What is an Emotional Throughline?

Way back in September, Joe Iriarte, asked a question on one of my process posts for writing Glamour in Glass.

Hey Mary–I know that this is primarily a blog about whatever happens to be going on in your life, and not about teaching writing, but could you possibly tell a little bit about what you mean by “emotional throughline”? I googled the phrase, both as three words and as two, and found lots of sites where people talk knowingly about emotional throughlines, but not a real good definition or a how-to.

“Throughline” is really an acting term that was coined by Constantin Stanislavski. The idea is that actors should know what their objective is in any scene as well as the line of thought which led from one objective to the next.

In acting you’ll sometimes hear people say that acting is reacting, meaning that no one ever does anything without a reason, this includes emotions. Even chemically induced paranoia comes with a perception of reasons for the paranoia.

If it were possible to chart a character’s emotions through the course of a story the emotional throughline would be the line that connected all the points. Characters go flat when they jump from one emotion to another without any intervening thoughts or reactions.

I’m not saying that you can’t go from happy to angry in a single scene, but something has to happen to cause that shift. That progression is the emotion throughline which propels a character through the story.

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8 Responses

  1. Joe Iriarte

    Hey, thank you so much! That makes a lot of sense. I used to do a lot of community theatre, and now I’m wondering if that’s something I was sufficiently conscious of, or if I mostly just focused on hitting each cue.

    By the way, I finally got around to buying the latest IGMS and reading “Body Language,” and I loved it! Many of the short stories I read are thought-provoking or humorous or emotionally satisfying, but I’ve tended to think of short stories as too compact a medium for excitement. You totally pulled it off here, though.

  2. Hobey Ford

    I’ve been performing at The Art Center in Carrboro and staying with my neice. Her brother is on year round schedule vacation and he and his mom are at Sea World. I’m heading home after my 11 am show then off to Lafayette, LA and warmer temps. You’ll have to meet Sallie my 22 year old in Portland. She has been writing some great songs and has a cool band, Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside.
    Mary I really enjoyed your lesson on emotional throughline. I vote for a regular post on similar topics.

  3. Joe Iriarte


    Mary has posted in the past that she finds talking about the writing process dull–or maybe it’s that she thinks her readers do. But count me among those who would eat it up if she changed her mind.