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How Goes the Flow in Your Story?

on October 1st, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on February 2, 2012

Story passages have a rhythm, a pattern, a sound. Yet I don’t want to talk about rhythm so much as I do flow.

Rhythm can affect flow, but it’s only one element that can. Let’s look at other story elements that can interfere with flow.

Stories should flow, move along without impediment, and lead ever forward. Stories should draw the reader deeper into the tale and ultimately dump him out at the end, satisfied at having taken the adventure with your characters.

Yet a smooth flow isn’t inevitable. The writer has to work to create it. And a writer could inadvertently disrupt flow, could accidentally drop roadblocks into story, obstructions that keep the reader from smoothly following the tale.

Impediments
These obstructions come in several forms. One impediment is simply bad writing. When the reader can’t follow the meaning or the sequence of events, when he has to go back several lines or paragraphs or pages to figure out what’s going on, that reader isn’t following a smooth story flow.

Challenging a reader can be good. Frustrating a reader with sentences that make no sense or story lines that lack logic is never good. Let your plot and characters rile your readers; let the mechanics of writing remain invisible.

~  Stilted writing is another impediment. Stilted writing can come from a writer’s insistence on not using contractions or from the use of formal words, especially in dialogue. If a character is loose and easy, don’t put formal or fancy words in his mouth when he’s in an argument. If you have to look up the word, it’s likely that such a character wouldn’t know it and certainly wouldn’t use it when he was emotional. Yes, be creative in your use of words. But maintain your character’s personality with his words.

Use contractions, no matter your time period. Humans have contracted and combined words for thousands of years. Find a different way to highlight or differentiate speech of a people group or era.

If you want one character to use a more formal tone and not use contractions, make sure all the others do use contractions. And keep non-use of contractions to a minimum. Your readers will thank you.

~  Repetition of ideas or information can impede flow. Instead of it easing readers through a passage, repetition can slow them down. They start to think, “Haven’t I already read this? Didn’t the author tell me this before?” Once readers start thinking about the story mechanics and setup rather than the plot, they’ve been pulled from the fiction. You don’t want readers thinking of the words on the page—you want them thinking of what those words on that page mean in terms of what’s happening. That is, you don’t want readers thinking of the individual words at all, not even about how wonderful they are. You do want readers swept away by the meaning or tone of the words as they relate to the story.

~  Confusion is another block to good flow in story. If readers are confused about characters because they’re too much alike or about who is doing what or about the possibilities of the actions you’ve described, story flow is interrupted.

Always keep the reader in mind. He wants to get lost in your story, has picked up your book for just that purpose. Don’t make it difficult for him when instead you could keep his attention with just a bit more diligence on your part. Use one of your editing passes to look for confusion.

Note: If you trip over any sentence or passage or even a single word, fix the words that trip you up. The reader will have more of a problem than you do, so if anything snares your attention as you read, that’s a sure tip-off that the words need work.

~  Dialect can get in the way of a smooth read and impede flow. Use a single word or phrase to establish dialect, or let the reaction of other characters reveal that someone speaks in dialect. Spelling out dialect in dialogue most definitely slows a read.

~  Redundant phrases may not only impede a reader’s journey through a story, they can also drive readers crazy.

She nodded her head in agreement.

She nodded. (We know it’s her head and we know a head nod signifies agreement.)

“Yes, I can do it,” she said in agreement.

“I can do it.” (Yes by itself is also acceptable and often preferable, but a simple yes doesn’t always reveal the character or her attitude or emotion.)

What about possible responses to this question?

“Do you think he can handle the new duties as well as take on Mr. Big?”

“Yes, I think he can handle the new duties as well as take on Mr. Big.” [Sounds like an essay that's been padded for word count, doesn't it?]

“He’s good.”

“He can do it.”

“Mr. Big won’t know what hit him.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“He’ll slip right in, get us set up. Don’t worry so much.”

Responses that don’t repeat the question allow the story to move forward. They reveal something about the speaker and can also reveal information about a character that the speaker is talking about.

Note: If a question is not answered right away and either story time or distance on a page separate question from answer, repetition or a reminder of the question is not only allowed but encouraged. The goal is to keep the reader flowing with the story—don’t lose them when a few words will keep them on track.

~  Unnecessary punctuation can impede flow. If a reader is confused by punctuation that’s out of place, he’s not flowing with the fiction. Brush up on punctuation and put it to work for you.

Keep in mind that periods are full stops. Too many too close together will produce stilted passages.

Time and the order of events can contribute to a smooth flow or create chaos, at least in the reader’s mind.

