Crossing boundaries

Human beings make decisions at boundaries in their lives. Patients dying in hospitals tend to die in the first hours of New Year’s Day, or of their birthday. Readers decide whether to keep reading just before boundaries, and they remember what they read on each side. Writers need to frame boundaries so readers read across them, and remember important points.

Where are the boundaries? Between the lead and the first section, between sections, and between the final section and the ending. The material on each side of a boundary is either an ending of a unit, or the beginning of another, and therefore emphatic.


We lure readers across boundaries by clarity, gold coins, cliffhangers, and subheads. Unconsciously, readers are always thinking about stopping, and they jump out when they start to feel stupid or confused, or know enough. If your readers think, “How’d I get here” or “Where’s this going,” they’re about to wave goodbye. As they realize they’re approaching a boundary, their urge to leave increases. So you need to write even clearer just above a boundary, such as a section break.

We can place a “gold coin” just as the readers start to wobble. A gold coin is something that will amuse or delight them, such as a neat quote, clever sentence, interesting character, or amusing anecdote. As readers enjoy the gold coin, they predict there are more to come, and keep reading across the boundary.

You’re familiar with cliffhangers from movies, a suspenseful moment originally used to join together parts of a serial. If one episode ends with the heroine tied to a railroad track with a train whistle in the distance, you’ll come back next week to see if she survives. (Of course, we know she will, but we wonder how.)

You write a cliffhanger just before the boundary. Here’s one: “Outnumbered two to one, the defenders of Midway wondered if anybody would survive the Japanese assault.” Here’s another: “Once you have a vaccine against swine flu, you have to ask who will get the shots and who might die.” One more (these are fun to write): “I grin in triumph as I peel the paper collar from my chocolate soufflé. I mean, we’re talking James Beard Award tonight.”

Subheads act like headlines, intriguing readers to read further. They’re shorter and harder to write, and need to point forward. Here’s one to get you to read my final section:

One other boundary is harder to control, the “turn” or “jump” in a newspaper or magazine to the next page, because the writer has almost no control over where it will fall. David Finkel, formerly a feature writer with the St. Petersburg Times, used to sit beside the copyeditors as they laid out his stories so he could rephrase the passage just before the jump. You can write a cliffhanger, for instance, and ask the copy desk, if possible, to place it strategically.

Remember that all these devices sit in emphatic positions. Make sure you want to emphasize what you put there.

Published in: on June 18, 2009 at 8:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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