Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Handling Continuity Markers Across Chapter Transitions

So you're reading a book, and as you read along, you get to the end of a chapter. What is the relationship between the end of the chapter you just finished and the beginning of the chapter you are about to start? I thought I'd look at some of the different ways that one can transfer between chapters.

Isn't it just what happens next?
Sure, okay, sometimes it is - but let's talk about what that means. The events of a story grow out of one another organically, which means that every event is connected to every previous event in several ways. The motives and actions of the protagonist are critical to creating a sense of continuity across chapter borders. That means that it's a really good idea to end a chapter with the sense of the protagonist having a plan, or intending to do something. Having people fall asleep at the end of a chapter is often cited as a no-no, because so often it implies that the person is relinquishing their sense of forward drive. However, it can work. Here are a couple of examples of the "and then..." transition.

From Gustav Gloom and the People Taker by Adam-Troy Castro (end of Chapter 3/beginning of Chapter 4):
 "...It was nice to meet you, Fernie What. Maybe I'll see you again."
 And then he walked away.
But there was also something very strange about the way he walked away, something about the way the gray mist at his ankles bubbled up around him with every step, the way the air seemed to thicken and turn black  the farther he went, until it was hard to make out his black hair and black suit against the darkness that surrounded him even in daylight.
That night Fernie enjoyed one of her favorite dreams: the one about the atomic zombies. [...] Unfortunately, all the zombies in tonight's episode looked like Mrs. Everwiner, and all she had to throw at them were cash registers.

Really, saying "it's what happened next" doesn't tell us a whole lot. How much time has passed between "now" and "next"? What is the next important event? In this example, there are two things linking the two chapters together. The first is the phrase, "that night," which tells us how much time has passed and thus helps us to orient ourselves to the resumption of action a few hours later. The other thing is the reference to Mrs. Everwiner and the cash registers, which shows us the impact of the events of the previous chapter on the character's state of mind. She's sleeping, but she's doing it at the beginning of the chapter, and in spite of sleeping, she is able to show that the events of the book are beginning to affect her.

Keeping a reader oriented to time, place, and character, is very important when you have a break in the story, and I'll continue to talk about it. Nnedi Okorafor's book The Shadow Speaker has two consecutive chapters that begin with the phrase, "The next day..." but this kind of phrase is so useful to orient a reader that it's near-transparent (i.e. you'd never notice that the temporal orientation was accomplished the same way twice, and even if you did, it wouldn't seem problematic). This same book has a really great example of a character in bed at the end of a chapter without causing any loss of momentum.

"As daybreak neared, finally - maybe it was due to a clarity brought on by fatigue or maybe it was that Ejii finally pushed aside her subconscious reluctance - for whatever the reason, Ejii could suddenly understand the shadows for the first time ever. She listened to them. And what they told her dashed sleep from her body for the rest of the night."

That wasn't restful. It sets up an intense curiosity about what the shadows said, which carries over into a scene of cooking that opens the following chapter. The interesting thing about the cooking scene is that it keeps us from what we want to know... but it also shows Ejii trying to do normal things while she gets around to asking her mother some pretty serious questions. We perceive those questions as having been inspired by her experiences of the night before, and the two chapters get tied together.

Do I need cliffhangers?
The quick answer to this one is, "no." But you do need to have drive. A cliffhanger helps bridge a chapter break by making the reader curious about whether the character will get out of her/his current predicament - but it's not the predicament that creates the bridge. It's the curiosity. One big mistake I've seen people make with cliffhangers is deliberately setting one up at the end of a chapter, but then failing to return to the resolution of that cliffhanger at the start of the next chapter. Note: sometimes we can change points of view and depart from that story arc for a while; that's all right so long as you address the resolution of the cliffhanger the next time you return to that story arc. What doesn't work so well is if you go to the beginning of the next chapter and completely skip over the cliffhanger's resolution, shoving it into the background so that you can get on with the important action that follows it.

If your cliffhanger is not important enough to merit a full narrative of its resolution, then it is contrived and shouldn't be there.

