Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Protecting the throughline

with 2 comments

David Mamet

The life of a screenwriter might seem like an enviable one, but really, it’s a thankless job. You’re generously compensated for your time, with a career that countless other writers are dying to achieve, and in theory, you’re in a position of enormous creative power: without you, there’s no movie. In practice, though, you’re boxed in by constraints on all sides. Your only tools are dialogue and structure, and maybe, if you believe William Goldman, it’s really just structure alone. You’ll get notes from every producer and executive in sight, few of whom are writers themselves, and if you can’t make the requested changes, you’ll be fired, even if it’s your own story. Even after all that, you’ll never get the credit you think you deserve: there simply aren’t any famous screenwriters, at least not to the extent that we reward actors and directors. (As John August says: “Your mom probably doesn’t know any screenwriters other than you.”) And although this state of affairs often leaves screenwriters cynical and bitter, it also clarifies your thinking enormously, like any work done under pressure, about what battles really count and what you can afford to let slide.

Even if you don’t need to worry about studio notes, you can still learn a lot from how screenwriters prioritize what to protect. What matters most is the throughline, which we can temporarily define, for the sake of convenience, as the core of the screenplay that a writer is ready to guard with his life. In the useful interview collection Tales From the Script, the screenwriter Joe Forte says:

People want to change scenes or dialogue. You work with that. But the thing that I try to influence is theme, that emotional throughline. That’s what the movie’s about…It orients everything. It’s the registration mark that goes through your movie. And if you can bring people back to that, that’s why you try to stay involved as much as you can—or are allowed to be.

Elsewhere, while discussing the production of the movie Maverick in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman calls it the spine:

I must explain that I am willing and happy to do any changes here because I am not threatened by anything that’s happening—nothing is altering the spine of the movie…I get very crazy if you mess with the spine. Otherwise I am totally supportive.

William Goldman

So what is the throughline, really? You can think of it, if you like, as the theme or emotional heart of the story, but that’s a little vague, and if nothing else, the throughline needs to be clear, if only so you have a vivid sense of what you’re trying to preserve. To paraphrase David Mamet in On Directing Film—which, as I’ve said many times before, is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read—the throughline is the essential problem, with a definite end, that occupies the protagonist through the climax of the movie. The castle needs to be taken; the princess has to be rescued; the hero is desperate to get money or respect or physical safety. He or she pursues this objective through a series of logical steps, and when the objective has been achieved, or our protagonist has failed spectacularly, the story is over. That’s really it. Theme, emotion, character, and suspense are all precipitates of that clean, well-defined progression, and without it, the story will just sort of lie there, no matter how good the writing is. And that’s why the throughline needs to be protected above all else.

This is as much true for novelists, who tend to work in solitude, as for screenwriters operating under the scrutiny of a bevy of producers. Novelists may not be getting notes from a dozen different studio executives, but as the rewrites and discarded drafts pile up, it can be just as easy to lose sight of the central thread of the narrative. By the time you hit the fifth or sixth draft, or the fiftieth, you run the risk of focusing on side issues while forgetting what the story is really about. You don’t need to share this information with anyone else, particularly with your readers, and if asked, you might want to maintain a discreet silence. But it’s essential that you at least be able to explain the throughline to yourself, because it’s the only thing that will carry you through the ups and downs, both internal and external, that any writing project has to survive. Because in the end, as Mamet points out so beautifully, the throughline is nothing less than a metaphor for the act of writing itself:

It’s not up to you to say whether the movie is going to be “good” or “bad”; it’s only up to you to do your job as well as you can, and when you’re done, then you can go home. This is exactly the same principle as the throughline. Do your specific task, work until it’s done, and then stop.

Written by nevalalee

October 30, 2013 at 8:47 am

2 Responses

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  1. I think you (and all these screenwriters) are right about the throughline’s being the one thing the screenwriter can really protect through the process of rewrites. It’s ironic though, that the throughline is probably one of the easier things to come up with. Everyone has a great idea for a movie, after all. It’s the ability to execute it in a compelling way that gets you into the profession. And yet, in the end, everybody’s willing to throw out everything except that big idea that you started with. You’ve developed all this talent, but very little of it actually makes it to the screen!

    Sharon Rawlette

    October 30, 2013 at 8:56 am

  2. I absolutely agree that ideas are cheap. I’d argue, though, that the discipline required to turn a promising idea into the beats of a logical throughline that can sustain an entire novel or movie is very, very hard.

    nevalalee

    October 30, 2013 at 9:19 am


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