Category Archives: Throughlines

Throughlines (and how to use them!)

Some time ago I described the difference between the two basic forms of story structure with the following phrase:

You spin a tale, but you weave a story.

The common expression “spinning a yarn” conjures up the image of a craftsperson pulling together a fluffy pile into a single unbroken thread. An appropriate analogy for the process of telling a tale. A tale is a simple, linear progression – a series of events and emotional experiences that leads from point A to point B, makes sense along the way, and leaves no gaps.

A tale is, perhaps, the simplest form of storytelling structure. The keyword here is “structure.” Certainly, if one is not concerned with structure, one can still relate a conglomeration of intermingled scenarios, each with its own meaning and emotional impact. Many power works of this ilk are considered classics, especially as novels or experimental films.

Nonetheless, if one wants to make a point, you need to create a line that leads from one point to another. A tale, then, is a throughline, leading from the point of departure to the destination on a single path.

A story, on the other hand, is a more complex form of structure. Essentially, a number of different throughlines are layered, one upon another, much as a craftsperson might weave a tapestry. Each individual thread is a tale that is spun, making it complete, unbroken, and possessing its own sequence. But collectively, the linear pattern of colors in all the throughlines form a single, overall pattern in the tapestry, much as the scanning lines on a television come together to create the image of a single frame.

In story structure, then, the sequence of events in each individual throughline cannot be random, but must be designed to do double-duty – both making sense as an unbroken progression and also as pieces of a greater purpose.

You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I coined the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.

Throughlines then, are any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends. For example, every character’s growth has its own throughline. Typically, this is referred to as a character arc, especially when in reference to the main character. But an “arc” has nothing to do with the growth of a character. Rather, each character’s emotional journey is a personal tale that describe his or her feelings at the beginning of the story, at every key juncture, and at the final reckoning.

Some characters may come to change their natures, others may grow in their resolve. But their mood swings, attitudes, and outlook must follow an unbroken path that is consistent with a series of emotions that a real human being might experience. For example, a person will not instantly snap from a deep depression into joyous elation without some intervening impact, be it unexpected news, a personal epiphany, or even the ingestion of great quantities of chocolate. In short, each character throughline must be true to itself, and also must take into consideration the effect of outside influences.

Now that we know what a throughline is, how can we use it? Well, right off the bat, it helps us break even the most complex story structures down into a collection of much simpler elements. Using the throughline concept, we can far more easily create a story structure, and can also ensure that every element is complete and that our story has no gaps or inconsistencies.

Before the throughline concept, writers traditionally would haul out the old index cards (or their equivalent) and try to create a single sequential progression for their stories from Act I, Scene I to the climax and final denouement.

An unfortunate byproduct of this “single throughline” approach is that it tended to make stories far more simplistic than they actually needed to be since the author would think of the sequential structure as being essentially a simple tale, rather than a layered story.

In addition, by separating the throughlines it is far easier to see if there are any gaps in the chain. Using a single thread approach to a story runs the risk of having a powerful event in one throughline carry enough dramatic weight to pull the story along, masking missing pieces in other throughlines that never get filled. This, in fact, is part of what makes some stories seem disconnected from the real world, trite, or melodramatic.

By using throughlines it is far easier to create complex themes and layered messages. Many authors think of stories as having only one theme (if that). A theme is just a comparison between two human qualities to see which is better in the given situations of the story.

For example, a story might wish to deal with greed. But, greed by itself is just a topic. It doesn’t become a theme until you weigh it against its counterpoint, generosity, and then “prove” which is the better quality of spirit to possess by showing how they each fare over the course of the story. One story’s message might be that generosity is better, but another story might wish to put forth that in a particular circumstance, greed is actually better.

By seeing the exploration of greed as one throughline and the exploration of generosity as another, each can be presented in its own progression. In so doing, the author avoids directly comparing one to the other (as this leads to a ham-handed and preachy message), but instead can balance one against the other so that the evidence builds as to which is better, but you still allow the audience to come to its own conclusion, thereby involving them in the message and making it their own. Certainly, a more powerful approach.

