Monday, October 31, 2011

Chapter transitions and story drive

What is it that creates the sensation of story drive?

There is no one single thing that does, of course (no surprise). A character with goals, a sense of danger, making sure not to include any irrelevant description (or any description that doesn't fit with the mental state of a protagonist in a dangerous hurry). But that generally is what happens within the narrative, as you're reading along through a chapter.

How do you sustain story drive over a chapter break?

Point 1: A cliffhanger ending alone is not sufficient.
Cliffhangers come in different forms. Someone can be literally hanging from a cliff, can make a dangerous discovery, etc. Anything that makes a reader go "Aigh, what happens next?" Just make sure not to keep the answer hidden. Pick it up in the very next sentence if possible. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to be left demanding the answer to something and then either have the answer appear in backstory to the next chapter so you never see it, or have the next chapter not address the question at all. It doesn't have to answer the question directly, necessarily, but please don't make me ask that question and then hide the answer outside the narrative. "Aigh" quickly turns into "Argh!"

Point 2: A continuous timeline is helpful for drive, but not necessary.
I really really like switching chapters inside of a critical moment. One chapter ends one second, and the very next second, the next one starts. For example, I have one direct handoff (this is my nickname for them) where Tagret's father takes him into a room and Tagret discovers that his father has been interviewing the servant Aloran. This is a real shock for Tagret because it's a move that will really upset his mother, and he's been fearing that his father is hiding something from his mother. The instant he makes the discovery, I switch chapters and begin with Aloran going, "Oh, no, it's Tagret!" We already know what the stakes are for Tagret, and it's less obvious how Tagret walking in is bad news for Aloran...but it is, and switching to his point of view allows me to show that, and then have Aloran take the narrative in a different direction immediately thereafter.

When you are using a continuous timeline, even if you aren't using a direct handoff, your readers don't have to do the work of re-orienting themselves every time they start a new chapter. This is work that will pull them off the drive of the story conflict, so if you want high drive, try to reduce the amount of orientation work they have to do at the beginning of any chapter.

Point 3: Even without a cliffhanger, and even without a continuous timeline, you can create a sense of direct continuity between chapters.

The way I recommend doing this is to look for cohesion elements. These are things that readers will recognize because they have seen them in the previous section of narrative, and they then show up in the next. Cohesion elements are very flexible. For example, you could have an object in the first piece and then have it appear in the second piece: I'm imagining a scene where a criminal encounters a hand mirror at a crime scene, and then in the next section you have the detective picking up the mirror to examine it as evidence. (I'm sure you've seen this done on TV also!) It doesn't have to be an object though. It can be a topic of conversation picked up by the protagonists. Or it can be a location. A location can be mentioned in conversation in the previous chapter and then you can show up there in the next one. It can be an activity that appears on either side of the divide (with or without different people engaging in it), or a theme.

Point 4: If you have no obvious cohesion elements, you're placing a big demand on your readers. You're saying to them, "Trust me, this is relevant." And in fact they'll probably go with you up to a certain point... but they will be actively searching for cohesion elements. I've been reading this lovely book - Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox - and he achieves a very dreamy sense of the entire story by not connecting all the pieces directly, but by making sure to drop cohesion elements when you're looking for them (sometimes two or three paragraphs into the scene, and you'll have this "Aha!" moment). It's very effective, but it's also risky and I could imagine some readers feeling confused at different points.

When you're working on a novel, keep your eye out for these cohesion elements. Try to use them consciously to bind the story together and keep up a sense of drive. Be aware that tiny things can make the difference between your readers taking a running step between chapters, taking a slow step, taking a long floating leap, or floating right off the page and out of your book for good.

It's something to think about.


  1. Certainly something to think about. I had to be so on my game when I swept between chapters because I had multiple POV's and timelines that twisted back on themselves. It worked out quite well in the end, but what a Journey!

  2. I'm glad it worked for you, widdershins!