Flow

I’ve been reading some unpublished fiction this week, chapters or complete manuscripts by aspiring authors. The difficulties that these earnest scribblers get themselves into are so various that it’s difficult to generalize about the nature of the problem. And of course it would be gruesomely impolite for me to provide actual quotes from any of this material, so I won’t.

Setting aside the basic issues of mechanics, which will of course torpedo any reader’s attempt to take the text seriously, I think what I don’t find, as I read, is a secure sense of narrative flow. And flow is not an easy quality to define.

Did I mention mechanics? Oh, my, yes. In the submissions to one critique group I’m seeing scenes (by more than one author) that shift heedlessly between past and present tense, or even from third to first person and then back — the word “my” where “her” ought to have been. Clumsy dialog tags, failure to separate a noun of address using a comma, misspelled words (“comradery,” for example, where “camaraderie” was wanted), and so on. One author failed to indent her paragraphs. In fiction, paragraphs are always indented. Why do I need to explain this?

But let’s talk about flow. Or try to.

My first suggestion for any aspiring writer would be, “Pretend you’re a movie camera.” Watch the scene in your mind’s eye. Events will occur in a certain temporal order, and it’s always best to get them lined up on the page in the order in which they occur. While doing that, you need to keep close track of both the important bits (which might be tone of voice, facial expression, manner of gesture, or something else entirely) and the connections between the bits.

In one scene I read today, a woman arrived at the exterior door of a building. it was locked, so she couldn’t get in. A second person approached with a key, and the woman stood up. But the author had never shown her sitting down — and indeed, there was no mention of a bench where she could have sat. That’s a failure to connect the bits.

The dialog is often stilted. People say things in awkward ways. The audio track in the author’s movie camera has failed. Or, to be more precise, the author has failed to enter into the mental process of each character in the scene in turn, in order to feel from the inside precisely what that character would say. This doesn’t mean shifting viewpoint to show the reader what the character is feeling or thinking. It’s a trick the author must perform in her own head, in order to write the script that the camera will then capture.

Some authors try to shoehorn in bits of explanation or description by switching from “Bob” to “Ella’s uncle” and from that to “the silver-haired man” under the impression that they’re filling in details. This is almost never a good approach. Pick one appellation for the character (most likely “Bob”) and stick with it, replacing “Bob” with “he” as appropriate. The only exception would be if the second phrase is a direct appositive phrase, maybe something like this: “Bob, who was Ella’s uncle and should therefore have been a lot more upset about seeing her lying dead on the floor than he appeared to be….” Here, switching from “Bob” to “Ella’s uncle” flows well. Contrast this with a dreadful example (which I’m making up on the spot; this is not from a real manuscript): “Bob didn’t seem at all upset. Ella’s uncle saw her lying dead on the floor….” This way of writing it would be pure shit. We now have two characters in the scene: Bob, and also Ella’s uncle. They are no longer the same person.

I’ve seen character descriptions that mention things like height, hair color, perhaps eye color, and perhaps musculature or the quality of the character’s smile, all in a colorless laundry list. After which, the character remains indistinguishable from any other character, because the author’s movie camera has not continued to track, visually and aurally, what makes that character distinctive. Readers will not remember what’s in the laundry list! Descriptions need color. And not just eye color. Who really notices eye color, for Pete’s sake? Even if you notice it, it tells you nothing whatever about the character. Use metaphor or a simile. Use a fresh adjective. Show the person’s features in movement. (“Her curly red hair was lifted by the wind” would be much better than “she had curly red hair.”)

Just for kicks, here’s a description drawn from the Prologue of my next novel, Substitute Girl, which I hope to have available for your purchasing pleasure within three months or so:

Her hair was gray now, nearly white, but it fell loose with an extravagant curl, as it had when she was young. Her face was pale and seamed, but her features were finely shaped and her eyes bright. She had been a beauty once; for those not blinded by the adoration of youth, she still was.

I don’t claim to be a great writer. I’m sometimes adequate. But I think this little excerpt shows what I mean about how to shape a character description. We have an unusual word usage in “extravagant curl.” We have a brief pause for a little editorial comment about ageism, which serves to give the preceding adjectives a context: Lady Murassala, with her pale, seamed face, is still beautiful.

Vary your sentence rhythm. Use some long sentences and some sentences so short that they’re mere fragments. Here’s the next paragraph after that one:

The other woman in the room, hunched forward on a chair that she had drawn up to the bed, was much the same age but smaller, her hair stiff and black, her face strong-jawed and unlovely, her posture as keen as a crow’s. This was Mother Hagel — an honorific, as she had never borne a child. She liked to say that all of the worshipers of the goddess were her children.

The last three clauses in the first sentence are parallel — her hair, her face, her posture. Note the variation in the rhythms of the adjectives — first “stiff and black,” then “strong-jawed and unlovely.” And then a simile that underlines the imagery of both “black” and “hunched forward.” Here we have a parallel structure that opens out in a non-parallel way.

I can’t tell you how to do that kind of thing. I’m not even sure how I do it. I just wrestle with every paragraph until I like the way it flows.

Maybe the best way to learn to write prose that flows is to read good fiction. Of course, if you don’t already have a feeling for what’s good, you won’t know whether what you’re reading is good, so there’s a sort of bootstrapping problem.

I suppose you could do worse than read Dickens. This bit, for instance: “Oliver Twist’s ninth birth-day found him a pale thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference.” There’s nothing remarkable about this sentence, but it’s not the sort of thing an unpublished author is likely to come up with. In the texts I’ve been reading, I would expect to find, “Oliver was pale, thin, and not very tall.” Dickens clearly didn’t need to add “small in circumference,” as he had already said “thin.” But he liked the phrase, so he included it. And note the juxtaposition of “somewhat” against “decidedly.”

At root, I think, what pleases the reader in good writing is a sense of both confidence and comfort — a sense that the author can be trusted to say the things that are important and to say them in ways that are both precise and interesting. The amateur jabs and pokes at a paragraph or a scene; the professional lays it before us like a banquet.

There has, since Hemingway, been a tendency to think that writing ought to be dry rather than flowery. But really, Hemingway’s voice was his own. And frankly, some of the dialog in Tender Is the Night is blunderingly clumsy. What one wants in a writer is that he or she have a voice that brings the story alive for the reader.

If you go back further than Dickens — to Fielding, perhaps, or Defoe, or Sterne — what you find is that the author often addressed the reader quite directly. The author came out from behind the curtain and spoke, in his own voice, before returning to the narrative. Also, great slabs of the story were often told in summary rather than being shown in dramatized scenes. We no longer do that sort of thing; I don’t recommend it; but I think the ease of it, the sense that the author is here in the room, sitting beside the fire and on the reader’s side, is all but indispensable.

Strive for that. You’re sitting in a rocking chair. The fire is crackling, and you have a fine glass of port at your elbow. Tell us the story.

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