Plot, too, is assisted by multiple throughlines. Subplots are often hard to create and hard to follow. By dealing with each independently and side by side, you can easily see how they interrelate and can spot and holes or inconsistencies.

Subplots usually revolve around different characters. By placing a character’s growth throughline alongside his or her subplot throughline, you can make sure their mental state is always reflective of their inner state, and that they are never called upon to act in a way that is inconsistent with their mood or attitude at the time.

There are many other advantages to the use of throughlines as well. So many, that the Dramatica theory (and software) incorporate throughlines into the whole approach. Years later, when I developed StoryWeaver at my own company, throughlines became an integral part of the step-by-step story development approach it offers.

How do you begin to use throughlines for your stories? The first step is to get yourself some index cards, either 3×5 or 5×7. As you develop your story, rather than simply lining them all up in order, you take each sequential element of your story and create its own independent series of cards showing every step along the way.

Identify each separate kind of throughline with a different color. For example, you could make character-related throughlines blue (or use blue ink, or a blue dot) and make plot related throughlines green. This way, when you assemble them all together into your overall story structure, you can tell at a glance which elements are which, and even get a sense of which points in your story are character heavy or plot or theme heavy.

Then, identify each throughline within a group by its own mark, such as the character’s name, or some catch-phrase that describes a particular sub-plot, such as, “Joe’s attempt to fool Sally (or more simply, the “Sally Caper.”). That way, even when you weave them all together into a single storyline, you can easily find and work with the components of any given throughline. Be sure also to number the cards in each throughline in sequence, so if you accidentally mix them up or decide to present them out of order for storytelling purposes, such as in a flashback or flash forward, you will know the order in which they actually need to occur in the “real time” of the story.

Once you get started, its easy to see the value of the throughline approach, and just as easy to come up with all kinds of uses for it.

The Four Story Domains

The subject matter of any story that describes the nature of the central problem falls into one of four domains – Universe (a fixed state), Mind (a mind set or attitude), Physics (an activity), or Psychology (a problematic chain of thought).

All four domains must be explored in every fully developed story, but only one will be see as the source of the story’s problem and the other three will exhibit the ramifications of that problem as it ripples out to affect all of the characters.

The reason for this is easy to see if we consider a problem in real life.  We might first ask ourselves, “Is the problem caused by something external (like the creature in the original Alien movie) or by something internal (like Scrooge’s outlook and attitude in A Christmas Carol).

An earthquake, an asteroid, and a shark are all external problems, but with one caveat – any of these might be seen as characters if they are imbued with human traits as opposed to being viewed as forces of nature.

So, if you actually try to get into the head of the shark in your storytelling or if you portray the asteroid as having a mind of its own – literally – then it becomes a character and as such whatever is driving it is an internal issue.  But, under most circumstances these things would be seen as just that – things – and therefore would be appreciated by both author and audience as external problems.

Naturally, then, any story in which the central problem is caused by a character – by any entity that is host to human traits and considerations – then it is an internal problem.  Essentially, the concept is, is it mind or matter.  Or, as has been said, “What’s mind?  No matter.  What’s matter?  Never mind.”

Once you have determined if your story’s problem (or any problem you encounter in real life) is caused by something external or internal you have a much better grasp of the nature of the beast, and therefore of which tools you’ll need to bring to bear in the attempt to find a solution and implement it.

That, in fact, is the real underlying message of a story – for this particular kind of problem, here’s the best tool set (means or methodology) for solving it.  So, stories are about first identifying and then determining the best way to solve a problem.

Still, while we can learn much about a problem just by ruling out external or internal so we have a better focus on where the real issue resides, we can learn much more, even at this most broad stroke initial level of parsing the problem in our dramatics.

