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Meanwhile

 Writing your novel can feel nearly impossible, but many techniques can help keep your readers engaged. One such method is using parallel stories, which writers can use to create tension and suspense.

An effective way to do this is to end your scenes so that you cut between them at moments that leave your readers hanging. Writers sometimes call this technique “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”

The nickname dates back to silent movies when title cards between scenes signaled transitions. In the earliest days, studios didn’t make new cards for each movie but used a set of stock cards: “One Year Later,” “Comes the Dawn,” or “Wedding Bells.” “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch” was the card used most often when the action, for example, cut away from the heroine being tied to a log just as the villain turned on the sawmill. The literary version of this technique dates back to at least Homer. Still, it was probably perfected in the nineteenth century when newly popular magazines serialized novels.

One of the most famous authors to use this technique was Charles Dickens. Since Dickens needed to keep readers interested enough to wait a month for the next chapter, nearly every installment ends with a cliffhanger. For instance, the January 1853 installment of Bleak House ends with Krook’s spontaneous combustion (with an illustration), and readers have to wait until February to see the outcome. But for many of the transitions, Dickens ends at a critical moment, then picks up the next month’s installment with another thread, forcing readers to wait two or three months before circling back to the original.

When used thoughtfully, this transition can be an effective way to increase tension and keep readers engaged. However, your readers will see through the practice if you use it too often or recklessly. So, use it sparingly and responsibly.

 

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