I have read Steven Pinker's Sense of Style, which is a great book.

In chapter 4, he talks about how to form lucid coherent sentences, and in chapter 5, called "Arcs of Coherence", he extends his analysis of coherence to relations between sentences within a paragraph (and also somewhat about coherence between subsequent paragraphs).

I think his analysis is truly brilliant, about how a text is not merely tree-like, because there are connections between sentences apart from the tree-like structure of chapter -> paragraph -> Sentence -> words. His analysis of how to make a paragraph coherent by connecting sentences in specific ways is truly very helpful.

Also he has a brilliant analysis (more in chapter 4) of how lucid prose is created by taking into account the effect that the order of words has on the memory of the reader.

However, he does not really extend this analysis to the level of chapters/pages. He does not really address the question of "how do we write entire chapters so as to make them coherent with each other". "How do we make connections between sentences in different sections/chapters, so as to make them coherent".

So my question is: For people who have read Steven Pinker's chapter on Arcs of Coherence and found it as useful as I did, do you know any other writers who have similar insights, but about how to connect elements of a larger text, to make the larger structure of the text more coherent?


3 Answers 3


It seems to me that what Pinker is describing at the sentence and paragraph level is substantially what most books on story are describing at the level of a document as a whole. Stories have a coherent shape and that shape has been mapped in various ways by different authors, but broadly the same shape underlies what all or most of them describe.

Coherence, the property of all the bits of a thing going together in a way that makes sense, is a fundamental property of writing at any scale. The ways in which coherence works, however, may be different at different scales. That is, how the pieces are connected and how long you have to connect the pieces up before you lose the reader may differ as you scale up or down.

Some of the most prominent books on the shape of stories are:

  • Story by Robert McKee
  • The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler
  • Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster

But there are many such works, covering both fiction and non fiction.

  • It should be noted Pinker's book is principally about writing clearer non-fiction. I'm not sure what the OP would like to write, though.
    – J.G.
    Apr 4, 2018 at 18:53
  • @J.G. I'm not sure how much it matters at the sentence or paragraph level whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. It obviously matters at the book level, but I think story structure still basically applies. Of course, many nonfiction books are not dramas, but while story theory often focuses on drama, drama is not the only form or story and non-dramatic stories have many of the same properties as dramas. Or, rather, drama is just one category of story and shares all the base characteristics of story.
    – user16226
    Apr 4, 2018 at 19:27
  • For Pinker, at least, it matters a great deal at the low level, as most of his advice is with helping experts explain their knowledge to outsiders without their becoming confused. Personally, I think the higher level has very different requirements depending on whether you're writing fiction as well. In fiction, the reader needs to wonder where the characters are going; in non-fiction, they need to think they know enough about where the author is going to expect the read is worthwhile.
    – J.G.
    Apr 4, 2018 at 19:32

My PhD thesis was divided in a nested manner into parts, chapters, sections and subsections. Whatever you're working on, I hope some of what helped me will help you:

  • Divide the work into numbered components, even if the reader never sees the numbers (although they can help the work reference other parts of itself).
  • Write a description of what each component's components do; for example, what do the sections in a given chapter do? Then zoom down even further. My thesis benefited from this for three reasons: I knew what to write (which helped me push on through the slog), I knew how I would explain it, and enclosing these descriptions in the thesis itself helped the readers follow. Whether you should enclose the descriptions I'll leave up to you, but write them at least.
  • As you write or redraft, think carefully about whether you've really explained things in the right order. If you have to move things around, fair enough; I know I certainly did. But if you've done the work above, you'll more readily notice better ideas, more easily think through how to do it, and know how to explain the revised structure.

I know this doesn't read like advice Pinker would have written, but it complements his advice well enough. If you do everything I suggest at the large-scale level and everything he suggests at the small-scale level, you should be fine. I linked to my thesis above in case my advice is easier to follow when you see a worked example. And if unfamiliarity with the terminology used therein threatens to distract you from seeing what role such sentences play, just nurble your way through everything but the section numbers.


The misconception at the heart of your question is that there has to be coherence between chapters, similar to the coherence between paragraphs.

In technical and academic writing there is indeed coherence, usually, and then the same principles apply for the transition from the last paragraph of the preceding chapter to the first paragraph of the current chapter as between two paragraphs within one chapter. In other words: The chapter break is nothing but a paragraph break, and you connect chapters in the same way that you connect paragraphs.

In fiction, the break between chapters is often a break in time, place, person, viewpoint, or chronology as well. What happens at the beginning of the current chapter appears, at first, to be totally unrelated to what we have read at the end of the preceding chapter. Only as we continue reading do we gather more and more clues as to how what we read now relates to what we have read before.

A paragraph always establishes a connection (signified by an arrow in the schema below) to the preceding paragraph by referring to the topic ("A") of the preceding paragraph before beginning its own ("B"):

enter image description here

A chapter, on the other hand, can begin with a topic completely unrelated to any of the topics of the preceding chapter(s) and connect to the preceding text at a later point:

enter image description here

In my schema, forward arrows signify a topic being continued in a following sentence or paragraph, while a backward arrow signifies a backward reference. In reality, of course, every continuation is also a backward reference, and all arrows should point both ways. I just found unidirectional forward arrows to be less confusing, as they correspond to the forward movement of the reader through the text – who might want to browse back to where "X" was mentioned at at first, when it comes up in the second chapter again.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.