To do this, we can sub-divide both external and internal into two other categories: State or Process.  An external state is a situation; an external process is an activity.  The difference between the two is that a situational problem is unchanging, like being stuck in an overturned boat under the water, whereas an activity problem is like a bridge that is crumbling while you try to get your troops across it to safety.  Both are external, and yet they are different “flavors” of external, and therefore will require different approaches and skill sets to solve.

Similarly, an internal problem can be a fixed state such as an attitude, outlook, fixation or prejudice that essentially never changes (at least until possibly at the climax of the story).  While, on the other hand, an internal problem might be an activity – a manner of thinking or a process or chain of thought – that causes problems.

Hamlet, for example, is defined by the trait that he overthinks the plumbing.  For example, he finds the kind kneeling alone in prayer and could easily kill him at that moment.  But, he begins to reason, point by point, that he cannot act then because the king, being in prayer, would go to heaven and that is not sufficient for his revenge.

In another example, imagine a fellow about to interview for a job for which he  is perfectly qualified and completely confident.  But, he begins to think that maybe he is too perfectly qualified and therefore will be seen as not having growth potential and….  if he isn’t seen favorably, it will make him nervous and… if he gets nervous, he’ll become tongue-tied and…   if the becomes tongue tied they won’t think he can communicate very well and…  so on.  Clearly, he didn’t have the wrong attitude, but the problem is because of the path his thoughts take – the process or activity of thinking itself: an internal activity.

To be clear, all four of these domains will be explored as the story unfolds, as we usually first become aware of the true nature of a problem by examining its symptoms.  And only when we have used those symptoms to triangulate on and diagnose the problem are we certain of which of the four is the actual source.  Only then can we bring to bear the proper tools to solve it, and, again, the story’s message, ultimately, is an argument as to which is the best set of tools for the job.

Story Perspectives

Genre, Theme, Plot and Character: each of them is a different level of appreciation of story structure.  But each one needs to be seen from four different points of view in order to fully explore them.

As described in previous classes, the four essential points of view in any story structure are Main Character (I), Influence or Obstacle Character (You), Subjective Story (We), and Objective Story (They).  These represent the four “voices” we have within ourselves – First Person, Second Person, Second Person Plural, and third Person.

To completely understand any issue or problem, we need to consider it from all four of these points of view.  But what are we really looking at?  Again, as described earlier, there are four primary kinds of subject matter – External States, External Processes, Internal States and Internal Processes.  In Dramatica, we call these Universe (the fixed nature of a situation), Physics (external activities), Mind (a fixed mind set such as an attitude, fixation or prejudice), and Psychology (a manner of thinking or path of thought).

So, when we examine one of these as the potential source of a problem and, therefore, where we might best look for the solution, we are going to see it from one of those four points of view.  In other words, Universe might be the domain of the Main Character or it might be the domain of the Objective story or of the other two points of view.

Essentially, if Universe is the domain of the Main Character in a particular story, it means that we are looking at the external situation through the eyes of the Main Character – the most personal view point, the “I” which represents or provides the audience position within the story.  This means that one of the other three remaining kinds of subject matter will be associated or attached to one of the three remaining points of view.  In any complete story, therefore, all four points of view and all four kinds of subject matter will be explored.

In this way, every angle of the problem can be examined in the hunt for a solution.  But, each point of view will only look at one of the four kinds of subject matter in any given story.  It is this connection between where we are looking from and what we are looking at that creates perspective and therefore defines how the author positions the readers or audience in relation to the issues, thereby establishing the story’s message.

The Four Story Throughlines

A story “throughline” is a bit different than a story “point of view.”  A point of view is an angle from which you wish your readers or audience to see the topics of your story.  But a throughline is the entire unfolding of the story as seen from that point of view.  Sometimes, this is calleed a “thread.”

