you have an IBM-compatible computer? You can use Semagic, which is a terrific intermediary program that bridges the gap between you and LJ. It automatically saves your entry every sixty seconds as you type it. I love it to death.

I have an here with links. If you have a Mac, it has links to LJ clients as well.
midnitemaraud_r From: midnitemaraud_r Date: October 27th, 2005 12:49 am (UTC) (Link)
That's very nicely stated. I never thought of it in terms of "throughlines" like that. I mean, I definitely have a preference for plot-driven stories overall - I like action, adventure, where things happen and the story moves, which is probably why I love science fiction and fantasy-type stories above all and romance novels (with the exception of Diana Gabaldon, which started out romance-driven and - evolved) rates lowest on my scale. But it's the characters themselves that draw me in to the story. If I can't connect with the characters and feel an interest in them, it doesn't matter how intriguing and 'cool' the plot.

I've tried to read the "Foundations" series by Isaac Asimov a few times - long considered a "classic" in the sci fi genre. But I can never get into it. I lose interest almost immediately. It doesn't draw me in, even though everything I've read about the "plot" itself intrigues me. There has to be a mix between plot-driven and character-driven for me, and ultimately, I agree - it's the emotional aspect - the emotional throughline you speak of - that makes or breaks the story.

It's funny. When it comes to fanfic, for long, chaptered fics, I need both - plot and emotional throughlines. But for shorter fics, drabbles, ficlets and vignettes, it's the emotional that's most important. And I'm not talking about PWPs - they have their own... purpose. :) Whether it's a pairing fic or a gen fic, it's the emotional throughline that takes precedence - the need to feel/empathize with the character(s). I wonder if it's because generally, fanfiction is simply an extention of the 'canon' plot throughline and that I know that it already exists.

Interesting to think about.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: October 27th, 2005 12:52 am (UTC) (Link)
The Foundation trilogy is something I'm glad to have read, but wouldn't pick up again in a million years, if that makes sense. The ideas are fine, but I had to force myself from end to end on it. (And don't get me started on Dune, which was migraine-inducing to force myself to keep reading... and I'm not all that happy to have it in my head!)
midnitemaraud_r From: midnitemaraud_r Date: October 27th, 2005 01:09 am (UTC) (Link)
It makes sense. I feel that way about Clarke's A Space Odyssey trilogy, and even some of Heinlein's books, like Starship Troopers (though I love Stranger in a Strange Land)

I liked Dune - although there were plenty of times where the philosphical drivel drove me crazy. They're definitely not easy books to read, many parts were boring and dry and damned confusing, but I did like particular characters - like Duncan Idaho. I tried to re-read them again last year and gave up, which surprised me, because I've read the series through a couple of times before. I don't know if I'll read them again or not in the future (and you really have to be in a particular mood for them!) but I did like the mini series they did for both Dune and Children of Dune on the sci fi channel. The movie was god-awful though! I probably shouldn't get you started though - oops.

With science fiction, my two favorites are Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos (Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion) and Card's Ender books. Hyperion really spoiled me, though, and I find myself comparing everything new I read in the genre to them.
From: (Anonymous) Date: October 27th, 2005 01:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Foundation - I enjoyed them, but the only part I'm really likely to reread is about the Mule. He balances so completely between horrible and sympathetic for me.

Dune - Interesting idea but, if there was an emotional throughline, it sort of lost me. In the first book, I suppose there was Paul's quest to try and avoid the futures he sees and his acceptance that all he can do is try and control what's coming. I don't think the second book explored the main irony enough - Paul walks into his own destruction because it's the least awful future he sees but he's never been able to see the futures where he has a son with his abilities by definition. He knows this is the one place where he's blind but never even considers it as an option. After that, I'm not sure what the point of the stories was.

However, have you ever read The Tale of Genji? I'm just wondering, because it's often described as a collection of stories too loosely connected to be a novel but too closely connected not to. I'm not sure if it maintains an emotional throughline or not (this apart from the fact that, if you're like me, you may have to remind yourself from time to time that you're not supposed to want to smack Genji).

midnitemaraud_r From: midnitemaraud_r Date: October 28th, 2005 01:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I wasn't a fan of Dune Messiah at all. It's my least favorite of the series. I think the emotional aspect is that you're supposed to feel sympathy for the majority of the characters - and pity for others. Paul and Leto especially. Paul for. among other things, not being able to bring himself to make the final 'necessary' sacrifice after sacrificing so much already, and Leto for sacrificing everything for the continuation and salvation of humanity. A single individual holds so much responsibility and power on their shoulders - first Paul, then Leto, and everyone else - the Bene Gesserit, Bene Tleilax, the Guild, to name a few, sought to control them, and subsequently control the Spice. It's hard to love any of them, except perhaps Duke Leto at the beginning. He was portrayed as a good, caring man.

