Beginnings – Not Just For Page One

Beginnings – Not Just For Page One
Terry Odell

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

I belong to a small online critique group. We’ve been together about 15 years now, so we’re in a combination beta-reader/critique partner relationship. Our process is to send a chapter at a time, with no real schedule. This means there are times when we’ll be seeing submissions every few days (as deadlines approach) or every couple of weeks.

Even when we’re moving “quickly” and sending subs every few days, this isn’t how we hope readers are going to be reading the final product. Much as we hate to admit that not every reader starts at page 1 and doesn’t put the book down until “The End”, it might be several days before a reader picks up the book again.

Most readers use chapter and scene breaks as stopping points. One thing my 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. It’s also the most common piece of feedback we give each other. Being aware and executing don’t always go hand in hand.

Unlike Chapter One, Page One, new chapters don’t have the same compelling “hook the reader” conventions. They should already be vested in the characters and the conflicts to want to keep reading.

How do you make sure you’re not creating those what’s going on? moments? I’m borrowing from a post I did several years ago on Transitions. 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.

If you’re writing a single POV, the task is easier, because odds are, your reader is pretty sure whose head they’re in.

An example of the end of Chapter 1 in Deadly Options:

Gordon turned to McDermott. “Vicky, what do we know? Angie called, said you were arresting Megan Wyatt. Is that true?”

“Not exactly,” she said.

There’s the hope that readers will turn the page to find out what Vicky McDermott knows. But what if they’re reading while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and they’re called into the exam room right there? They use a bookmark, and who knows when they’ll be able to spare the time to read again.

My approach to grounding the reader is starting Chapter 2 with this:

“Either she’s under arrest or she isn’t, Vicky,” Gordon said. “Not exactly isn’t an acceptable answer.”

“Sorry, Chief. She’s not under arrest, but I can see how Angie might have interpreted it that way when I put Megan in a private room.”

We see the speaker is Gordon, and the question is repeated/paraphrased as a reminder to the reader. Using the other character names helps as well.

My romantic suspense books use two POV characters. A chapter might end with a nice hook for one protagonist, but he’s not taking center stage again until after the other protagonist has her turn. Here, it’s even more important to reground the reader. That requires a bit of a leapfrog mentality from the reader. If my characters weren’t together in the last scene, then things have happened to character A while we were with character B. Grounding becomes critical.

An example from Nowhere to Hide, where Graham is the male protagonist, a cop who wants to move up in the department. He’s been away from center stage for several scenes.

Graham finished filing his reports, surprised to see it was four-thirty. Instead of going home, he drove to Central Ops. Roger Schaeffer in CID might let him poke around a little. The lieutenant seemed to be one of the few who thought Graham had a shot at the CID spot. His recommendation could make the difference.

For this scene, I opened by using Graham’s name (who), and also a time reference (when). The where, Central Ops, is mentioned. Also, by showing something only Graham can be aware of (his surprise at the time), we’ve established it’s his POV scene. If there was any doubt, the rest of the paragraph is internal monologue, thoughts only Graham would know.

Another caveat: Be very careful if you’re opening a chapter with a secondary/non POV character doing something. You need to make sure your protagonist’s thoughts, actions, or dialogue are clearly theirs. Also if there’s been a time jump.

All right TKZ peeps. Have you run across examples of ways authors keep readers grounded over scenes and chapters? Or places where you’ve been confused? Solutions you use?

Note: I’m heading out of town for a while tomorrow. I’ll try to respond to today’s comments. Don’t know how much internet access/time I’ll have on the road.

Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

21 thoughts on “Beginnings – Not Just For Page One

  1. Yes, gone are the days when I had the option to sit and read a book straight through. Now it’s always done through multiple interruptions and takes longer than I’d like, so these are good tips to think about. That’s also another reason to have good memorable characters so the reader doesn’t have to ask “Now who was this person again?”

    • My reading now takes place mostly in bed, where I fall asleep before I can get to far (actually, I fall asleep no matter where I’m reading–it’s an eye thing, not a ‘boring book’ thing).
      Another peeve is people who write multiple 1st person POV characters and head each chapter with the character’s name, which I promptly forget, and all the text shows me is “I”. I’m lost very quickly.

  2. Thanks, Terry. Great reminders. Who? Where? and When?

    This system works nicely with ending chapters with cliffhangers. Hopefully the cliffhanger will keep the reader turning to the next chapter. But if they don’t, the beginning of the next chapter will have the action/conflict/dialogue/interest that makes a great place to supply the who/where/when.

    Safe travels!

