Some of the most common questions I hear from picture book biography writers:
Q: Do I need permission to write a picture book biography about somebody, living or dead?
A: Permission is technically not required if the biography subject is a public figure unless their estate has created a kind of legal fortress. There are rare cases where permission must be obtained before sharing any likeness or representation. You should be able to identify these restrictions by searching online. The first place to start might be a website dedicated to the person, or the organization that controls their “papers of” or “official collection of.”
However, First Amendment rights aside, consider appropriateness. Personally, I would feel offended if a writer didn’t attempt to get my perspective or clarification of facts before writing a book about me. We writers should always consider courtesy along with pragmatism. Even with ultra-famous subjects, it’s usually worthwhile to attempt contact. If you can’t reach the subject herself, remember that relatives, neighbors, co-workers, or witnesses can be the next best thing.
Q: What is the definition of “public figure?”
I reached out to Jacqui Lipton, literary agent and author of LAW & AUTHORS: A LEGAL HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS, which is chock-full of information; copyright, contracts, rights, social media—and everything in between, packed into thirteen enlightening chapters. Two chapters are dedicated to the sensitive topic of writing about someone else and avoiding defamation. In an email exchange, Jacqui offered the simplest answer to the complicated “public figure” question:
A: “There are legal definitions of “public figure” in the defamation context but they’re very complicated and fact-specific–and courts vary from time to time and jurisdiction to jurisdiction–and it’s all very specific to the First Amendment calculus in relation to defamation law . . . the question of what constitutes a public figure will vary from case to case.”
Ultimately, it comes down to two words: It depends. Do your homework to uncover possible restrictions. If there is no legal barrier, you might be able to steam full speed ahead, assuming you determine that you are the right person to tell the story.
Q: Why should I try to contact my biography subject or their family if the person is/was famous and well-covered in other books, articles, etc.?
A: Quite simply, if you’re successful, you will get the most accurate information and most intimate perspective. Just as importantly, you might get a feel for the person’s personality and speech quirks that could influence your story’s voice and overall approach. On the topic of accuracy, errors might have been perpetuated through other sources, something I faced when researching The Great Blondin for KING OF THE TIGHTROPE. Because I reached out to Blondin’s great-great-grandson who eagerly collaborated with research, I was able to identify and avoid falsehoods that have been repeated countless times in books and articles since 1861. Not only did I correct the historical record, but Blondin’s family supported my book and provided information not accessible in any publication. I did everything I could to get the story right. And I made a new international friend in the process—someone still boosting the book.
A: Most biography subjects or descendants will be thrilled about your book and eager to provide you with information. In fact, they usually feel honored, especially when they find out you’re writing for kids. After all, the biographee did something notable, book-worthy, braggable, so they and/or their loved ones are usually grateful for the recognition. Such was the case with my forthcoming book WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS, co-authored with Olympian Billy Mills. As we get closer to the publication date, I’ll share more about how direct communication with Billy turned into a joyous collaboration on this autobiographical picture book, being illustrated by S.D. Nelson. This is an example of polite persistence morphing into teamwork and friendship—necessary ingredients for this intimate and profound tale.
Q: What if I am unable to reach my biography subject or their close relatives?
A: If you do your due diligence and find no legal barriers preventing you from proceeding, you should be able to write about a public figure using primary and secondary sources available.
Q: Are there potential downsides to contacting my biography subject or their family?
—A biographee or their descendant could explicitly ask you not to write the book, in which case you should probably NOT write the book unless you can change their mind.
—They could respond with a vague “no thank you,” leaving you to decipher the underlying message. This happened to me. After many unanswered follow-up emails, my agent and I decided it would be unwise to proceed with the book I was working on at the time.
—They could reveal that they are already working with somebody else on a book like yours. That doesn’t mean that you can’t also write a book about them, but the first author will have the authorized biography, which will almost certainly get the most attention. You must decide if it’s worth your time to write a book that will likely be overshadowed.
—They could agree to cooperate while assuming that they have creative control over the storytelling in your book. This could be tricky. You must graciously set boundaries upfront.
Q: If my biography subject says no, can I write the book anyway?
A: Technically…yes. As I alluded to earlier, you might have the First Amendment on your side, but you need to decide if it is wise to go against the person’s specific wishes. Assume that everyone—from high-profile celebrities to unsung heroes—has a big platform or access to media machines. I’m not a lawyer and can’t speak to legalities, but I can imagine nightmare scenarios in which the biographee or their relatives are angry enough to discredit an unauthorized book while throwing criticism at the author. Is that likely? Probably not, but I think it’s wise and just to air on the side of courtesy and respect.
