Beginnings: Not just for Page One

Here’s a post from Kill Zone Blog: Beginnings – Not Just For Page One

I’m editing the post below, largely by adding [stuff] to clarify the point this post is making. I think is a thoroughly worthwhile point.

Most readers use chapter and scene breaks as stopping points. One thing my [critique] partners and I are aware of is how it’s critical to ground the reader at the start of each chapter, scene, or POV switch [so the reader won’t be confused when they pick the book back up]. …

Unlike Chapter One, Page One, new chapters don’t have the same compelling “hook the reader” conventions. The reader should already be vested in the characters and the conflicts so they want to keep reading. [But] how do you make sure you’re not creating what’s going on? moments? … [At the beginning of every scene or chapter, you] need to ground the reader in the who, where, and when.

You should be able to work all of these into the first sentence or two in the new scene. Action beats are your friend. If the previous chapter ended with a question, it can’t hurt to remind the reader what the question was. Subtlety is your friend here. You don’t want the “moving right along” reader to feel that you’re being repetitive or casting doubts on their intelligence. [But you don’t want the reader to be confused, either.]

This is very true! When you finish a draft and decide to rechaptinate (is that a word?), then one thing you need to do is look again at the beginning of every chapter and make sure the reader is grounded in the story. This is probably less crucial if you ended the previous chapter on a cliffhanger, as the reader probably turned the page. It’s WAY more crucial if your chapters alternate between pov protagonists or in some other way you’ve taken the reader away from one plotline and now you’re bringing the reader back to that plotline. You can bet that the reader will be more comfortable with a reminder abut what was going on. This doesn’t in any way cast doubts on the reader’s attentiveness. This is just something that any reader will probably appreciate.

Of course you don’t want to do that with an As You Know, Bob conversation. (Probably you don’t.) But it does mean what you need to ground the reader in that part of the story again before, or as, you move forward.

If you’re switching pov characters, it’s a no-brainer that you should use the name of the character you’re re-joining in the first paragraph of the story. Maaaaybe the second paragraph, but probably the first paragraph. If you’re writing in first person and the character is therefore not thinking of herself by name, someone else needs to think of her by name, or you need to make it CRYSTAL clear that you’re back in her pov in some other way.

Of you’re not switching pov, but you are moving through time or shifting location, then you need to clearly indicate to the reader where and when you are. That’s why chapters often include some equivalent of “The next morning, we …” or whatever.

In fact, one of the things my editor (Navah Wolfe, a very good editor) wanted me to do with Winter of Ice and Iron was add a reference to time at the beginning of every single chapter. The action in that book moves inexorably toward midwinter, so keeping track of the passing weeks and months was important. That’s why I eventually came up with names of the month. Wolf Month, the Month of Bright Rains, and so on. Those were fun to come up with, but the reason I came up with those month names in the first place was to add time indicators to an early paragraph in every single chapter. Doing that in a smooth, subtle, non-repetitive way was of course a challenge, but not actually that difficult. The sixteenth day of Fire Maple Month offered a bright and pleasant Autumn morning … like that.

Sometimes an author is so good at voice that it’s totally clear from the moment any character opens his mouth who that character is, even without providing his name. This is an admirable skill. But no matter how good you may be at voice, I wouldn’t lean on that skill too heavily. I’d provide the character’s name anyway. And a reference to time or place, or both. Not just at the top of every chapter, but at the top of every scene — a point the linked post makes. Every scene shift involves a jump in time or place or both, so each is a potential point of confusion. Don’t confuse your reader. Not even for a second. It’s part of the craft of writing to provide orientation to the reader so smoothly that it doesn’t seem repetitive or even noticeable. If you pay attention to that craft of a well-written story, this is something I think you’ll notice the author doing.

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