By D A Gordon
During the last twelve months I have edited, critiqued and judged a bunch of stories. This is partly due to the fact that I belong to five writing groups and I’m a contest judge. Because I’m a semi-retired English teacher and technical writer, I tend to scan for grammatical errors when I first look at a page.
But this year I’ve started looking for something else as I critique fiction: Flow.
What Flow Does for Us
When our sentences and paragraphs flow, readers find it enjoyable to keep reading; they’ll turn page after page because the mental and emotional flow makes comprehension effortless – the words easily flow through mind, the characters come alive, and we don’t want to put the book down. When the story flows, we continue to read with little concept of passing time.
It doesn’t take non-stop action to keep the audience reading. What helps satisfy the reader is when the action, dialog, and narration flow uninterrupted, like a valley stream with no dams or boulders.
The other day I reviewed five chapters of an unpublished novel for a friend. She had a good plot and an interesting protagonist. But she had a bad habit of adding a sentence or two of backstory the minute any character came on the scene instead of waiting for a better time. This completely stopped the flow and left me thinking, Now, what?
For instance, some good guys were running toward the fort to get away from the monsters. During this pursuit the stakes were high and everyone was breathing hard, scared witless and running fast to reach safety before being torn limb from limb. When a soldier in the fort saw them coming, he opened the gate to let them in and should have just as quickly closed the gate afterwards while everyone caught their breath and said, Thanks George, you saved our lives.
But sadly, no. As soon as the attentive soldier opened the gate, the author stopped us in mid action to explain who the solder was, including his place at the fort and his relationship with the people running for their lives.
Because I was caught up in the action sequence, this interruption stopped me cold. At that moment I didn’t care about the soldier’s relationship to the frightened people or to the fort; I just wanted the action to keep going until it reached a logical conclusion. Then later, maybe over dinner, I could learn who the guy was and why he mattered.
Reading Can Be Hard Work
Good fiction has a rhythm that readers can feel, and they’ll want to keep reading in order to keep that feeling. But when the reader starts having trouble following the sequence of events and has to back track several lines or paragraphs to pick up the trail again, this is a sign the flow has stopped.
This can be bad news for the author because the reader may decide it’s time to get a soda and not return.
Breaking the flow isn’t the same as surprising your reader with a piano falling from the sky. Surprise is good. But incongruent activities or discordant dialog frustrate the reader because it breaks up the flow.
Flow stoppers make the story more difficult to stay with, and instead of being easy and enjoyable, reading becomes hard work.
Checking the Flow
A great way to check the flow of your writing is to have someone else read it, someone who is also a writer or at least a prolific reader. That’s where writing groups with critique sessions are mighty handy.