Signs Along the Road

A nonfiction manuscript must marshal an untidy heap of facts into a logical flow. A single life alone is filled with disparate elements, and when you have material covering multiple individuals, managing the assemblage can seem overwhelming. The author no longer is writing within the tidy confines of an article. Yet many nonfiction books that I edit read like a string of articles. Sometimes one follows from the other, and sometimes it doesn’t. The long-range result, over the span of an entire book, is a jumpy, confusing reading experience.

To a certain extent, narrative logic can be achieved by placing like material together, even if they are out of strict chronological order. In other cases, however, that strategy is too intrusive. When time sequences are seriously bent, jumping back in time for start a new one can in itself be confusing.

The solution is posting signs along your narrative road. If you have to take a left turn for a few pages, say, then veer right back to the topic you had been covering, you create a few signs. Readers are willing to go where you want—as long as they understand why.

To see how this works, let’s take the example of a book about an urban gang. Within the gang are confidential informants, or snitches, to the police. The narrative keeps going back and forth between their revelations to their police control: call him Rick. Plus, you have to include other crimes that show up on the police blotter. How can all of these be corralled?

At the start of each new section, you begin with a sign. This can be merely a sentence (“In the meantime . . .”), but it’s usually a paragraph long. If the previous section featured a drug dealer, and the new one covers auto theft, such a paragraph might begin: “Rick was not only interested in cocaine, however. He wanted to indict gang members for the cars they stole.” Within those two sentences, you have turned the reader in a new direction. You elevate above in-depth details—“the mook cut the ounces into gram bags”—and go for a more global view. On that elevated plane you then transition into topic #2.

Exercise: The other important element of a sign is the focal point. In this example, that most often will be Rick. He is overseeing the investigation; therefore, he can be used on an elevated plane. When explained this way, it seems so simple. But it works. Readers trundle off happily on your new path, thanks to your posting signs.

“In complex trains of thought signs are indispensable.” 
—George Henry Lewes

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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