In Dramatica theory we say “you spin a tale but you weave a story.”  This is because tales are linear progressions, like threads, that carry you from a particular logistic and emotional situation  along a journey stap by step to a different logistic and emotional situation.  In other words, it is the unbroken chain of reason and emotion that holds the meaning, and it is the relative value of the destination to the point of departure that holds the message.

Think of “fairy tales” – a form of story in which a judgment is passed on the value of a path taken by comparing the starting point to the ending point.  So, this is very like a “thread” and so we “spin” a tale.  In a sense then, every tale is a single throughline following the events that unfold from a single point of view.

But a story is much more complex with a more complex message as well.  In a story, many throughlines are woven together to form a fabric, like a tapestry, in which a bigger picture – a broader, more sophisticated message, can be seen.  This occurs because (while it is easy to relate a simple chain of events in a tale), the message of a tale is nothing more than that a particular path is a good one or a bad one by virtue of how it ultimately imiproved or degraded a situation.

A story steps beyond that simple statement to tell the readers/audience that the path presented in not just good or bad, but is the best or worst that might have been taken.  This is a much bolder statement.  In fact, it is a blanket statement.  As such, no readership/audience is going to accept it out of hand.  They are going to demand proof.  And so, they will want all other reasonable paths that might have been taken to be explored, or at least dealt with to show why the one path the author is promoting is indeed the best or worst.  To cover the issue from all angle, then, an author needs multiple throughlines woven together – we weave a story.

The four throughlines presented in this video grow from the four most all-encompassing points of view – the four fundamental points of view, if you will: I, You, We, and They – descriptive of the four ways in which we classify ourselves and our relationships with others.  Naturally, there are many other smaller, yet more detailed points of view within those, and that is why the Dramatica table of story elements was developed – to help map, define, and determine the relationships among them so an author would have a tool that would allow the creation of a complete and detailed story argument to support any level of underlying message.

Four Points of View in Every Story

There are four essential points of view in every fully developed story.  They are the Main Character, the Influence Character (AKA the Obstacle Character), the Subjective Story, and the Objective Story.

The Objective story is the most familiar to audiences/readers for it is the view from the outside looking in, like that of a general on a hill watching a battle down below.  It is often thought to be the story’s plot, but in fact it the the objective (or must structural) view of characters, theme, and genre as well.

The Main Character is not necessarily the protagonist.  While the protagonist is the character leading the charge to accomplish the story goal, the Main Character represents the audience position in the story – it allows the audience to step into the shoes of the pivotal character to experience the story first hand and much more passionate in its danger and immediacy than the view of the general on the hill.

The third point of view is that of the Influence Character who represents a different philosophy, outlook, or moral code than the Main Character.  Just as in our own minds we balance who we are against who we might become if we change our outlook on a particular issue, so too the Story Mind struggles with this conflict of ideals which is made tangible in the structure of the Main and Influence characters.

Finally, we consider the nature of that struggle itself – the personal passionate skirmish between one world view or paradigm for living and its opposite.  This is the subjective story and it is where the story’s message or moral resides.

The Main Character, because of its first hand view is the “I” perspective.  The Influence Character whose view we might adopt is “You” for we have not yet become that person or shared its view.  The struggle between us, between who we are and who we might become (philosophically) is “We.”  And the general on the hill and all the other soldiers on the field who are not involved in our personal philosophic skirmish are seen as”They” – as if from the general’s “objective” eye.

Taken together, all four view provide the essential minimum parallax on the story’s issues so that they are fully examined from all crucial angles, leaving no whole in the story’s argument and no stone unturned in consideration of the central issues.

