(Sorry, I really thought I was going to get to prologues. I did not. Not even close.)
Every time the author stops the current forward momentum of the plot to explain something, describe the setting, give context, or give backstory, we’re going to call that a “reader check-in.”
It’s like the author is saying, “In order to understand what’s going on, you have to know something. I may have told you or hinted at this before, but I’m going to make sure that you remember it now.”
Most of the time, these reader check-ins are written so they don’t break the flow of the story; they are given from the point of view or narrator character as part of the story. However, this isn’t always the case; reader check-ins can be super obvious and break the flow of the story, too.
For example, when a character directly addresses an audience, it’s called “breaking the fourth wall.” This is a term that comes from theatre and refers to the non-existent “wall” between the audience and the stage. Breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader something is the most obvious type of reader check-in.
One of my favorite examples of breaking the fourth wall is from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The main character, Ferris, likes to address the audience to give them context to his, or other characters’, actions. The character speaks directly to the viewers, but does not break character. (Ferris Bueller might just be vain enough to be talking to himself as if he were breaking the fourth wall when he isn’t—which makes it even funnier.)
But breaking the fourth wall isn’t the only way Ferris Bueller’s Day Off checks in with its audience.
For example, one of the most famous scenes from the movie is of the three characters going to the Chicago Art Institute while skipping school. All three characters are standing in a row and making the same pose with their arms crossed over their chests as they look at paintings.
This scene doesn’t move the plot forward. (That is, nothing happens in the scene that changes the outcome of the plot.) It doesn’t develop the characters by revealing new information about them. Nothing important happens at that location.
So why is the scene in there? What does the scene do?
It checks in with the audience to say, “The characters did a bunch of stuff in Chicago that day, and it was fun.”
In fiction, you will not often see entire scenes that serve as reader check-ins. More often, you will see a few paragraphs at the beginning of scenes that serve that purpose.
These reader check-ins help make sure the reader is figuratively on the same page as the author.
The opening of a story helps create the reality of the story. Reader check-ins help maintain it.
Here are some example check-ins.
As Crystal made her way through the north apple orchard, she walked atop a blanket of petals.
Over breakfast her mother had made a joke about the path through the orchard looking like the aisle of a church on a wedding day—then abruptly asked Crystal whether she would ever get married and “put forth fruit.”
It was a good thing I had that map to the trailer park with me. The GPS signal was lost just as I turned into the park’s main entrance, and, at two in the morning, I didn’t want to bang on random strangers’ doors to ask for directions.
She hadn’t always had migraines. They had first started after a car crash when she was thirteen. Her uncle had been driving. The other driver, a man with two young boys in the back seat, had been drunk. One of the boys had been killed, tossed out of the car and into a ditch full of black water.
Reader check-ins can be setting, interior thoughts, and even backstory. Whatever your reader needs to know can be tucked away inside a reader check-in.
Build reader check-ins the same way you would build the opening of a story. Reader check-ins are openings! They set the stage for the section of story that follows.
Reader check-ins don’t have to be particularly “good” or memorable as such.
After all, how many opening lines of chapters do you remember?
These reader check-ins do need to set expectations about genre, reality, and tone for the section of the story to follow, and they need to be told through opinion of the point of view character or narrator.
When the author starts giving that reader check-in in their own voice is when description gets boring or intrusive—an “info dump.” As long as the character or narrator is interesting, the reader check-in will be interesting.
You will spend a lot of time writing reader check-ins.
A really good exercise is to go through a section of text and highlight all the reader check-ins you can find, then note what section of the story the check-in serves. Is the check-in for the chapter as a whole, or just the first scene of the chapter? Does the check-in set the tone for the second half of the book or just one part of a conversation?
The better the writer, the more time they’ll spend making sure the reader is clear about what is happening, what happened, and what is going to happen next.
Reader check-ins get the reader ready for what is about to happen next.
(Next time, we’re going to talk about where the story is set in place and time, vs. the “reality” of the story. I tried writing about prologues, but I really wanted to make sure to cover the rest of the setting essentials first.)