When we all start to read a story, we initially have to overcome an activation energy barrier. Activation energy is that energy required for a chemical reaction to occur, such as when you start a fire; you need some spark to get the fire to burn, but once it's going, you can leave it alone until the fire burns out. With a story, you need to overcome an initial disorientation before you are comfortable enough with the time, place, and characters to just read through it enjoyably.
I think we're all aware of this initial activation energy barrier, but I was finding in my own prose that I had unintentionally set up other barriers throughout my story. And far too many of them.
Every time there is a jump in a story, the reader has to overcome the activation energy barrier again. They have to read for awhile in a disoriented state before they can figure out exactly where they are. And, if they aren't up to the task, they are likely to give up. A jump from one chapter to another is probably an acceptable place for such a new barrier to be put up. But, I was finding in my own prose that I was making readers work, even from sentence to sentence in a single paragraph:
The man’s name is Mr. Paiboon. They had met him on their second night in Bangkok, when they went to a local trade school looking for work among the postings tacked to the bulletin boards. The man was filling out an ad. He overheard them talking and told Rana that he might be interested in having her work for him as a waitress.
Going from the first sentence to the second sentence, readers have to transition from learning about one character in the present tense to being in the point of view of other characters in the past tense. Then, from the second to third sentence, we are back with the original character, Mr. Paiboon, even slipping into his mind in the fourth sentence.
The same thoughts within this paragraph can be presented with fewer activation energy barriers:
The man's name is Mr. Paiboon. He had introduced himself to Bao and Rana on their second night in Bangkok, when the two had gone to a local trade school looking for work among the postings tacked to the bulletin boards. Though his ad was not yet up, Mr. Paiboon told them that he might be able to help. "I hope you don't mind that I was eavesdropping," he said. "But this young lady here might be perfect for a waitress position that has opened up."
The meaning in this paragraph is basically the same as the original, but the transitions from one sentence to another connect more easily. The character we learn about in sentence one is the subject of sentence two instead of the object. He is also the subject of sentence three, which is connected to the end of the previous sentence by the prepositional phrase. Then, the last part of the paragraph is dialog that expands on the sentence before it, still staying with the single main character of this scene.
Changing my prose this way, I think a reader will be led more easily from one sentence to the next. By eliminating or reducing the activation energy barriers, I have a smaller chance of losing the reader along the way.
We sometimes talk about hooks in writing. The idea of a hook in the beginning of a story is to "hook" the reader--like a fish--so that you can reel him or her in more easily throughout the rest of the story. Breaks in the continuity caused by changes in time, place, or point of view, then, are like when the fish manages to free itself from the hook. If this happens, you have to somehow snag them again. But, if your prose feels continuous, I think readers are less likely to fall off that hook. They will want to keep reading, in part because they can't find a good stopping place, a break where they must rest before overcoming the next activation energy barrier.