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Editing with Premise and Throughline in mind

Have you ever tried to explain what your book is about to a stranger only to see their eyes glaze over after the first minute or two? You know in your heart that your 80,000 words is full of intrigue, drama and an amazing ending. But how do you get this across to someone you just met if you only have 15 seconds of their attention?

This is where your story’s premise and throughline(s) come in. Before we get any further, let’s be clear with these terms:

Premise

The single big picture statement of what your story is about. Keep a premise to a single sentence or two. Some allow up to 100 words, but we find this allows too much fluff to float in and cloud things. Keep this clear and concise. For example, something as simple as: Good vs evil on a fishing expedition gone terribly wrong can be a premise for a story.

Throughline

Some use the term throughline interchangeably with a premise. They do have similarities, but the throughline should be a bit more specific and describe an important thread of the story that follows through from beginning to end (thus the combination of the words through and line). The thread should relate with the primary goal/desire of your main character. There may be more than one throughline in a story, but we don’t recommend more than a handful. At least not more than two major ones. A throughline for the good vs evil fishing story above could be the protagonists’ love for his wife and children is more important than anything, even his own life.

It should be pretty clear to you how important the premise and throughline is to your story. In essence, THEY ARE YOUR STORY! Without them, there really is not much of interest to write. Just random words on a page about nothing. The sitcom Seinfeld comes to mind here… wasn’t that supposed to be a show about nothing? In reality the premise (at least from our perspective) was a comedian navigating the trials and tribulations of living in a NY apartment with a group of eccentric friends and neighbors.

This is why knowing your story’s premise and throughline is critical. This is what you should be writing about. Every chapter, every character, every scene should in some way, embody the premise and one or more throughlines of your story. Losing your focus on premise and throughline will lose your readers faster than misspelling artichoke. Keep a laser focus on the relevance of your words to the throughline when editing, in addition to your spelling and grammar.

This is not to say you need to continue to shout a throughline over and over throughout your book. Don’t treat your reader like an anvil and your throughline the falling hammer. Far from it. Your throughlines and premise need to weave in and out of your story. Always there, always present, sometimes at the forefront and other times hovering in the background.

AutoCrit can help you edit for throughline and premise.

Add words or phrases which embody a throughline into your list of personal words and phrases. Not sure how to do this in AutoCrit? Click Here.

For the example above the protagonists’ love for his wife and children is more important than anything, even his own life, try adding the phrase “I love you” and run the personal words and phrases report. This will pull out and highlight all the instances of the phrase “I love you” throughout your text. Does your protagonist ever say this? Does he say it 5 times on every page? Use the frequency of your word use to help determine if you are losing focus on your throughline, or hammering it home a little too hard.


Join the Discussion on “Editing with Premise and Throughline in mind”

  1. Sally Chetwynd says:

    Great exercise which I plan to explore further!

    I’ve used these phrases for my just-released novel, “The Sturgeon’s Dance.”

    Premise: A soul’s search for that primeval fullness of joy.”
    Through-line: “As the psychic link between them is revealed, Rory seeks balm for his damaged soul, and Josie seeks respite from her second sight. Their entwined journey is as turbulent as the restless sea where the sturgeon dances.”

    I welcome any comments on these.

    I’ll need to develop a premise and a through-line for my next work, which will be non-fiction. I think it will be tougher for me to come up with the angle from which to write it. It will be the story of the murder of a police officer in 1964 and its immediate aftermath and long-term effects on his family and community. This was long before the current tensions related to race, immigration, and the cultural war on police, so I need to find the way to make the story relevant today.

    1. Ellis says:

      “It will be the story of the murder of a police officer in 1964 and its immediate aftermath and long-term effects on his family and community. This was long before the current tensions related to race, immigration, and the cultural war on police, so I need to find the way to make the story relevant today.”

      No offense, but if you seek another angle, your book is likely to be very poor due to the severe constraint (or, to avoid that euphemistic phrase, sheer ignorance) of this worldview. The period you imagine in which there weren’t race, immigration, and other tensions does not exist. There also is no cultural war on police, only more scrutiny–as there is in every other sector of public life because of technology and the ubiquity of smartphones (coupled with social media, of course). In fact, fewer officers than expected have been killed in the line of duty in recent years, and despite all the extra scrutiny, practically all but the most egregious actions are met with mass skepticism, indifference, support, or even hero worship.

      As someone who has spoken to those exonerated after decades of false imprisonment stemming from the actions of officers active in the 60s-80s (a few in the 90s, too), I find the apparent motivation for your story to be laughably bad and myopic. I know a fair number of officers (virtually everyone does, as they’re normal people), but I’m willing to bet you’ve never met, spoken to, or even considered the lives of those who were falsely imprisoned, those who were harassed and beaten with no (or precious little) recourse, and those who were irreparably harmed, losing gainful employment or even their lives.

      That said, the story doesn’t need to be made relevant. If you properly develop the subject, characters, and community, as one must do in nonfiction to satisfy the reader, everything will work out fine. You are not going against the grain here, though you seem to think you are. The weight of cultural forces is not a barrier to this story but rather a boon.

      This is the most obvious fit for that age-old writing advice: write what you know. It is better to write the story from the angle with which you’re most comfortable than to butcher a broader take with caricatures of real people and their emotions if you lack sufficient understanding. The focus of the story ought to be tight from the description. Many readers appreciate the “sharper image” that authentic writing provides, and those who are not interested may just put your book down and be down with it, something no writer can escape. If not being given a chance by the reader is your concern, however, then perhaps toss a few versions to different groups of beta readers and await their feedback.

      In my opinion, most stories are worth telling. Good luck.

      1. Ellis says:

        *put your book down and be DONE with it, I meant.

  2. Heather Bonin Macintosh says:

    Sally, if you’d like to explore a tie in to today’s context and changes in policing since the 1960s, you might like someone / narrator reflecting back on the officer who died in 1964. The police museum in Calgary has some great exhibits on historical cases, biases, old investigation methods used, reflections from retired police, etc. You may have something similar where you live. Good luck.

    1. Ellis says:

      Interesting resource, Heather. Thank you. Though your comment wasn’t for me, I found it useful. I’m not writing a police procedural at the moment, but I performed a short search out of curiosity and couldn’t find something local. Canada is in proper order, it seems. I still think Sally’s book would benefit from mostly avoiding present-day narration, but based on your description, a police museum sounds like a more stimulating way to sharpen past narration on this subject (much more entertaining than workshops or how-to manuals on writing a police procedural at least!).

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