craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
Let’s get into a little tiny craft element that has a huge impact on your readers: orienting them. The guideline is simple. At the beginning of each scene or chapter, orient your readers in time and space.
It’s something readers hardly notice, unless it’s not there.
This is because of an Important Reader Characteristic: Readers do not like to be confused. (At least for very long.) (And maybe about big plot elements, but not about the basics.)
Your job as a writer is to keep your readers asking the right questions: What will happen to the main character? What decision will she make?
When your reader asks the wrong questions–like, Where are we? Who’s in the room with the main character? Is this happening now, or in the past, or in the future? How much time has gone by since the last scene?–they’ll be too distracted to focus on the more important questions.
In The List of Things that Will Not Change, Rebecca Stead masterfully guides the reader through a story that takes place in three different years and moves back and forth between the storylines.
The narrator, Bea, begins the book by telling the reader she is going to tell the story of her father’s wedding, but in order to understand that day, readers need to understand two stories that happened in the past–her parents’ divorce and a summer trip to a family lake cabin. The strategies Stead uses keeps readers clearly oriented throughout the novel.
WAYS TO ORIENT READERS: TIME, SEASON, PLACE, EVENT
At the end of the opening chapter (which is sort of a prologue), Bea says, “I’ll have to tell you a longer story, about a lot of things that happened two years ago, when I was ten” (2). She uses age as a marker. She is telling the story when she is twelve, and much of the story takes place two years ago.
Often at the start of a chapter or section, Stead uses Bea’s age to signal which storyline we’re heading into, but right away, she incorporates other orienting markers as well. At the beginning of the second chapter, Bea says, “The summer I turned ten, my cousin Angelica fell from the sleeping loft at our family’s lake cabin” (3). She uses season and age as well as an event and a place to frame this storyline. Later in the novel, she can let readers know they’re back in that particular summer by using one or more of the markers.
REPETITION AND REINFORCEMENT
On the next page Chapter 2 (titled “Angelica”), Stead uses age again to signal another storyline, one about Bea’s parents’ divorce. She ends the first section of the chapter with, “That summer my parents had been divorced for two years already, but I still thought about when Mom used to come to the lake cabin with us.” The following section begins, “Mom and Dad told me about the divorce at a ‘family meeting.’ I had just turned eight” (8). She signals a jump back in time with “two years already” and connects her mom to the place. The next section clarifies the “two years” ago by repeating her age: “I had just turned eight.” The eight-year-old Bea storyline has a lot to do with the divorce, and because of how she introduces the storyline, she can now refer to it by age or by event.
This chapter jumps around in time, but Stead regularly orients readers. In the middle of a section about “the first summer at the lake cabin without mom,” Stead clarifies when the scene happens by repeating the contextual event as well as Bea’s age, here in relation to her cousin’s age:
James is four years older than I am. I was eight that first summer without Mom, so he was twelve. (8)
The chapter ends by moving readers forward in time. Bea says that two weeks at the lake with her mom there went too quickly, but without her time goes too slowly:
It [the vacation] felt too long the summer I was eight . . .
It felt too long the summer I was nine . . .
It felt especially long the summer I was ten. The summer Angelica fell. (10)
Readers are now set up to move into a chapter that takes place the summer Bea was ten. Clever tricks like this one–ending a scene in a way that orients the reader to the next one–ensure that Stead’s readers are never confused.
DELAYING ORIENTATION ON PURPOSE
The third chapter, “News,” starts without any time markers. It’s general information about Bea and how she likes to dance. She compares the experience of dancing in her room at her dad’s house (with door locks) and in her room at her mom’s (without door locks). These general experiences lead to the specific:
[Mom] has a way of flinging my door open as if she’s trying to catch me at something.
‘Bea, you have a fever, You should be resting.’ This was at the beginning of fifth grade, when I was ten. Right after Jesse moved in with Dad and me. (11)
We are already oriented to place because Bea has been telling us about dancing in her room at her mom’s. But once the scene starts–the mom’s line of dialogue–Stead orients readers quickly with season, age, and event.
This kind of delay works because the chapter starts with some summary information, not in the scene. Only rarely does Stead leave the orienting details until a paragraph or two in, and she makes those choices carefully so readers won’t get lost.
When authors leave out orienting details, or leave them until too late in a scene, readers are often left asking questions like, When does this scene take place? Where are we? Who is speaking? instead of focusing on important story questions.
Stead uses repetition, details, character age, names, and more to orient her readers early in chapters and scenes. These strategies keep readers focused on important story questions related to plot, character, and theme.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!
- Read (or re-read) The List of Things that Will Not Change and notice other ways she orients readers.
- Examine the start to each scene in your novel. Will readers be clear in the first few lines where you are in time and place and what characters are in the scene? If not, do you have a clear reason for delaying the orienting details?
- Mark which scenes orient readers, and which ones still need work.
- Use one or more of Stead’s strategies of character age, season, place, and event to orient your readers early in each scene.
Read more about chapter openings and novel openings in these KidLit Craft posts:
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.