Happy writing, friends!
A few additional sources about fair use and copyright:
A well-crafted and marketable picture book biography requires the research of a scholar and the style and sparkle of a storyteller. In this six-week masters-level class, we will dive deeply into the process of writing a stellar picture book biography, from idea to publication. This will not be your typical theory-driven class. We will mine stacks of mentor texts for concrete examples of craft elements in action so that you can better conceptualize or revise your own work-in-progress.
What you can expect to learn:
Defining nonfiction vs. fiction
How to analyze mentor texts
Finding your personal connection to your character
Choosing a tight angle/focus
Point of view and psychic distance
Theme (the heart of your story)
Beginnings & Endings
Research & organization
Revision & Submissions
Guest author Q&A (this is a bonus additional perspective)
What you can expect to receive from me:
Six info-packed two-hour classes via Zoom (You will learn more than you expect)
A mega-list of mentor texts
Handouts with helpful resources and idea generators
Writing exercises to help you build or evaluate your own picture book biography
An active private Facebook group for sharing resources, news, and encouragement
A one-on-one phone call with me to discuss your manuscript or your career goals (must be used within the six-week class session)
Limited-time recordings of each class
Bonus option for my students: One deeply discounted Developmental Critique letter from me (normally $225+). P.B. Bio. manuscript less than 1500 words. Must be used within six months of class.)
FAQ: Why isn’t there an opportunity to workshop my manuscript during the six-week class?
Doing so would mean eliminating two class times of content so that up to 15 manuscripts can be live-workshopped within 4 hours by every student. That would be a whole lot of work for each of you. I polled former and potential students, and the majority preferred the current six-week instruction model. Here’s an example of feedback I received: “I can’t imagine you cutting any info from the class! … I did a XXXX Pb bio class after yours… and it was the 4 + 2 model. It was fine, but I preferred yours.”
Why don’t you offer a written critique of my manuscript as part of the class registration fee?
It’s a matter of time, really. I am immersive and thorough, and picture book biographies take longer than fiction picture books. Between multiple readings, outlining, and preparing notes, I easily spend 2-4 hours on each written Developmental Critique that I prepare. Multiplied by the number of student manuscripts (up to 15), it is impractical.
Bio: Donna Janell Bowman is the author of many books for young readers, including STEP RIGHT UP: HOW DOC AND JIM KEY TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT KINDNESS, ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S DUELING WORDS, KING OF THE TIGHTROPE: WHEN THE GREAT BLONDIN RULED NIAGARA, and the forthcoming co-authored autobiographical picture book with Olympian Billy Mills, WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS. In addition to earning starred reviews, Junior Library Guild Selection, and inclusion on Best-Books-of-the-Year lists, Donna’s books have earned awards and honors from the National Council for the Social Studies, National Council of Teachers of English, American Library Association/Association for Library Service to Children, and more. Armed with an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts (Children’s and YA focus), Donna enjoys inspiring writers of all ages as a speaker, writing teacher, and freelance editor.
Soon, a podcast episode featuring me and author Sarah Aronson will go live (I’ll add a link when it does). The invitation arrived after comments that Sarah and I added to a post in a private NF kidlit Facebook group when a writer expressed frustration over manuscript feedback that included the terms Theme and Throughline. What does Throughline mean, the writer asked? There was some general head-scratching from responders, along with presumptive definitions that ricocheted in many directions. Sarah and I had thoughtful responses, but neither of us claims to be the authority on the subject. The confusion is not surprising. Even in my MFA (Writing—Children and Young Adults) program, I don’t recall being exposed to the term Throughline (often spelled Through-line or Through Line). The definition, it seems, depends on whom you ask.
It was time to get to the bottom of it, so I scoured the two major storytelling industries—movies and publishing—for more information than any of us needs to grasp the concept of Throughline while marveling at the lack of a unified definition. Only a select handful of sources are included in this post but don’t worry. Since repetition is retention’s glue, I’ve got ya covered. (Also, if you are a graduate student planning to scavenge from this post for your critical work… you’re welcome.)
The Evolution of Throughline/Through-line/Through Line and Why it Matters
(Note that I use the spelling Throughline but others differ)
It appears that the term “Through-line” (note the use of hyphen) was first coined by Russian stage actor and director Constantin Stanislavski at the turn of the 20th century. He believed in a guiding structure that would help actors understand their character’s motivations, goals, desires, objectives. The Stanislavsky system of Objectives was rooted in the belief that every character should have a motivation that inspires them to strive for a goal that sparks decisions that move them closer to the goal in some way—a Super Objective. The throughline, then, is the invisible thread that keeps the actor on track. The whole point is to create a character that is believable and relatable.