Sometimes all you need to do is have your protagonist ask a question or formulate a plan. Chapter Five of The Shadow Speaker ends like this:

I need to talk to Arif and Sammy, she thought.

Bam! There you are, motivated to see what happens when Ejii talks to Arif and Sammy. And then when you see the opening of Chapter Six, which begins, "The next day, they met at Mazi Godwin's house," you've been set up to know who "they" are, because Arif and Sammy were mentioned, and thus set up as referents, at the end of Chapter Five.

The last example I'm going to put here is from Janice Hardy's book The Shifter, also known as The Pain Merchants in the UK. It demonstrates both a cliffhanger and what I call a "direct resumption" of the plot arc, meaning that the action resumes in the same moment that it broke off, with no time delay. The protagonist, Nya, has just been accosted by a League Elder "in full gold cords."

Disobeying would make me equally suspicious. I'd never make it past the guards anyway, no matter how much that fellow liked me.
"Now, girl."
Nothing good ever followed just two words.
I stepped forward, wondering what time they served lunch in Dorsta prison.
The Elder stared down at me, looking as solid as the thick columns that supported the entrance-hall balcony behind him.

Believe it or not, here the most important word that establishes close continuity is the word "the." "The" sets us up to anticipate that the noun it accompanies is one known to us, and thus makes it clear when we hit "Elder" that this is the same Elder who just spoke to her at the end of Chapter One. The other thing that establishes time continuity is the location (entrance-hall) which had already been established in the previous chapter. It's easy to conclude as a result of this - and given the absence of any indicators of the passage of time - that we are resuming directly, i.e. picking up in the same instant we left off. I'll say more about direct resumption in a minute, when I talk about "direct handoffs."

So far, we've seen continuity set up several ways. One is time continuity. One is continuity of motive. Another is continuity of location. Still another is continuity of referents. You can use any one of these, or more than one at a time (even all at once!). It's important to be aware of these continuity markers because readers will be actively (if subconsciously) searching for them as they read.

What do you do if you are switching points of view?
 A switch of point of view is a pretty big point of discontinuity. It's also one that has become pretty common, as point of view switches have become a very popular method in storytelling. In the case of a POV switch, you need to have both discontinuity markers, and continuity markers.

I'm going to start with "direct handoffs," because they're most closely related to the previous examples. This is when you are in the middle of a scene, pick a moment, and then switch point of view without leaving the scene at all. Here's an example from my novel, For Love, For Power:

In his parents' room, the chairs from the lounge corner had been pulled out into the middle of the floor. Between them stood an Imbati – Aloran, the one from the play session.
No tattoo on his face for now, but maybe not for long.
Dear gods.
Father grinned. "Now, don't tell your mother," he said. "It's a surprise."

Grobal Tagaret was not the person he'd wanted to see.
Aloran fought the urge to tense his arms and shoulders.
Distance yourself, the lesson said. Measured breaths relieve the body. Relief of the body calms the mind. The calm mind is observant and prepared.

Basically what we have here is that at the end of Chapter 5, Tagaret has just walked in and discovered someone whom he refers to as "an Imbati" (a caste identity reference), before identifying him as someone he has previously seen. He's pretty upset about this, and his father asks him not to tell his mother, something that is (a) very unlikely and (b) in itself, upsetting to Tagaret. This establishes curiosity about what Tagaret will do next. Across the chapter break, then, we are likely to be waiting to see what Tagaret will do. The first sentence of the next chapter does refer to him, but importantly, it refers to him by his full name, which Tagaret himself never does. In that first sentence, Tagaret is being observed by someone who has clearly just discovered him... and thus when we see Aloran appear as the subject of the next sentence, we can conclude that we have not left the interaction. We do get to see what happens with Tagaret, but our concerns are different, since we've suddenly switched into Aloran's head and are now experiencing his motives, and observing Tagaret with his judgment - and also, with his ignorance of Tagaret's true feelings.

