In a nutshell, I couldn’t find the through-line. In fact, I didn’t even know the definition of a through-line.
According to Writers’ Digest, the through-line creates the forward momentum that makes the story absorbing and the protagonist spring to life.
“You’re just writing a bunch of anecdotes,” a writing instructor told me. “Nobody’s going to read a bunch of anecdotes. What is your story about?”
When I tried to explain, she said I was telling her what happened instead of what the story was about. It took quite a while for that to sink in. I preferred to write anecdotes. What I eventually found was a character (me) seduced by a country and a way of life but missing a vital element to hold that life together. And I found the chilling moment when the character admits that she may be at fault but resolves to make the best of things. So, this is the through-line:
Superficially the American woman has exactly what she wants—an interesting, comfortable life in Madrid. Sustained by the affection of her Spanish in-laws and fascinated by the country itself, she willingly sweeps her marital disappointments under the rug. For a time–years, actually–she is blind to the dark current that runs through her home, a menace that reveals itself only gradually. When quite by chance she is alerted to the danger for her children, she makes a drastic decision—one fraught with dangers of another kind in which she risks losing everything.
Even writing the above paragraph was hard. For one thing, I think it makes the memoir sound grim. I admit that a thread of tension and potential heartbreak run through it, but I didn’t write an unhappy saga. An early reader said she thought the book was “funny”. But when our writing instructors urge us to dig deep, I think this is what they mean. We have to find the nagging uncomfortable grain of truth and then make it palatable.