When I'm driving down a long stretch of unfamiliar highway, I get nervous if it's been a while since I've seen a signpost. I like to know where I am and how far I have to go to get to my destination. I especially like to know that I'm still on the right road.
Readers need signposts too, to help them know where they are in a story. Last weekend I saw Kung Fu Panda 2, and about the time the Furious Five was storming the evil peacock's weapons factory, I realized I had no sense of what part of the story we were at. Were we still in the middle? Were we near the end? There had been a string of amusing fight scenes and run-ins with the bad-guy, but not enough sense of progress to orient me in the story.
So how do we put up signposts for our readers? One way is to use conventional plot structure. Cove contributor Sue Quinn made a marvelous series of posts for us demonstrating basic plot form by analyzing Hunger Games. You can review the first post here. When readers get to an inciting incident, or to the major turning point, they sense they're on a familiar road and they feel secure in knowing how far they have to go to get to their reward at the end, the final resolution of the story.
Besides signposts, as authors we can set up the right sort of scenery for each portion of a book. If the reader is getting a lot of new information about the setting or the characters, they feel like they're near the beginning. When plot threads are being tied up, they feel like it's near the end. If there's a steep rise in the tension, maybe we're approaching the climax. All this helps the reader know that the story is still on the right road.
So signposts are an important part of storytelling. But what I'd really love to have are some signposts to tell me where I am in my writing career. There's no mile markers on this road. No "Welcome to Fourth Manuscript: Publishing Contract 150 mi."
Wouldn't that be nice?