Begin Each Scene in Your Book with Grounding
Have you ever been running late, and found yourself scrambling around your house, looking for your car keys? Where did you leave them – on the kitchen counter? By the front door? Oh wait, you went up to your bedroom to get something. You race up the stairs, step into your room, and then stop short. You blink. You made your bed already. The blinds are drawn.
What were you looking for, again? For the life of you, you can’t remember.
This is a real phenomenon, so if you’ve experienced this, it doesn’t mean that you’re losing your marbles. It’s called The Doorway Effect, and it happens because as soon as you step over the threshold to a new room in your house, your brain has new information to process, and it clears its slate to ground itself in your new environment.
I’m in my bedroom now. My bed is made. I closed the blinds.
It might be a minute or two before you remember you were looking for your keys. You might need to retrace your steps. (But don’t worry, you’ll eventually remember that they’re on your nightstand, and you’ll leave your house only a few minutes late).
You’re probably wondering what this Doorway Effect has to do with writing? Here’s the cool thing about brains – your reader experiences a similar phenomenon when you cut to a new chapter or scene in your book. As the writer, you have the power to take them anywhere when you start a new chapter or scene. You can jump backward in time, dropping into a flashback, skip forward in time by days, months, years, even decades. You can change whose Point of View (POV) you’re telling the story from, you can even start a new scene on the moon if that’s where your story goes.
And your reader is along for the ride. They trust you, the writer, to lead the way. So, as they cross the threshold into your brand new chapter or scene, that they’ve never read before, they clear their slates, and look for clues to ground them in the scene that’s about to unfold. As they ease into the new scene, they’ll be looking to orient themselves, and need the answers to these questions, fast:
- Whose head are they in now? (POV)
- Where are they in time, relative to the scene they just left?
- What’s around your characters (setting)?
- Who is in the in the scene when it opens?
This is true even if you start the next chapter only moments later, BTW, so you need to clue them in even if your grounding information is the same as the chapter before!
If they don’t get that information, they’ll feel lost, like they’re floating, without their feet firmly planted on the ground. Without this information, especially any details about the setting, the reader will picture your characters in a white room, or against a white wall, going about the activities you pen for them. This is sometimes called White Room Syndrome, or White Wall Syndrome (again, aren’t brains cool?).
Many readers will start skimming to figure this out rather than stay in this no man’s land. So, if you don’t give this information until the top of the second page of your scene? They’ll miss all the amazing things that happen on page one.
The easiest way to fix this is to make sure you’re providing the 4 elements of grounding readers in your scenes within the first two paragraphs after every chapter or scene break. It’s like a big road sign when they step over the threshold to help them find their place in your world, so that they can relax and let themselves be dragged into whatever your characters get up to next.
Tips for Including Grounding in Your Scenes
Get creative, and give readers this information as quickly as possible, so you can get on with the story.
Whose head are they in now? (POV)
This is especially important when you are writing your book from more than one character’s point of view.
- Opening with an inner thought laced with your POV character’s voice, or an action or dialogue from them is the quickest way to establish this.
- If you start with another character’s actions or dialogue, readers may incorrectly assume that they will be following this new character’s POV in your scene.
Where are they in time, relative to the scene they just left?
Immerse your readers in your scene as quickly as possible by letting them in on where you’ve taken them.
- Get creative on establishing the time period for your readers. Phrases like moments later, or three months ago, can get boring, and make your grounding feel clunky. Try some of these ideas instead:
- Show time passing with the character’s growth (longer hair, wrinkles forming, a child growing taller etc.)
- Demonstrate a change in an object (a jar of peanut butter that empties over time, or a set of swings that shows wear).
- Reverse these suggestions if you’re jumping backward in time.
What’s around your characters (setting)?
Rather than describing the setting, have your POV character interact with it to keep the story moving right from the top of the scene. And keep this short – adding this information is not an excuse to drop several paragraphs of worldbuilding (info dumping), which can pull readers out of your story.
- Give 2-3 specific showing details about the room or landscape you’re dropping readers into.
- Have your POV character use something in your scene, or move an object around them that fits with their agency
- Examples: Have them check the industrial clock on the wall to show urgency, pick up a rock and throw it to show frustration, etc.
- Setting details are also needed when your characters change locations within a scene or chapter, in addition to the top of your scenes, so use these tips there as well to make sure your readers don’t get lost on your journey!
Check out this article by Angela Ackerman for more ideas on how to ground your characters in your reader’s world.
Who is in the scene when it opens?
There is nothing more jarring than thinking a character is alone in a scene and having a second character speak up or yell on page two, while standing right beside them, as if they appeared out of thin air.
- Don’t simply list everyone who’s around if there’s a crowd. Mention the crowd but then zoom in on one or two specific people to make this pop.
- Just like the setting details, let your POV character interact with the people in the scene, through dialogue or actions to make it as engaging as possible.
It’s easy to check if you’ve grounded your readers at the top of your chapters or scenes, and to add these details if you haven’t got them in the first two paragraphs after a chapter or scene break to create an immersive experience for your readers, and to lead them seamlessly through the story you’ve spent months or even years crafting. Adding this information does not mean that you have to rewrite a scene you’re happy with. When done with creativity and style, your readers will enjoy your story even more, even if they don’t know why.
Suzy Vadori is the award-winning author of The Fountain Series. She is a certified Book Coach with Author Accelerator and the Founder of Wicked Good Fiction Bootcamp. Suzy breaks down important writing concepts into practical steps to make it easy for writers coming from outside the industry to get up to speed in a snap, so that they can realize their big, wild writing dreams!
In addition to her weekly newsletter encouraging writers, and online courses, Suzy offers both developmental editing and 1:1 Book Coaching. Find out more about our RWC team here and discover how to connect with Suzy and all the resources she has to offer here.