My fiction writing teacher in college told us there are only two kinds of stories: character stories and situation stories. In a character story, the protagonist evolves over the course of the action from one thing into another—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rocky, and “The Ugly Duckling” are all character stories. In situation stories, the protagonist(s) is/are dropped into a negative situation, and the action of the story is how she or he or they deals/deal with it—Moby Dick, Twelve Years a Slave, and Night of the Living Dead are all situation stories. Most stories have some crossover back and forth—the hero of a character story evolves by dealing with a series of situations; the poor saps in a situation story might well be changed forever by their harrowing experience. But the spine of the story is one or the other; the reason the story exists is to demonstrate either how this person evolves or how this person or these people get out of the mess they’re in.
My fiction writing teacher in college was wrong about a lot of stuff, but I think in this case, he was right on the money because what he’s actually talking about is a through line, and every good story has one. The greatest hook, the most interesting characters, the most mind-blowing world-building fiction has ever known won’t save a story that wanders all over the place and takes forever to figure out what it’s trying to say or, worse, never seems to figure it out at all. Yes, you need to grab the reader’s attention; yes, you need to show them something they haven’t seen before or haven’t seen in quite that way before. But more important than all of that, you have to give them something to hold on to at the very beginning that they can keep clutched in their fist all the way to the end. They have to know what or whom to root for and why. Otherwise, they are just not going to care.
From my reading, I would say the biggest and most common problem talented and hardworking new and indie writers have is their through line–either not knowing what their through line is or not making it plain to the reader early enough to do them any good or not following it through to the end. This is the single most common reason why they aren’t getting paid for the stuff they’ve worked so hard to write, why they aren’t getting accepted by publishers, why the stuff they publish themselves isn’t selling. (Untalented and lazy new and indie writers don’t sell because they suck.) And it feels really complicated; it feels like a hard fix—I actually had to look up the definition of through line before I started this because it’s such a vague and floofy concept. But you can train yourself to recognize the through line in other stories pretty easily, and once you’ve done that, it becomes easier to find your own.
So how do you find it? Step one: is it a character story or a situation story? Step two for a character story: how does the character evolve? Who are they in the beginning? Who are they in the end? How do the different things that happen in the story change them from that first thing into that second thing? Step two for a situation story: what’s the problem? How do they fix it? At first glance, the situation story looks simplest, and it can be—there’s a reason why murder mysteries and Godzilla movies never go out of style. But a good situation story can be incredibly artful and complex, and a good character story can be packed front to back with action. Every origin story about every superhero ever written is a character story—mayhem does indeed ensue, but only so Superhero can deal with it and thereby become the Superhero she or he is meant to be.
Actually, the best example I can think of to demonstrate what I’m talking about is the trilogy of Batman movies written by Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Because they are action movies about a superhero, they might all three seem like situation stories. But in fact, both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises are very much character stories that exist primarily to show the evolution of the character of their protagonist. In Batman Begins, every incident that occurs leads Bruce Wayne further down the path to becoming Batman. It’s not a single situation to be managed but a series: Escape the audience of an opera about bats; survive the mugging; try and fail to make a new life as an orphan; try and fail to get revenge on his parents’ killer; go off to Asia to feeeeeeel something; take the blue flower to the top of the mountain; etc., etc., etc.—this is why haters like me think this movie takes foreeeeeeeeeever to get started, but in fact, it’s a very carefully and deliberately crafted character story that begins with Bruce Wayne as a child and ends when Batman saves the day and becomes a superhero in the imagination of Gotham City. The Dark Knight Rises is almost the same story in reverse. Batman begins the story as a feared and hated public figure and through a series of incidents that thwart his efforts to be a superhero at every turn evolves back into private citizen Bruce Wayne. Only The Dark Knight is a situation story—it’s Godzilla, and the Joker is the monster. It’s complex, beautifully crafted, and has amazing character work throughout, but the point, the spine, the through line is, the Joker appears, and Batman has to deal with him.
But what’s all this fannish movie commentary got to do with the writing we’re doing now? Picking the spine out of a story that’s already grossed a couple of billion dollars is easy because that story already exists; how do we apply this mind trick to our own stuff? By doing it in the second draft. Every how-to book on fiction writing in the universe will tell you every story starts with a “what if?” Your first draft is for exploring that, following it down all the dark alleys and squiggly forest paths, spending half a chapter inside the head of the villain “remembering” childhood abuse, getting to know the characters, finding out shocking secrets you never dreamed they had when you started, letting them lead you along, letting the incidents lead you along, cause and effect. Your first draft is an organic, growing, evolving, mutating monster, and it’s your precious baby, and you love it, and you should, every little morsel of it. But in the second draft, after you’ve put that baby away long enough to forget just how hard it was to make, that’s when you find that spine, that through line. That’s when you look for evolution in your main character and look at the situations they survive and decide which one is more important for your story—what does your story spend more time and energy pursuing? Where do you start? Where do you end? What exactly are you trying to say? Are you all about your character, or is it all about the situation? Define that through line. (And by the way, if this story is part of a series, you have to do this for every single installment. Telling yourself it will all make sense by Volume 3 is the primrose path to disaster.)
Then comes the REALLY hard part. You have to jettison every single freakin’ thing that does not serve that through line. ALL OF IT. If you start out with an aaaaaaa-maaaaaaa-zing action hook about two kickass characters who create the MacGuffin then disappear for the rest of the story, guess what? They’re outta here! And if you finally figured out in Chapter 9 that the protagonist is really a werewolf trying to find a cure, guess what? Chapter 9 just became Chapter 1 – or at least some elements of it have got to be moved to the front. Again, if I had to pick one problem that I see over and over again, that would be it—stories that start in the wrong place or wander off across cool but pointless pastures of narrative in the middle. And it’s all because the writer skipped that second draft. Before you start worrying about typos or commas or markets, you have got to deal with that. Find your through line. Polish it up, make it so shiny your reader can’t help but grab it and hold on to the end. Be Batman.