    • Exactly, Steve. Working with our chapter at a time system in my crit group really drives the point home. In fact, we have an acronym for it: TBC — Time Between Crits.

  3. For continuity considerations, it’s all the more important to clearly ID each character with a unique, easily grasped name, with no initial letter used twice. I’ve a professional’s m/s on my drive with characters named Kenny, Karen, & Courtney, and Davis & Don. Don’t do that. Your readers won’t love you. Moreover, agents’ readers will not love you. They will “swear a big D,” at a minimum.

    • Ah, another pet peeve of mine. A simple spreadsheet with the alphabet in columns for first and last names, filled in every time you name a character, and referenced BEFORE you name a new one. It can get tricky in a series, but if you have to reuse an initial, at least make the name as different looking in print as possible. I did a post about it a while back.

  4. Good advice, Terry. Establishing a rhythm also helps. For example, if the novel rotates between protagonist and villain or dueling protagonists. The key is not breaking that rhythm. In my Mayhem Series, I include a quote under the chapter heading to signal a particular character’s chapters. The protagonist has no quote to start her chapters. I’ve seen other authors include the POV character’s name at the top, but I’m not crazy about that idea.

    • Thanks, Sue. I also don’t like the idea of a character’s name as a chapter heading because … I simply forget. Put those reminders in the prose itself, especially in multiple 1st person POV works. I use alternating POVs in my romantic suspense BUT sometimes the story demands one character gets two scenes in a row. By grounding the reader in the who, when, where, they shouldn’t be confused.

  5. Great post, Terry. I agree that who, where, and when help ground the reader. I’ve only published a couple of multi-POV stories, one a novel the other a novella. Both were dual alternating POV, which made it easier. I also did my best to ground the reader in the character’s POV that we just switched to, which usually meant emphasizing “what” was going on, in a narrative sense. I’d focus on the current problem/situation that the POV was struggling with at that new opening.

    Have a wonderful trip!

    • Thanks, Dale – we have to remember our readers might not be as grounded in the characters or story as we are. Simple reminders can keep them from setting the book aside.

  6. Great tips, Terry. When I pick a book up again, whether I stopped reading on a chapter break or not, I usually go back and read the last couple of pages to reacquaint myself with the story. But not everybody does that, so I can see why it’s important to reset the stage at the beginning of each chapter.

    I like chapter headings, although the POV character’s name isn’t too interesting. However, a chapter heading that includes a play on words or perhaps a clue adds a dimension to the story.

    • I often make a point of NOT stopping at a break so the continuity is there when I pick up the book again. I frequently go back, but we shouldn’t expect our readers to have to do that.
      Chapter headings are another topic for another time. I skim over them. Unless they’re like the ones in Winnie the Pooh (In Which ….) they don’t always ground the reader.

  7. Excellent hints, Terry.

    My WIP has five POV characters in two separate but interconnected plotlines. Much of the action happens at the same time but in different locations told through different characters. These transitions are kicking my butt, struggling how to clearly indicate shifts w/o jerking the reader around too much.

    Your ideas will be firmly in mind as I rewrite. Thanks!

    • Ah, yes, those ‘returning after being separated by time and/or place’ transitions can be troublesome. When I wrote my first novel, I ended up writing ALL of Randy’s scenes back to back, and all of Sarah’s, and then going back to fit them together while attempting to create smooth transitions.

  8. I must be a different kind of reader. If I’m enjoying a book and having trouble putting it down but must, I’ll stop reading at the bottom of the first page of a chapter. That way I know what happened following any cliffhangers at the end of the preceding chapter and it’s easier to not turn the page.

    I appreciate it, though, when each chapter and scene beginning grounds me in the who, when, and where.

  9. Grounding the reader in the who, what, when, where, why is totally important, but I don’t treat my readers like idiots who need CLIFF NOTE reminders. I rarely take more than a paragraph or two to reground myself in a book so I try to take no more than that in my own writing. If the story is so unmemorable, I’m writing the wrong story.

    • I agree that reminders should be done in a sentence, a paragraph at most, and they should advance the plot as much as ground the reader, which I hope my examples conveyed.

  10. Good stuff. And good examples. It’s such a challenge to make dialogue do this particular job without making it sound stiff, implausible or ridiculously expository, like when characters are repeating each other’s names back to one another in a talking-to-the-camera way. We don’t talk about this problem as often as we should, and so I’m glad you raised this issue.

    • Thanks, Jim. Glad you found my examples helpful.
      I remember watching “This Old House” back in the day and I believe it was the plumber who would use Bob’s name in every single sentence. Drove me nuts. The Hubster and I probably use each other’s names twice a week. Internal monologue can avoid the dialogue issues.

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