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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Sneaky Ways To Reduce Reader Frustration

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago is that I’ve started to notice things like story structure a lot more than I used to. Of course, this also means that I also tend to notice things like flaws, various pet peeves and poor planning/design choices a lot more too.

Still, I’ve also seen stories that contain things that should annoy me but somehow don’t because of clever writing. So, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for how to reduce some of the more common types of story problems.

1) Cliffhangers – Less Is More!: Yes, if you’re writing a continuous series, then a dramatic cliffhanger ending can be a good way to keep your readers excited for the next instalment.

However, from the reader’s perspective, there is nothing more frustrating than reading a dramatic story only for it to suddenly end on a cliffhanger. Not only can it feel disappointing, but it can also feel slightly manipulative too (eg: your readers feel like they’re being forced into reading the next book).

So, how can you include the dramatic suspense of a cliffhanger ending without leaving your readers feeling cheated or manipulated? Well, it is all to do with scale.

Simply put, the best cliffhanger endings I’ve seen (such as in some instalments of Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” series) will often be relatively small in scale, whilst also offering some sense of resolution too.

In other words, the main plot of the novel will be resolved – but the tantalising beginning of another plot will appear in the final chapter. Or, if you want to do something a bit more sophisticated, the main plot of the novel should be resolved, but the background story arc of the series can still be left unresolved.

By keeping the cliffhanger relatively small and/or in the background, the reader still gets the satisfaction of a resolved storyline in addition to an intriguing, but less overbearing, cliffhanger ending.

Likewise, another thing that helps to soften the blow of a cliffhanger ending is good signposting. In other words, label your story as “part one of…” or whatever, so that the reader doesn’t go into the story expecting a full, self-contained story. After all, a lot of cliffhanger-based frustration happens when readers are led to expect a full story, only to suddenly discover that they’ve only got part of a longer story.

2) Perspective changes – Consistency And Signposting!: Usually, there is nothing more jarring and disorientating than stories that switch between multiple first-person narrators or stories that switch between first and third person perspective.

However, the novel I’m reading at the time of writing (“Patient Zero” by Jonathan Maberry) actually manages to handle frequent switches between first and third person perspective reasonably well, in a mostly non-frustrating way.

But, how does Maberry do it? First of all, the title of each chapter includes a small segment that tells you where the events of the chapter take place (which also tells you which character or characters it will involve). Although this might seem like it’s stating the obvious, the fact that the reader doesn’t have to spend the first few paragraphs of each chapter working out what is going on keeps the story flowing reasonably well despite the frequent changes between first and third person narration.

Secondly, and most importantly, the narrative voice in both the first and third person segments of the novel is reasonably consistent too.

In other words, there aren’t huge stylistic changes between the two types of narration. Although this might seem like it would make the story bland, it actually makes it much more readable – for the simple reason that it doesn’t break the “flow” of the story too much. The switches between first and third person narration are reasonably seamless, since the writing style in both is fairly similar.

But, of course, it’s usually a good idea to stick to just using third-person narration if you want to focus on multiple main characters in multiple locations.

3) Slow Pacing – Distinctiveness And Interest!: Not every novel has to be an ultra-fast unputdownable page-turner. Sometimes there are valid reasons for a writer to do things a bit more slowly. And, whilst it goes without saying that slow pacing should only be used when it is actually a necessary part of the story, how can you keep your reader’s attention during the slower parts of your story?

First of all, give them a reason to keep reading! Whether it is an intriguingly strange or mysterious premise, or possibly even a feeling of suspense or curiosity, you need to make sure that your reader has a good reason to keep reading a slower story. In other words, there has to be some kind of dramatic payoff for all of the slow storytelling and/or something to hold the reader’s interest when your story slows to a crawl.

Secondly, make your story distinctive. If you include things like an interesting narrative voice, atmospheric settings, fascinating characters, clever descriptions, a sense of humour etc.. then your readers won’t care too much about the slow pacing for the simple reason that they’ll be too busy enjoying your writing. In other words, if a story is well-written enough, then a slow pace will actually give the reader more time to enjoy the good writing. So, make sure that the slow-paced parts of your story are well-written!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