Thursday, July 22, 2010

Flow Charts

Do you want to be a writer? YES / NO

Continue to the next paragraph.

One thing I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before is flow. It’s one of those elements of writing that we’re all instinctively aware of but it rarely gets a consistent name put to it. I first heard it referred to as flow years back by a writing coach named Drusilla Campbell. It was such a perfect term I’ve used it myself ever since.

Flow is how well the reader can move through your writing. It’s the way every line of dialogue rolls off the tongue, how each paragraph and chapter draws the reader into the next one. Like the flow of a river or the flow of traffic on a freeway. When the flow of writing is going well, you love it.

We can also define what makes for bad flow. When the river or the freeway aren’t going so well you get rapids, bottlenecks, gridlock, and so on. More to the point, you get frustrated and angry. A story that makes you stumble a lot doesn’t flow well at all. Clumsy, wooden dialogue and poor characterization don’t work either. Whenever a reader pauses to scratch their head or roll their eyes over the latest “twist,” that’s another speedbump in the proverbial road. If you’ve ever tried a book and just couldn’t get into it, odds are the flow sucked. You’ll read, trip over a page or two, and put it back down.

Y’see, Timmy, it’s not a bad thing to shock the reader once or twice with a bit of unexpected action, a clever reveal, or something else that jars them out of complacency.. It’s important, though, to remember that those shocks are the exception, not the rule. If a story is nothing but flashbacks or “gotcha” moments one after another, it degenerates into nonsense and frustration.

Readers keep reading material with good flow because it’s easier to keep reading than to put it down. Stephen King writes books with great flow. So do Lee Child and Clive Cussler. They’re all famous for it, in fact. Shane Black’s screenplays are notoriously fun to read. It’s also a big part of the reason all these people keep selling their work for high sums of money.

Now, for the record, flow is another one of those things I believe you can’t easily work on and develop in your writing. It’s one of those X-factors, where you can manipulate each of the variables but still not affect the final outcome. You just have to keep writing and keep writing and eventually one day it will all come together.

For example, in Goju-ryu, one of the original three forms of karate developed on Okinawa, there’s a kata called senchin (no, trust me, this is another one of those brilliant metaphors). The moves for senchin are often taught to the white belt novices. The instructors know that by the time the novices become black belts, they’ll have an understanding of how all the moves go together and can start to work on the form itself. The Okinawan masters understand that working on parts doesn’t always help you master the whole. One day, it just all comes together.

I’ve mentioned most of these before (often in greater detail), but here are a few easy tips that can help the flow of a story. I’m not saying doing these guarantees great flow, but if you’re going out of your way not to do them... well...

Keep it interesting-- Easiest way in the world to keep readers from getting bored is not to be boring. A story that drags on and on before getting to the point doesn’t have good flow. If you’re telling a story, get to the story. If it’s a murder mystery, give me a body. If it’s sci fi, show me something amazing. If it’s a love story, show me passion on some level.

Keep it honest-- Nothing will kill a story’s flow faster than something that reads as inherently false. People don’t give long speeches about love, honor, or duty in real life. Most of us stopped with the silly, mushy, giggly, fluttering eyelids in ninth grade. And it takes a lot for someone to stay angry for days, let alone years. Fake emotions and actions comes from fake people. Fake people are boring. See above for tips on boring your reader.

Keep it simple-- If a writer tries to cram fifteen supporting characters, eight subplots, and the setup for four sequels into a 110 page screenplay, there’s not going to be a lot of room for a coherent story. If said writer decides to alternate each chapter, scene, or spoken line of dialogue between one of ten different time frames it’s going to keep knocking the reader out of the story as they try to keep track of what’s happening where and when to who. Don’t forget the basic goal of writing is to make the reader go on to the next page, not to baffle and confuse them.

Keep it smooth -- If you’re picking obscure, awkward, or overly-long words just to show off your vocabulary, there’s a good chance you’re disrupting the flow of your own writing. It’s very impressive that you can picture what a titian-haired female with atramentous works of muted ink inlaid in her flesh looks like, but it’s much smoother, easier, and just as visual to tell us she’s a tattoed redhead.

Keep it relevant--One thing that pretty much always causes a stumble is when the writer adds in something completely irrelevant. Not when this character makes an odd movie reference or a cat walks by for no reason. No, the stumbling point is when the writer spends a paragraph or a page or more on something that has no bearing on the story whatsoever. When there’s an exacting description of the bus driver, a monologue about the morality of Israel vs. Palestine, or a flashback to fourth grade art class, odds are the flow has just been dammed up for no reason.

Watch your dialogue-- You can get away with one character who talks like a robot and uses all those obscure, overly-long words I was just talking about. Possibly another who keeps slipping into a foreign language. Too much unnatural, stylized, or just plain bad dialogue brings the story (and the reader) to a screeching halt, though. Mechanics talk like mechanics. Investment bankers talk like investment bankers. Heavily armored mutants from Skaros talk like heavily... well, you get the point.

Have characters act in character.-- On the same panel where she talked about flow, Drusilla Campbell commented that when the nun viciously kills a gardener is also when most people remember they have laundry they should be folding. Master snipers who can’t hit what they’re aiming at. Genius investigators who miss obvious clues. High school students who talk and act like 35-year-old investment bankers. If you’re not very, very careful, these are the characters who get books and screenplays tossed in the big left-hand pile.

Take it seriously-- So, everyone makes a joke now and then to break the tension. But you should never be winking at the audience. Even if you’re doing camp or comedy, you need to be approaching your material as a sincere and honest effort on your own part. If you’re not, the reader will know and they won’t take you seriously. Not being taken seriously gets your manuscript put down in the left hand pile. After all, if the reader thinks the events in your writing don’t mean all that much to you, why should they care about them?

Eight tips for all of us to follow. Especially you. Yeah, you.

Next week’s little rant comes with an important message, so please be here.

Until then, go write.

3 comments:

  1. I read this blog quite often, but I don't think I've ever commented. There's a lot of useful information here!

    Quote: When there’s an exacting description of the bus driver, a monologue about the morality of Israel vs. Palestine, or a flashback to fourth grade art class, odds are the flow has just been dammed up for no reason.

    I especially liked the above. I often do flashbacks, but make them relevant to the story. I also tend to use them as skipping tools--not sure if my skipping tool approach is working. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the kind words, Bobbie. :)

    Yeah, I've got a couple friends who are professional script readers and--across the board-- that kind of irrelevant, pointless material drives them nuts. Especially in a screenplay, when being clear and concise are the two main goals.

    Not sure what you mean by "skipping tools." As in, a way to skip over dealing with something now when it would be clumsy and expositional, so we skip back and deal with it when it's "fresh"...?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ah, it's something I do when the novel has a cast of several characters. I want to end the chapter on a cliffhanger.

    Sort of this: the gun goes off, but we don't know who was shot. Next chapter . . . next day a totally unrelated character is doing something different. Next chapter still, the unshot man is reflecting/flashbacking over what happened and who was shot, but doing it in almost real time as he lay there or sit there at the airport, etc.

    ReplyDelete