Story Structure Part 10 (video)

“The Four Throughlines, Part One”

In this episode I explore the first two of four throughlines essential to every complete story.  Throughlines are based on different perspectives on a story, much as you might have four cameras covering a football game.  One is the objective view, which looks at the story from the outside in – it is often called the God’s Eye View of Author’s View.  Another is the view of the Main Character as we stand in his or her shoes.  it is the most personal view of what it is like to actually be in the story, without that special omniscience of the objective view.  A third view is that of the Main Character looking at and considering the one character who most stands in his way philosophically.  Often this is a friend or loved one rather than an enemy – a character who urges the Main Character to change his or her ways in some regard.  The final view takes in the philosophical battle between the Main and Obstacle Characters as they come into conflict in attitudes and approaches over the course of the story.  Like the Objective view, the Subjective view is seen from the outside looking in, but not from outside the whole story, just from outside the relationship between the Main and Obstacle.  Each of these four provide a point of view on the story, positioning the reader or audience on all sides of the issues.  Collectively, they all create perspective on the central message issue of the story.  When the story is put into motion and we follow the progress, growth and change in each of these perspectives, they become “throughlines” because they follow the line of each perspective through the story.

“Throughline” or “Through-Line” ?

A writer commented on my article, “Story Throughlines and How to Use Them.”

He opens by quoting from my article:

You won’t find the word, “throughline” in the dictionary. In fact, as I type this in my word processor, it lists the word as misspelled. Chris Huntley and I coined the word when we developed the concept as part of our work creating the Dramatica theory (and software). Since then, we have found it quite the useful moniker to describe an essential component of story structure.

He then points out:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Stanislavski coin the word first? Albeit with a space in the middle:

But thank you for raising awareness. I’ve used the throughline concept to analyze plays in a college-level literature class — the instructor had no idea what I was talking about.


My reply;

Hi, Phil

That’s very interesting! Thanks for the heads-up. I guess we weren’t the first.

We coined the word Throughline when we discovered the four points of view in a story structure – Main Character (I), Obstacle Character (You), Subjective Story (We) and Objective Story (They).

We outlined four “Classes” of story structure, Universe, Physics, Mind, and Psychology, representing External andInternalStatesand Processes.

When we attached a point of view to a Class we created a Domain. For example, if the Main Character personally explores External States, then it is in the Universe Domain.

The Domain represents the area to be explored, but when you put it into motion, as in the unfolding of a character arc or of the plot, then the reader or audience moves “through” the story points, rather than appreciating them all at once as a Domain.

And so, we came up with the word “Throughline” to be a spin off the old “story line” or “plot line” concepts so that it more embodied the audience experience.

I’ve certainly heard of Stanislavski, though I’ve never studied him. I don’t think Chris had – at least at the time we were creating Dramatica. But, more than likely someone may have used the term in conversation or peripherally in class in the cinema department at USC when we were undergrads together. (Though, interestingly enough, Chris and I never took a single course together, having met by means of a mutual acquaintance.)

Nonetheless, clearly Stanislavski was there with the word before we used it, so credit where credit is due!


The Four Throughlines

The following  excerpt is taken from

The Dramatica Class Transcripts

Dramatica : Remember I talked about the Objective and Subjective views of story? Well, another way to look at that is the Objective view is what you are looking at, and the subjective view is where you are looking from. So, the structure represents, the four items or topics we might look at in a story to see the problem at the most broad stroke, unrefined level. But where are we looking from? The question really is: how do you want to position your audience in relationship to each of these potential places the problem might be?

Well, there is a DYNAMIC quad of four points of view. Step out of the role of author for a moment, and pretend you are the audience. You are looking at the story. When you look through the eyes of the “Main” Character, the audience feels as if the story is happening to them, so they are looking from the first person singular point of view, which is “I”. They feel as if, “this is happening to ME”. Which is why people drive their cars funny after an action movie! But if you are the soldier in the trenches, there is the other soldier coming at you through the smoke. You can’t see to tell if they are friend or foe, but they ARE coming at you! This is the character Dramatica calls the “Obstacle” character, because they stand in the path the Main Character would like to take. They might be an enemy, but they might also be someone who cares for you and wants to steer you away from something dangerous or bad.

