Beginnings – Not Just For Page One
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.
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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.”