The order of events can have to do with both logic and the unfolding of plot, and sometimes you just don’t want to tell the story in a linear fashion. But once again I’ll remind you of the reader. Challenge him if you want to, but don’t forget that a human is trying to follow your story. Most readers expect story to present oldest events first and then follow with subsequent events. If you have a purpose for not following such a pattern, remain aware of reader expectation.  And be sure to compensate for that expectation.

~  Breaks affect story flow. Choose your sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter breaks with care. The way the chunks of words are broken and interrupted and connected will affect the flow.

Longer sentences create a different feel than do short, choppy sentences. But long sentences with many digressions can also be choppy.

~  Fit words to story, to character, to genre, and to reader. We all want variety in our words, but words that don’t fit can jar the reader. And books that should be accompanied by a dictionary place a burden on the reader.

No, there’s nothing wrong with using a well-chosen word, even if it’s not a common one. But what is your goal? To use the best words for the story or teach your readers a new word? Think cohesion in terms of story elements. Think readability for the audience.

~  Combine sentences to smooth the read. Not all phrases need to be separate. You can combine in dozens of ways to smooth the feel and sound of sentences. Use conjunctions and punctuation and variety in sentence structure to please both the ear and the eye.

_______________________

Writing is not only about tricks and tools and forcing words into patterns that tell a good story in an entertaining manner. Sometimes you just simply need to write, to let the words flow from your subconscious to the page. And that flow is as important to the feel of your story as the flow achieved through attention to the mechanics.

Write with freedom; compose your plots and dialogue unfettered. You can always rein in phrasing that’s too loose. But if you don’t write loose at least some of the time, you’ll never achieve the particular flow that comes through letting go, letting yourself fling words on the page with no thought to meaning or logic or consequence.

Planning each word has its place. But so does working without a plan. Be sure you tap into both methods so your writing gets the benefits of both.

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Ensure that your plots flow without impediment and that readers flow right along with the story. Don’t be shy about getting help—ask beta readers how a passage flows. Ask them where they get tripped up in a chapter.

Pay attention to flow, to the forward motion of your stories. And remove impediments—no matter how small or how involving—so your fiction moves easily, without bumps that jar readers out of the fantasy you’ve crafted for them.

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8 Responses to “How Goes the Flow in Your Story?”

  1. Wow! I love this article. Thank you, Beth. I see flow like this: you meet a stranger on a long train trip and start a conversation. If it flows without interruption, it doesn’t really matter what the subject is about because the conversation becomes enjoyable anyway. I’ll be adding some of your tips to my editing checklist.

  2. Justin, I’m glad you found something useful.

    Your example is spot on. And then there are those conversations with strangers that don’t flow. Time passes slowly, slowly, slowly and you only want to escape. We definitely don’t want our readers feeling that way about our books.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  3. This is a great article. I think writing with is all about balance, like you said, let your writing experience the best of both loose writing and controlled. Sometimes I find it a bit difficult to achieve the balance. I tend to focus much on a characters emotional state,which I think makes the reader connect more with the character yet sometimes I become repetitive. My first novel, Beyond Gavia, is being published by a small press, but my second,Conquered, I want to take a stab at self publishing. I don’t have the funds to hire a professional editor, so I’m editing with the help of friends and family. I feel like I am having problem with the flow, too much talk about the main characters emotional state maybe. How could I break this up? Any advice?

  4. Crystal, if you feel there’s too much of something, then it’s likely there is definitely too much.

    Instead of talking about emotions, show them. If your character is moping and all we’re getting are her thoughts, show her getting irrationaly angry at a child or a pet and lashing out and then instantly regretting the action. Get out of the character’s head and show the results of the emotions—binge eating or drinking, anger, tears, irrational buying, a car accident.

    When people’s emotions are out of whack, they act strangely. They could even experience chest pains or headaches or be sick to their stomachs. They could be up all night because they can’t sleep, which will affect their behavior and thoughts.

    A character could forget appointments or drive and get lost, not knowing where she is.

    To fix too much of any one element, give the reader something else. If there are too many thoughts, get into dialogue. Too much dialogue, go to action. Too much description, give us an action scene.

    Even real people get tired of hearing themselves think. Show a character tired of his or her own thoughts. Let him or her want something new.

    I hope these ideas help. You definitely don’t want too much of any one fiction element to take over your story. Readers will get bored.

  5. Aditya says:

    Lovely article. It flows even though it’s quite substantial. Thanks.

  6. Thank you, Aditya. I’m glad you liked it.

  7. Eileen says:

    This was a really great article! I’m getting my 1st novel published at age 15, (hopefully) and trying to put together the structure and beginning of a sequel. That being said, it can be hard to compare a work of literature I’m proud of with something barely started.
    Your article opened my mind and helped me with a thing most new writers lack and need assistance on: flow. With your extra precautionary tips, I’ll be sure to incorporate them into my second novel as well as short stories! Thanks, again for such a lovely article!

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