As a concept, Throughline eventually transitioned to screenwriting.
On the blog, Go Into the Story, producer and screenwriter Scott Myers offers this simplification: “Narrative Throughline looks at the screenplay universe as two parts: the External World of Actions and Dialogue, what I [Scott] call the Plotline” and “The Internal World of Intention and Subtext, what I call the Themeline.”
In a different post for the same blog, Myers expands on Themeline: “All too often, writers approach theme as an intellectual exercise whereas it works best when we think of a story’s meaning—and specifically its emotional meaning—the various layers of psychological interplay between characters.” (You might also benefit from this post from the same blog, Narrative Throughline and genres.)
I like that simplicity, don’t you?
To be clear, not all screenwriters use the term Throughline, but I found it explicitly mentioned in enough screenwriting books and websites to know that the term is alive and well and happily shacked up with its partner term Spine. It is obvious that semantics vary across the industries. Also, it’s relevant to all kinds of narrative, fiction and nonfiction.
Kenn Adams, acting teacher, author, and Artistic Director of Synergy Theater, takes credit for originating the term Story Spine in 1991, primarily to help Improv actors. You’ll notice in his Story Spine graphic, that he suggests stripping a story down to its “bare-boned structural core…to ensure that the basic building blocks are all in the right place.” Adams points to the omission of character in his Story Spine steps. Completing the story, he implies, comes after the structural Spine.
Robert McKee agrees in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and Principles of Screenwriting: “The energy of a protagonist’s desire forms the critical element of design known as the Spine of the story (AKA Through-line or Super-objective). The Spine is the deep desire in, and effort by, the protagonist to restore the balance of life.” McKee adds that no matter what, “each scene, image, and word is ultimately an aspect of the Spine, relating, causally or thematically, to this core of desire and action.”
In other words, according to McKee, the Spine is the Super Objective, which is the Throughline, which is the character’s emotional journey and the external journey that must connect to it. There can be separate Throughlines, but the Super Objective refers to the story as a whole.
Melanie Anne Phillips, writer, producer, director, and creator of Dramatica, along with her creative partner Chris Huntley, wasn’t aware of Stanislavski’s use of “through-line” before she incorporated “Throughline” into the Dramatica story structure theory in the early 1990s. Phillips defines it as “any elements of a story that have their own beginnings, middles, and ends.” The Overall Story Throughline, she writes, “is the throughline which describes how all of the story’s characters have been brought together. By choosing this Throughline, the author sets the background against which the story will be told.” Dramatica takes it a step further: “There are four throughlines in every story: the Main Character throughline, the Objective Story throughline, the Relationship Story throughline, and the Influence Character throughline. When a story is written, all four of these throughlines are represented in it from beginning to end by the particular events and characters pertaining to each throughline.”
Personally, I twitch at the “every story” declaration, but I do appreciate the consideration for multiple story elements and layers.
(Suddenly, I’m itching to take a screenwriting class)
What do Screenwriting Terms have to do with Writing Books?
Story is story, so it’s not surprising that the terms Throughline and Spine (less often) migrated into book writing terminology. Currently, they seem to have firmer roots in adult writing than in children’s and YA writing, but I suspect the latter field will soon catch up. Let’s hope a common spelling emerges in the process.
Proof of Spine’s interloping into the writing world can be found in author Steven Pressfield’s great blog post titled “The Spine of the Story,” in which he writes, “What is our Story Spine?… I think of it as ‘Beginning, Middle, End.’ ‘Act One, Act Two, Act Three.’ ‘Hook, Build, Payoff.'” Pressfield agrees with many other modern screenwriters who believe that Spine is first about the narrative structure that can be built upon. As he writes, “What’s the backbone of our story? What narrative architecture supports our tale from beginning to end?” In this example, Spine refers mostly to structure, often described elsewhere as Narrative Throughline.
Isn’t semantics fun? (*cough*)
By contrast, in Beating the Story, Robin D. Laws is in the character-first camp when defining Throughlines, describing it as a structure that reveals character growth. For example, the transformation of a character’s internal arc from innocence to experience, selfishness to altruism, solitude to belonging, guilt to redemption, etc.
