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Signposts in Fiction

Have you ever read a book which, in the first few pages, fails to make it clear enough whose point of view in the story you should be sharing? Or what exactly is going on (in such a way as to repel you rather than intrigue you)? After even only a couple of pages, unless you are motivated by a strong compulsion to read it that has nothing to do with the book itself - perhaps you have been paid to review it or have to read it for school - you feel inclined to drop it. It’s becoming too hard to grasp what is going on.

So what should the author have done within about five minutes of reading time from the beginning?

To answer that question, it’s important first to note a key mechanical fact: most readers read at the pace of about one page every two minutes. Some are faster, of course, and some slower, but experience suggests that two minutes per page is about average. So, three minutes probably takes your reader somewhere onto page two. Those first two pages are where something vital needs to happen if you are going to continue to keep the reader’s attention.

You need to lay out some signposts, recognisable to all readers, which will then guide and shape the rest of your work. For essay writers, this is fairly easy because you can be explicit; for fiction writers, this is where the entire fabric of your world begins to take shape.

The key signposts of your work should typically appear within the first two pages.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘signposts’ in fiction? It’s not likely that you want or need to have a character in the story describe exactly what is going to happen next, or, in some kind of an ‘aside’ to the reader, explain the key elements of the plot. This was done, oddly enough, in Greek drama, with a chorus outlining to an audience what was happening and what was about to happen, and the practice continued into Shakespeare’s time - Romeo and Juliet, for example, and many of his Histories are introduced by a chorus figure who gives an outline of the basic plot. But in actual practice, there’s something far more subtle and far more breathtaking going on here when we talk about signposts.

The secret is this: in any successful work of fiction, through a series of strangely familiar archetypal characters, settings and motifs, the reader is given a set of signals with which he or she feels comfortable. These are accompanied by a pre-established system of expectations, which in turn provide distinct models for certain kinds of emotional drama and involvement. How the author then manipulates these models gives the story its particular individual qualities.

But most would-be authors fail at the very first threshold by failing to supply these templates in some form.

Most authors are only dimly aware that such templates even exist, let alone how to use them.

This produces our next crucially important maxim when it comes to writing fiction:

There are certain fixed archetypal signals and templates which a reader expects to receive and to meet in any work of fiction. Failure to provide them in one form or another will lead inevitably to failure of the work as a whole.

This is such a vital datum that almost the entire field of fiction depends on its understanding and application.

Just as words are a key means by which we capture and define thoughts for transmission to others, and just as rhythm is a central factor in controlling attention, so these signals and models are a central means by which readers are captivated and moved by writers.

And the initial set of these things need to appear in some form within the first two pages so that the reader can settle down into a set of expectations and begin to understand the work. Just as an undefined word or foreign term can prevent or inhibit understanding at sentence level, so can an ill-defined signal or strange signpost throw the reader off at the level of story appreciation.

Get these right and the reader will at once feel that he or she is in the hands of a master; get them wrong and it’s unlikely that your book will ever even see print.

Find out exactly what they are in How Stories Really Work.


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