How To Use Signposting To Make Your Story Less Confusing

Well, I thought that I’d talk about signposting today. This is where you provide the reader with quick, clear information about “who, where, when etc…” in order to prevent your story from becoming confusing. Although this is less of an issue in linear single-narrator first-person perspective stories and/or in most third-person perspective stories, it is absolutely essential in some types of first-person perspective stories and/or stories with a slightly unusual or non-linear structure.

In short, if you’re writing a story with multiple first-person narrators and/or lots of flashbacks or time jumps, then you need to signpost this. One common way to do this is by adding a few small pieces of information to the heading of each of your story’s chapters. This helps to reader to quickly and easily follow the story, without breaking their immersion by making them stop and think “what the hell is going on?“.

A great example of this can be found in Tade Thompson’s 2016 novel “Rosewater“. This is a first-person perspective sci-fi thriller that makes extensive use of flashback scenes (which aren’t always in chronological order) in order to add a second plot thread to the story without having to add multiple first-person narrators 🙂

Yet, the story never really becomes confusing. This is all thanks to excellent signposting – not only does every chapter heading include both the date and location (eg: “Lagos: 2045”) but, even more importantly, it also states whether the events of the chapter are happening “Then” or “Now”. Although this might seem like stating the obvious if you’ve been paying attention to the dates, it is still incredibly useful because it instantly tells the reader which plot thread they are reading. Without this, the novel might have been a little confusing.

If you’re using more than one first-person narrator, then you also need to clearly tell the reader whenever the narrator changes. Usually, the best way to do this is just to include the narrator’s name in the chapter heading so that the reader instantly knows who is narrating the chapter.

Plus, there are also other ways of clearly signposting stuff when using slightly unusual narrative/perspective techniques. For example, both Tess Gerritsen’s 2002 police procedural thriller “The Apprentice” and Dana Fredsti’s 2012 zombie thriller “Plague Town” combine both first and third person narration. Yet, this never becomes confusing because the changes are clearly signposted via the use of italic type (for first-person segments in “The Apprentice” and for third-person segments in “Plague Town”). Not only that, both novels also make subtle changes to the writing style in each type of segment so that it is even more clear to the reader that something has changed.

Of course, signposting can be done in much more subtle ways than this in certain types of story. For example, many third-person perspective action-thriller novels will feature two plot threads involving two main characters in different locations. These novels don’t usually need to add signposting to the chapter headings for the simple reason that not only is a location change shown by a chapter change, but the name of the main character each chapter focuses on is usually mentioned within the first couple of sentences. The third-person perspective also means that there’s less risk of a change in focus being confusing.

This means that, when a chapter ends, the reader is ready for a possible location change – with the character names in the first few sentences also telling them which plot thread the story is focusing on. As such, stories that use techniques like this don’t usually need to add signposting to the chapter headings.

But, whatever type of story you write, the most important thing to do is to think of your story from your reader’s perspective (and this is also why reading regularly is important if you are a writer, since it gives you direct recent experience of being a reader). If something seems like it might be confusing to someone who has never read your story before, then look for a way to signpost what is happening.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.