I enjoyed the multitude of political intrigues in this epic, but I don't think I ever really connected with the characters as deeply as Herbert probably intended. The point - well, it's definitely arguable, but I always felt it had to do with the trappings of prescience and the human desire to know and predict the future, the lengths (and greed) that people will go to to achieve this end, and the consequences of such power. And running parallel is the notion of humans vs. machines/computers, the potential of the human mind and the stagnation of those abilities that technology brings.

I've never read The Tale of the Genji - I've never even heard of it before. Who wrote it (them)?
vytresna From: vytresna Date: October 27th, 2005 02:41 am (UTC) (Link)
Gurney Halleck was my favorite. But that's the general archetype I go by: Are they angsty, noble and vengeful? Stick another favorite character on the pile!
midnitemaraud_r From: midnitemaraud_r Date: October 28th, 2005 01:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah - Gurney man! I liked him quite a lot, too, but I was disappointed in how he became "Jessica's man" in Children of Dune. Such a tragic figure as well.
psychic_serpent From: psychic_serpent Date: October 27th, 2005 02:12 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I had to force myself to read Foundation as well, and Dune, but I have almost no memory of any particular thing that happened in either saga and no urge to reread them.

I think that the emotional throughline was part of the problem I had with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell at the start of the book. The character of Stephen (in the Norrell section) is compelling but not present enough and therefore he doesn't contribute enough to fill the void of there being no emotional throughline for Norrell. Once we finally meet Strange the emotional throughline BEGINS, but that's not until you get through the equivalent of an entire novel about the emotional closed-down Norrell, who invites no empathy and encourages no interest from the reader. I'd have been much happier if the first part (which could still have been called "Mr. Norrell") focussed much more on the plot from Stephen's point of view, keeping the mysterious Mr. Norrell as more of a shadowy figure in the background. Norrell was too annoying for words, as far as I was concerned, and Stephen was too interesting to keep hidden for most of that section.

The first portion of the book is a major slog as a result, while I truly wanted to know more about Strange in the latter half of the book, truly cared about what happened to him and his wife (and Stephen, who also appeared more as the book continued) and kept reading to find out. If the Norrell section had been much longer I might not have bothered to read the rest of it.

I think that it's possible that Clarke might have benefited from making the book less linear, jumping around in time, so that the reader was introduced to Strange sooner and had the chance to become invested in him before Norrell threatened to throw a very wet blanket over the entire book. Either that or, as I mentioned, reversing the prevalence of Stephen and Norrell in the first part, so that the reader had a truly human character to invest in from the start. The fact that it always moved straight forward in time and focused on each magician in turn was very orderly but also very frustrating.
(Deleted comment)
krpalmer From: krpalmer Date: October 27th, 2005 10:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was interested by the idea of the "emotional throughline," and started pondering what it might be in certain stories of interest to me. All the talk about the Foundation series, though, led me to some thoughts I've had quite recently about what's kept that particular set of SF books in the mass market for fifty years...

When I saw the first comments, I was willing to conclude that the series didn't have an emotional throughline, that it simply appealed to people who can miss the presence or absence of such a concept and never know the difference. Presenting the Foundation itself as the character is a different yet appealing way to approach it.

As for "Foundation Classic" versus "New Foundation," though, I'm perpetually tempted to say that Asimov himself had resolved the matter of the psychohistorically forecast conclusion by Second Foundation itself... the Galaxy would be ruled by "a handful of academics" in real time from behind the scenes, and all the rest of it was just details. "New Foundation" seems to me to be Asimov rethinking the ramifications of that conclusion thirty years later. The only problem is that his new solution (a galaxy-wide overmind) doesn't please anyone any better than the old one did...

There's a book by Donald Kingsbury called Psychohistorical Crisis, though, which is set in a Galactic Empire ruled by psychohistorians (without superhuman psychic powers) which is amusingly recognisable as Asimov's universe with the names filed off. It's attracted some positive attention as an exploration of the ideas that got lost along the way in the genuine novels.
siegeofangels From: siegeofangels Date: October 27th, 2005 12:54 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow, I'm so glad I saw that in time for NaNo. I have this general feeling of, "My characters, they should be doing . . . something. Like, something important. There should be something here that they care about."