When the audience sees through the Main Character’s eyes, and sees the “I” point of view, the Obstacle character looks like “you”. And that is the relationship the audience has to them. Second person singular. Some famous Obstacle Characters are Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, or Girrard in The Fugitive, for example. They don’t HAVE to be the antagonist, or the enemy, these are SUBJECTIVE characters, because they are defined by their point of view.

Now the Main and Obstacle are a dynamic pair, not of items or topics but of points of view. To fill out this POV quad, we still have two more points of view that show up in all complete stories. What about the relationship BETWEEN the Main and Obstacle characters? This is called “we” and is the realm of the Subjective Story throughline. You can hear Main and Obstacle all the time saying, “We don’t agree on this”. or, “This is the center of our problems”. The “We” or subjective story POV, is where the “passionate” argument of a story is made.

Eventually, one of the two parties to that argument will be won over, one will change, the other will remain steadfast. That is how the argument ends. But there is one final point of view. “They”! This is the objective view of the general on the hill. It is where the audience observes characters as if they were not actually in the story, but watching a play on a stage. We might care about the outcome, but we are not actually involved directly. You can feel these four points of view in EVERY complete story.

Now….Objective and Subjective are another diagonal, dynamic pair: The subjective story is the passionate argument, the objective story is the dispassionate or “analytical” argument of the story. Reason and Emotion. Sometimes they agree, sometimes they come to different conclusions, and that is where dramatic tension is created. But wait, there’s more! Now how much would you pay! (Just kidding, couldn’t resist!)

What you need to do, is determine which POV gets attached to which topic. In other words, MC, OC, OS, SS, the four points of view, each will be attached to one of the four classes. This positions the audience in relationship to the story’s problem.

Overall Story Problem?

The 12 Essential Questions Every Writer Should Answer

12. Overall Story Problem

As an author you will want to know what drives your Main Character. Selecting the Main Character problem determines the nature of this drive. Choose the item(s) that best describes this issue. Main Character Problem: the source of The Main Character’s motivation; the source of the Main Character’s problems

Without motivation – without a Problem – there is no inequity that spurs the Main Character to better his lot. Sometimes it may seem that Problems exist in our environment. Other times, we may perceive a Problem with ourselves: the way we act or feel. In truth, Problems really exist between ourselves and our environment as an inequity between the two.

As example, we may hang on to our desires, even though it causes trouble around us. Conversely, a whole situation might be faltering because of one stubborn individual. These are really two ways of looking at the same inequity. One casts the Problem in the environment, the other places it in the person. So when we look at the Main Character’s Problem, we are really looking at the inequity of the story at large as it is reflected in the Main Character.

The relative importance of knowing the underlying Overall Story Problem varies depending on the choices you have made about Main Character and Plot. Once again, it is a matter of emphasis rather than elimination. In some stories, the Problem will be the key to determining how you will approach the Storytelling illustrations, while in others it will seem less relevant to the story’s thematic progression.

In the case of Jurassic Park, the Problem is more essential than the Thematic Range to the storyline. Within the Issue of Fate, the story explores the imbalance between Chaos and Order. But its message is felt as an underlying sensation rather than a constant point of focus as the primary characters try to save themselves by containing the huge dinosaurs within the park’s electric fences.

Examples of Overall Story Problems:

Overall Story Issue?

The 12 Essential QuestionsEvery Writer Should Answer

11. Overall Story Issue

An author must not only choose the nature of the problem in his story, but also in what light he wishes to present it. The choice of Issue focuses the audience’s attention on a particular issue affecting all the characters in the story.

Overall Story Issue: The thematic interpretation of the scenario against which a story takes place.

In stories, it is not only important what you wish the audience to look at but also in what light you want them to see it. The point of view from which the audience evaluates the meaning of the story is crucial to supporting the conclusion to a given argument. Issue helps select a filter through which the author can control the shading of the events that unfold. In a sense, Issue provides the audience with a yardstick and tells them, “measure what you see by this scale.”

Examples of Overall Story Issues: