Flow! What is it and how can I make my stories sing?

Book flow

We intuitively recognize flowing prose when we read it. But what is it?

You can have a killer plot, intriguing characters, and a setting that makes you want to pack your bags and move there, but if your writing style is a confusingly flowing snooze fest, you’re going to lose your reader’s attention faster than you can say “boring.”

But what is flow?

Flow is like veggie margarine—smooth and easy to spread straight out of the fridge. It’s the magic that turns your words into a river, carrying your reader along for the ride and safely steering them through choppy waters and shallow depths.

That sounds great but WHAT THE EFF IS FLOW?

Okay, it seems you’re determined to pin me down on this… In its simplest terms, flow is writing that does not jar. It has an ease of movement from one word to another, from one sentence and/or event to another.

I’ll say it again in italics with a serious underline. Flow is writing that does not jar.

It’s like the perfect dance move—everything must flow harmoniously, or you’ll end up looking like a clumsy relative at a wedding disco.

Have you ever read a story and have had to reread the last paragraph because you’re suddenly somewhere else in the narrative? Or a person, place or thing turns up unexpectedly, making you wonder if you’ve missed something? Or you’ve come across a sentence that is so long you become lost? These are all examples of bad flow.

Think about sentence structure and length, about paragraphs and pacing, about rhythm and syntaxabout sections and your finalized novel – about how your story flows. But most importantly, think about how each word follows the last one. It might seem basic, but each word must be connected to the previous word and the following word. As must each paragraph, event, section and chapter.

Okay… now how do I inject flow into my writing?

As a writer, you are the one who will make the final decision about your prose—you are the boss, the CEO, the commander, the head honcho, the controller, the prez, the hetman, the kingpin the… (okay, you caught me padding this out… but come on, who doesn’t love a good thesaurus boss list?). But regardless of the minimum wordcount of this blog post, one thing is absolutely true—you (and only you) are in charge of the flow of your novel. Yes, you!

So let’s take a look at few ways to help those words slide easily past your readers.

Show, Not Tell

As a writer, you should be aiming to enhance your readership’s connection to your fictional world with every piece of descriptive prose, every sentence of dialogue and every paragraph. You must take every opportunity to help them visualise your story.

One of the best ways of accomplishing this is to show, not tell. You have the opportunity to tell the reader, second-hand, what is happening or to show it to them directly.

For the purposes of this blog, I have invented a love triangle between Bill, his wife Margery and interloper, John.

Telling the reader:

Bill looked at John, who had one of those roguishly attractive faces that got better with age, at his glinting eyes with secrets hidden behind them, and at the rough flock of Irish red hair lying across his forehead.

Bill is telling us about John, the grammar is passable and all appears good… but can we do better?

Showing the reader:

John burst into the room, an eternal rogue in his fifties. All red hair and flashing Irish eyes but furtive, with a rake for a smile, and an air of ‘I don’t give a damn’. He piled into Bill, offering a short stubby hand.

In the above example we can see and almost feel John.

In modern fiction, showing is always better than telling. You do not always have to show, but it is important to know the distinction.

‘Bad’ Writing

There are grammar experts out there who can pull apart any great piece of literary work and expose its grammatical flaws. Your work will not be any differentit will contain many flaws.

The trick?

Don’t let it bother you too much.

Writing that does not follow the rules or conventions is not, per se, ‘bad writing.’ Far from it.

Writing should always come from informed choice. Often stylistic concerns and sentence flow will dictate the words you use rather than grammatical rules and convention. But this does not mean that you can abandon grammar altogether. Instead, as a writer, you need to understand these rules and conventions and make informed decisions about when to ignore them.

Notice how some of your favourite authors do not always follow these rules and conventions. Their work is still readable and engaging, they are possibly very successful authors…

So just what is ‘bad writing?’

At it’s simplest, it is writing that contains unacceptable or poor grammar (grammar that does not work in any context); writing that uses extra and unnecessary words and repeats the same phrases; writing that unintentionally puts the author in a bad light.

By disregarding the basic grammar rules and conventions – or being ignorant of them – writing can become unreadable and jarring.

Lazy Writing

Your Lazy Writing Report Card says: ‘Could do better’.

Unlike bad writing, lazy writing is grammatically viable, but there is no wow factor. It is writing that tells not showswriting that is flabby and unimaginative. You may be getting the meaning across to the reader, but you are not fully engaging them.

Let’s take an example from section two in my writing guide, All About Copyediting-55 Easy Edits to Improve Your Writing Skills Forever! – “Overused Words” and in particular, the overuse of was/were:

John was sitting next to Margery at their table. He was flirting with her and she was laughing at his awful jokes. It was as if Bill was invisible. Everybody in the pub was looking at Bill. They were urging him to do something. To stand up to John.

We get the scene. It’s straightforward, but there is no wow factor and we are drowning in was and were. Quite frankly, it’s lazy.

Let’s deal with it:

John smashed into Margery’s dirty sense of humour like a truck into a glass building. She shrieked raucously. Heads turned in the close-mouthed little pub, eyes stabbing at Bill, urging him to act.

By removing all those occurrences of was/were, the paragraph is leaner and draws us into the action.

Do you need to do this with every sentence?

No. This is a style choice. You should always try to show rather than tell, but sometimes, overelaboration can be detrimental to pace. Sometimes the scene will require simpler sentences. Even so, you should at least consider more engaging ways to say the same thing.

You will always know when a rewrite of a lazy sentence is needed, because you will catch yourself arguing that it’s okay to leave it.

Time to step up…

Narrative vs. Dialogue & Informality

The tone and style of your narrative should be consistent throughout your novel. Your characters must talk with their own voice and also be consistent to who they are.

Tell Me A Story…

In a story, the voice of the storyteller, be it First or Third Person – tells us what is going on. They narrate the story.

When writing a novel, you make a decision about the style of narration at the outset. Is it going to be informal or formal? The more informal the narrative is, the more you can break the grammatical conventions and rules. The more traditional/formal the narrative, the more the narrative needs to follow those grammatical conventions and rules.

The problem with narration in bad writing is that it doesn’t seem to know where it is coming from. The reasons behind this are:

  • Informal, colloquial speech patterns are full of grammatical errors.
  • The modern age has spawned email and various social media such as Twitter and Facebook, leading to less formal ways of communicating in writing.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against daring narrative. Why shouldn’t you write your novel in the informal style of an email or a status update? If that is what you want, then do that. Play with the format, play with the rules – create your own aesthetic approach. Your readers will understand that you have made an informed stylistic choice.

It may surprise you to know that Jane Austen, author of Pride and Prejudice (1797), was considered an innovative writer in her day. She used techniques and styles from the personal letters of that age (the post box was a revolution). She paused sentences, dealt with conversation in a daring and informal manner and used risqué themes.

Oh… and she invented the modern romance novel in the process.

This is all good, but Jane Austen was making a stylistic choice.

Problems occur in modern fiction when informality leaks unintentionally into your narrative. It weakens your prose and confuses your readers.

Your narrative tone should be set at the outset and should not change throughout your novel (unless there are stylistic reasons for it to do so).

Say What?

It’s also important to make a distinction between dialogue and narration/prose.

Your characters should talk with their own voice and also be consistent to who they are. People do not speak in formal ways.

Let’s look at an example of colloquial dialogue:

I just gotta get outta here,” said John

Grammatically, this is all over the place (and it’s a dreadful cliché – but it illustrates the point). It uses modern spellings and conjoined words, but let’s consider what the fix would look like if we were to deal with this using correct grammar:

I must leave this place now,” said John.

From what we know of John, our roughish Irish man and friend of Bill and Margery, the replacement dialogue does not work for him. It is a bad fit. He wouldn’t speak like that. No one would.

The replacement dialogue is grammatically correct but it lacks flow. The first sentence wins out.

Keep narrative as narrative and dialogue as dialogue. Do not mix the two. Make sure both are consistent.

Embracing the chaos

Grammar can be a great tool to tidy up your writing, sure, but don’t let it smother your unique style. Sometimes, bending a few grammar rules can give your writing an extra dose of spice. You’re a wild and crazy artist, right? Not a rule-following robot. So go ahead, throw in a slang word or split an infinitive. Embrace the chaos! Who knows, maybe you’ll end up creating the next <input your favourite artists/genre here> masterpiece.