*writes "emotional throughline" in NaNotebook*
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: October 27th, 2005 03:34 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow. As I read your analysis, I found myself nodding at every point you made, but I could never have described these feelings myself. Thank you for writing this.
lareinenoire From: lareinenoire Date: October 27th, 2005 03:41 am (UTC) (Link)
This was a great post. I'm in the midst of massively restructuring a novel that's been giving me an ominous feeling of 'something's wrong but I have no idea what' for the past year-and-a-half or so, and you've got me thinking in terms of throughlines now. I'm one of those writers who lets the characters take over the story and go wherever they will, and I'll fully admit that even if I start out with a plot, I usually end up rather far away from it.
From: anatomiste Date: October 27th, 2005 04:02 am (UTC) (Link)
This summer, I had to work with a mouse that had a side button that moved me back online every time I squeezed too hard by accident. I discovered that quite often, when you've been typing something in a comment or entry blank and click back, if you then click forward you'll find yourself on the blank page again, and your comment or entry is still there. Maybe this will work on your computer in the future.
From: almostsophie Date: October 27th, 2005 05:42 am (UTC) (Link)
This is why I love having people like you on my flist. I can only mumble and gesticulate, but I agree with everything you said. You put into words something I felt but couldn't explain. This will be most useful for NaNo.
From: (Anonymous) Date: October 27th, 2005 06:57 am (UTC) (Link)


While you explain your points nicely and for many they hopefully make sense of stuff- i hold a different agenda with books/stories. the sparkle of literature or pure pulp poop isn't the plot- many a story has a weak/frivolous plot, nor the dramatic tension *as it was explained to me before but you label it differently- it the sense of reality or whether the characters sparkle like they were my friends. my favorite experiences with books that seem to not be "my type" of books but ended up further proving this to me.

David Eddings' "the ruby Knight" was a captivating story for me as it had one character that was my window to the magic of the story- the gelding. I've read other stories of the authors and never was able to finish them they didn't grab me- and missing was the spirited horse.

Some author are soo formulaic that it is a torture to read- yet some are soo formulaic with a magic character or two that I can't wait to devour every word? J.D. Robb's "Portrait in death" was entertaining as a not my type book- but so much as rad a paragraph into another of her book's or the author's other name - which I space now- and I'm back to being bored insane as I smell the formula and I haven't found by this point my reason to read on. I counter this with Dame Agatha Christie and her works- I've not found one that bored me- and the formula is so easy to spotthat its almost an ease to guess every possible ending plausible. I like hercule poirot and his cohorts. I don't like j.d.robb's characters. somewhere in the middle of the mystery genre and its idols is tony hillerman whom is fifty fifty for the books I've read and liking them.

as for comedy and plot? oh god, no, not the movies, I either love it or its back collecting dust and quickly forgotten. I liked the hitchhiker's guide to the galxy and it's followers. I love every pratchet novel I can get my hands on. transfer this line of logic to other media and it is the same. I liked the campy "Galaxy Quest" with tim allen but largely can't stomac "monty Python" anything, but i do enjoy a lot of John cleese movies and find him entertaining. it is the characters I'm even likely to buy their needs as it makes the story flow as stories have to do something, say something.... but it isn't their need that makes it helping or engaging or entertaining to me- it is who they are standing without a narated thought of motivation.
parallactic From: parallactic Date: October 27th, 2005 07:32 am (UTC) (Link)
That clarified something that I noticed about myself. I tend to become interested in the story (the plot), and end up getting attached to the characters. So I think the emotional throughline is more important to me, and I'll put up with plotholes, but would be unforgiving of character violations. Ideally, a story would have both the plot and emotional throughlines intertwined and interacting with each other.
lyras From: lyras Date: October 27th, 2005 11:19 am (UTC) (Link)
I didn't know there was another Montmorency book coming out, but what you say about emotional throughlines or lack of them definitely makes sense in terms of the first two. The first book was really quite sad, full of layers of emotions as the main character struggled to find some kind of moral middle ground. By the second book, it was as if the author, having achieved that, then set off to give her characters Adventures, and I found I cared a lot less about what happened to them all. By the ending, I was pretty bemused, actually.
awelkin From: awelkin Date: October 27th, 2005 01:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
The concept and your discussion of it make sense to me.

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