Friday, August 3, 2012

Plot, Structure, Through Line

From the 2012 Sewanee Writers' Conference

The other day, I was standing in a line of writers at Sterling's waiting to get a hazelnut latte when I heard two others talking about their workshop. "How did it go?" writer #1 asked. "Great," writer #2 said. "We talked a lot about plot. You know, it's funny, but we don't tend to talk a lot about plot in writing workshops. We talk about structure, but not plot."

Yesterday, I was listing to the Tin House writing podcast as I went for my morning run, and the subject of plot came up again. Steve Almond and Aimee Bender talked over many pitfalls writers face, one of which is giving a character problems (terminal illness, dying parents, etc) out of fear that if we don't, there will be no plot. Bender quoted Ray Bradbury, "plot is no more than the foot prints in the snow left after your characters have run by." (I believe she left out the end of that quotation, which is "on the way to incredible destinations." I suspect that ending is crucial for Bradbury [ahem, dinosuars; ahem, book burning--Bradbury is not exactly plot-light], but I'll leave it aside for now.)

In my own workshop with John Casey and Christine Schutt, one of the workshop participants mentioned a narrative having a "through line." Casey asked if through line meant the same as plot and the writer answered that no, he thought it dealt more with an idea running though the work (what we might also call theme).

With all this in the air, I've been thinking about the collision and collusion of our definitions of plot, structure, and through line, so I thought I'd do a little Internet browsing this morning to see what Dr. Google had to bring to the table.

I have to admit, my own definition of "through line" (admittedly one I invented from the contexts in which I'd heard the word rather than on scholarship) has much more to do with narrative threads and arcs than strictly themes. For me, the through line is closer to one of Aristotle's unities. For him, time and space helped define the story and give it a kind of cohesion. As we've abandoned that unity and opened narrative to longer forms, we've needed to find substitute unities. Yes, a story's themes are among these threads, but I would say characters, too, can be threads running through a story. Dickens, for example, wrote a cast of characters who were related in surprising and often absurd ways. As we've become increasing suspicious of coincidence, recurring images have added another thread. Asked to define a through line, I would have said that, like any good rope, it is a braiding of all these threads and to form the line that ultimately pulls us over the narrative arc (which I'm using here as almost synonymous with plot).

Thus, for me, a through line combines elements of character, imagery, thematics, etc to pull us over this mountain:

But checking in with Wikipedia this morning, I found that my definition, though pretty, is not accurate either. It offers this:

"The through line, sometimes also called the spine, was first suggested by Constantin Stanislavski as a simplified way for actors to think about characterisation [sic]. He believed actors should not only understand what their character was doing, or trying to do, (their objective) in any given unit, but should also strive to understand the through line which linked these objectives together and thus pushed the character forward through the narrative."

Here, the through line resides strictly in character and motivation, but if we lay Bradbury's quotation ("plot is [...] the foot prints in the snow left [by] characters") alongside this, we find ourselves back at the deep and abiding relation of plot to character.

A Google request for a definition of plot added this:


A plan made in secret by a group of people to do something illegal or harmful.

Now, I realize of course that this is not how writers tend to use the word "plot," but I kind of love the idea that something subversive is going on here. Hopefully, our plots are not illegal or harmful outside of the world of the fiction (honestly, I hope my writing aspires to do more good than harm), but it seems to me that, while writers may have a plan for our book, it often feels like something outside of us, something residing in the art itself, will not always allow us to follow that plan. Our characters don't always behave themselves. The subvert and foil our best laid plans. I'll argue that this is a good thing--a sign that we've just started to make the characters complex enough. The through line may be a way to simplify their personality into something comprehensible for a actor or writer, but it should never serve to make their actions any less authentically human, and therefore, surprising.

I'm no closer to parsing these definitions into neatly defined territories than I was was when I began writing this post, but somehow, I find the blur between these elements deeply satisfying and far more useful than easy classification would be.


  1. As someone who doesn't write fiction, I was still thrilled to see this entry, Sian. I have long used "through line" myself without ever being sure how it came to be in my lexicon, and, to be honest, without having to hand a clearly articulated definition. Seeing the Stanislavski quotation makes me think that I picked it up in a drama class at some point and then naturalized it. But since I use the term primarily in reference to academic writing, I'm going to take a stab at defining it that isn't bound to the idea of fictional characters: "through line," he said, tentatively, "is a visual metaphor to express the general readerly sensation that a text is going somewhere and, more or less, knows where it's going; it's an intuitively felt vector around which the oscillations and dilations of related ideas may expand and cycle, but which still compels those oscillations and dilations to move toward an anticipated destination."

    I've no idea if such a definition will be helpful to you, but being semi-compelled to articulate it to myself has been helpful to me.

  2. Yes. I suspect that you're using "visual metaphor" much as I'm using "imagery," and that those visual metaphors become important in direct relation to what the mean to the character. If the character's underlying desire (or revulsion or [fill in the blank]) then we have imagery driving character decisions, emotional reactions, and plot.

    I was fascinated to see those concepts really weren't at all part of the genesis of the term, but I think the evolution of "through line" and different ways the term is being used raise really interesting, thought-provoking questions.