Wait for it!

Writing engaging and flowing prose is an art form that requires practice. But most of all, you need to be your own editor. Of course you edit your work as you go along, but that’s not what I mean.

You need to try and think professionally. Many authors (myself included) rush to that point where the story/novel is ‘finished’. But it isn’t. It’s not even close. More drafting and editing is needed.

So don’t be afraid to forget about your work for a few weeks or even a month or two. Or six! When you return to it again, you will come back to it with a fresh perspective. Not exactly the perspective of an editor reading it for the first time, but close. It takes discipline to do this, especially when you are starting out, but it pays dividends.

Leaving work for a while, ‘in the bottom drawer’ as its known, will make it easier for you to spot flaws in your prose. From simple typos, to irrelevant paragraphs (and maybe whole sections and chapters), to sections that need to be moved and… how your flow can be improved.

Sure, you’ll still need an editor at the end of your process, but creating rich, active, flowing prose that you have gone over multiple times, will make your editor’s job so much easier (and cheaper!).

With time and practice, you’ll be churning out masterpieces in no time.

Before I go here are a few take away tips to help improve your flow:

  • Read your work out loud: Give yourself a chance to hear the words that you’ve written and make sure that they flow together well.
  • Use active verbs: Nothing makes your writing duller than using passive verbs. Instead, spice things up and use active verbs to convey the meaning of what you’re trying to say.
  • Don’t forget punctuation: Without proper punctuation, your writing won’t flow well at all. Make sure that you are using commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes, and parentheses where they are needed to create continuity.
  • Break up long sentences: If you want your writing to flow, then it’s important to break up your sentences appropriately. Long sentences can be difficult to read, so make sure that you are breaking them into manageable chunks whenever possible.
  • Show don’t tell: Instead of simply telling your readers something, try to show them. You can do this by providing vivid descriptions that give life to the scene you’re trying to depict.
  • And finally: Use grammar as a guide, not as a constraint.

By focusing on the elements of writing, such as structure, rhythm and flow, word choice, transitions, and scene-setting details, you can create a piece that’s engaging and captivating to read.

Remember: you are an artist. And if artists do one thing, that one thing is not fitting inside boxes. They might throw away the rules to create a masterpiece, but the one thing they all share is an understanding of what the rules are in the first place. They all have technique. They have all studied. They all make informed choices. Sometimes they even overuse the word they for effect. They can do this!

If you want more advice and info on how to improve your stories before sending away to your editors, I absolutely recommend All About Copywriting, by yours truly.

ALL ABOUT COPYEDITING: 55 Easy Edits to Improve Your Writing Skills Forever!

Want to add punch to your prose? Follow these 55 simple edits and improve your writing forever!

Getting readers past page one, despite your ‘explosive, fast paced hitting-the-ground-running opening’, is what this guide is all about.

Applying the 55 easy editing steps to your fiction will allow reviewers and readers to evaluate your novel purely on the strength of your story and not on clumsy and weak prose, overuse of adverbs, repetition, and flabbiness. And in the process, you will learn to become an experienced and competent editor.

Use these 55 steps to:

  • Find redundant adjectives and overused adverbs
  • Banish boring words
  • Learn dialogue writing
  • Write characters more effectively
  • Discover over thirty overused words and phrases such as that, it, up/down, was/were, had, even, got, etc.
  • Reduce overuse of exclamations and the ellipsis
  • Use italics, quotations, and capitalisation properly
  • Target word pairs and homophones
  • Improve your proofreading and editing skills
  • Handle numbers and time effectively
  • …And discover more about flow, show not tell, writing tenses, dialogue handling and more.

All About Copyediting will not tell you how to write a novel, nor how to write like Tolstoy, or any other author. It will certainly not explain how to write bestselling fiction, how to make money, or guarantee you marketing success. What it will guarantee, is to give your novel the best chance it can get in a tough, competitive, and new publishing world.

Available in Ebook and Paperback

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