Ironically, the best description I found of Throughline in a craft book is from Nancy Lamb in Crafting Stories for Children. “The best way to travel the length of your story is to grab hold of the throughline—the driving force of the book.” That’s a pretty vague statement, but Lamb continues, “some writers think of the throughline as the embodiment of the main character’s conscious desire. The character knows what he wants and knows that he wants it. The personal hunger, shared by the viewer, drives the story and shapes the narrative.” According to Lamb, “when the character’s conscious desire breaks down, either when what she wants is denied or outside circumstances stand in her way, a deeper motivation emerges and propels the character forward.” When this happens, she means, the throughline is replaced with a different throughline that continues the forward momentum like the hand-off in a relay race.
Lest we forget that Throughlines relate to internal AND external threads, Lamb expounds: “Think of a throughline as a locomotive carrying your main character on the journey through your book,” Lamb writes. “You move down the track in one direction only…You always maintain a forward-moving trajectory…You might change tracks, but you don’t bring the throughline to a halt before it connects to the next throughline or reaches the final destination.”
That makes sense, yes? But my curiosity about various other kinds of Throughlines is still piqued.
The Various Kinds of Throughlines
I stumbled onto New York Times bestselling author Chuck Wendig’s blog post titled “Shot Through the Heart: Your Story’s Throughline,” and found myself both giggling and face-palming with an audible “duh!” If you choose to skip the other scholars and book nerds of the world, don’t miss Wendig’s description of Throughline. His conversational style, laced with adult snarkiness and glorious simplicity, is refreshing. Ignore the F-bombs and enjoy the pragmatic examples of how a Throughline can be built from anything, including your story theme, a character trait, internal plot, external plot, a motif, recurring metaphors or refrains, mood, language, etc. As Wendig writes, “a throughline is any element you can carry through the entire story and can be internal or external or both.” Wendig goes on to explain that the story’s primary Throughline is “the invisible thread that binds your story together. It comprises those elements that are critical to the very heart of your tale.”
To summarize: A Throughline is an element of your story that is stitched like a needle and thread through your narrative. Within the screenwriting and book writing industries, there are enough nuanced definitions to make your head spin, until you step back and realize the mutual messages: the protagonist’s desire line and motivation must be consistent and ever-present. The character IS the story, while the external plot of cause-and-effect-based scenes unfold and spark the character to act in some way. Ultimately, the character’s journey reveals the story theme. For the story to be cohesive, the most important elements must weave through the narrative like so many threads.
We stitch stories together with colored, ashen, textured, smooth, frozen, blazing, fragile, fraying, threads until, together, they create complete scenes that logically connect, allowing the character and her ordeal to reveal a golden thread of truth that changes her and connects to the reader’s heart.
If you’ve read this far, especially if you’ve followed the links to fuller articles, you should have a solid grasp of what a Throughline is, even without a single unified description. Remember that some people will use Throughline to mean structure, emotional plot, narrative plot, theme. If you receive manuscript feedback that points to your Throughline without context, ask for clarification.
Identify the primary Throughlines in your Manuscript (simplified)
Protagonist’s Emotional Throughline: Are you consistent with your protagonist’s desire, motivation, and character traits, while allowing her flaw, weakness, or inner turmoil (selfishness, fear, loneliness, trauma, poverty, homelessness, move to a new school, loss of friend, etc.) to be ever-present, even in the background? As she pursues a goal (voluntary or involuntary) does she face obstacles? Does she reach her original goal, or does she emerge with what she didn’t know she needed? Remember that a character’s goal can change but it must be logical. Does the character’s ordeal reveal the overall story theme?
Narrative Throughline: The focused external plot (stuff that happens) in which every scene emerges from the character’s desire and actions. Have you structured your tale with cause-and-effect action? Do your scenes connect logically?
Themeline: What is the story is about? In other words, what is the lesson or moral that emerges organically from your character’s ordeal? Without a theme, you will have plodding events, even spectacular epic events, but no reason for anyone to really care about them. The theme is a universal human truth(s).
Mini-Throughlines: If you use a metaphor, a refrain, a motif, a narrator, a specific voice, a mood, humor, a pattern, think of them each as a needle with thread. Make sure you stitch them all the way through your story.
Subplot Throughlines: Whether it’s a secondary character or an external force (weather, war, impending event, etc.), make sure not to leave these elements dangling. Give them the appropriate amount of presence, agency, and resolution.
I hope you find this post more helpful than dizzying. Whether or not you choose to use the term Throughline is a personal choice. But if you’re ever at a book nerd cocktail party, or in a social media conversation, you’ll be able to skip the confused head-scratching and speak up like a boss.
P.S.) The more complex your narrative and form, the greater potential for multiple Throughlines and mini-Throughlines. The reverse is true for short and simple stories. A short narrative picture book might have one narrative Throughline, one Emotional/Character Throughline, one Theme, one visual motif. A concept picture book will be a different creature altogether.