This kind of point of view switch is actually pretty unusual in my experience. It features a lot of continuity markers, which makes the presence of discontinuity markers so important (or we might erroneously conclude that we were just doing a direct resumption, rather than a direct handoff).

So let's look for a minute at point of view switches where the new point of view character is not in the same place or interaction with the one from the previous chapter. What happens there?

Here's a switch from Gustav Gloom and the People Taker

Fernie screamed in rage and frustration while the People Taker left to take her family.
Pancakes would surely not be involved.
The neighbors had always thought Gustav was the saddest little boy in the world. They thought this because he looked lonely behind the fence, and because he never seemed to smile, never seemed to show that he even knew how to smile.
But he had never truly known despair until he saw the People Taker stuff Fernie in his sack, pull the drawstring tight, and strut out the front door of the Too Much Sitting Room.

This one is a cliffhanger. Castro leaves Fernie trapped and unable to stop the bad guy. The sudden switch to "the neighbors" zooms us way out away from the protagonist's point of view, but since we're hearing what they thought of Gustav, we're already feeling the discontinuity and preparing for something relevant to Gustav. Critically, he has already become the main referent and been reerred back to as "he" three times by the time we hit "But he had never truly known despair..." and land with a thump in his head. We're also given a chance to recall the events that led to his despair, and from there we get to move forward in his point of view.

There are other kinds of switches where discontinuities require special types of fixing. If you're switching between two first-person points of view, indicating the name of the new point of view character in a chapter title is a good method I've seen used by authors like Kij Johnson and Rick Riordan. Some authors use fictional quotes to establish context for the new chapter's opening. Some use small snippets of other material.

I was recently working on a chapter transition that got me thinking about these issues. The transition is between chapter one and chapter two, and moves between two point of view characters in my Varin world. Now, these two people will meet each other later on, but as yet they are in two different towns. That means that I have to make sure to create markers of the difference in character and voice, and establish a difference in location. The other challenge is that they are members of the same caste, so I have to make sure to include some similarity markers as well. Whew!

What I decided to do was to pick up on a piece from the middle of the first chapter that looked like this, in which Corbinan (POV #1) dissuaded his friend Basi from taking a complaint to their Imbati-caste boss:

She [Basi] adjusted her hood, and turned away toward the steel door of the office, marked in black paint with a long spike that pierced through a hovering oval. "We have to make it right."
That didn't sound good. Corbinan jumped into her path. "Basi, don't go to the boss."
"But maybe if —"
"Look. Melumalai are one thing, but Imbati? No good comes of talking to Imbati, ever. Promise ye sure, it'll only make things worse." Imagining that same pierced oval tattooed between an Imbati's expressionless eyebrows made him shudder.

I decided to use the door as a marker of both similarity and difference, so when I open up Chapter 2 with Meetis (POV #2) planning to go talk to an Imbati-caste boss, it helps to establish not only the different location and scenario but also a sense of foreboding:

In proverbs, the door to adulthood did not have Imbati warden's diamonds on it. Akrabitti Meetis hesitated before the central office of Daronvale prison, straightened her hood and loosened her too-tight grip on her identity papers. Proverbs also said that good folk approached the door with their hearts free of secrets.
She lived as proof that reality didn't follow the proverbs.

All through these examples you can see me talking about "markers." I find it a useful way of talking about continuity, because any tiny little similarity or difference, even one word, or one referent, falls on the scale of continuity or discontinuity somewhere. Sometimes all you need is that one word (or phrase), especially if you are using a "what happened next" transition where you're able to re-use a lot of the context across the borderline. On the other hand, if you're working across a transition and you see only discontinuity markers, it's a good idea to see whether there is any kind of context you can give a reader to help that person see where your new chapter opening fits into the whole (be it quote, location/time markers, or other methods).

It's something to think about.



  1. Thank you!!! This was SO helpful. I've been working on my first novel and really struggling with where to break my chapters and how to end chapters. I feel like I have a much better understanding now of what I should be doing.

    1. Thank you, Cheryl! I'm so glad you found the article helped you in your thinking. :)