Writers’ Toolbox: Keeping the Flow

by Helena Hunting

Flow. It’s central to clean, crisp writing and often difficult to achieve. Sometimes the flow of a story gets lost along the way. A plot line runs rampant before it can be pinned back down; a character becomes unruly and wants to rehash a scene even though it’s already been completed; a piece of a character’s history begs to be told right in the middle of the action. It happens to even the most seasoned writers and can lead the story astray–down a dark and dangerous path to the land of Stagnacity.

Maintaining flow helps hold readers’ rapt attention. Flow keeps them flipping pages, unable to put the story down in the wee hours of the night, despite having to get up for work in the morning. The book isn’t going to go up in flames, and nobody’s e-reader is going to spontaneously combust, but there is a compulsion to read on—just one more chapter, and another, and another. It’s what writers aspire to, but sometimes struggle with when putting words on the page.

To swim with the current, consider these possibilities :

Cutting the Scene You Love:

Cutting scenes can be like losing a limb. Unfortunately, to keep a reader enthralled with the amazing/strange/compelling characters a writer creates, sometimes it’s necessary to amputate.

It’s not unusual to become connected to your characters. Many of my writer friends have expressed the same feeling, and cutting scenes becomes that much more of a challenge. These characters live in writers’ heads and on their pages; it makes sense that when asked to cut a scene, it can be hard to let go.

Storytelling is a process and sometimes scenes become superfluous, bogging the narrative down with unnecessary details. Or worse, they pull the reader away from the main story line, sending them down a river that takes away from the immediacy of the plot.

During the editing and revision process of a manuscript—likely for the seven-millionth time if you’re anything like me—it can be helpful to ask the following questions:

1.   Does each scene carry the story/plot/character forward?

2.   Is the scene filler? Would the story survive without the scene?

3.   Does it accomplish something or give the reader new information?

Life will not end if a scene is deleted. Create a file folder labeled “Deleted Scenes I Love” and store the scene in there. It’s possible it could be used somewhere else in the story.

When I first began the editing process on a particular story, I didn’t want to delete anything. The idea was rather abhorrent, in fact. Then I cut 17,000 words and got over it. Was it painful? Damn right. It felt like I’d wasted all that time putting words down only to cut them out again. However, what I cut served no purpose in the story and needed to be removed. It taught me a very valuable lesson. Sometimes I create scenes as a means to develop characters. After cutting those 17,000 words the story began to flow much more freely–as if I’d released the dam.

Get used to cutting scenes. Not every scene is integral to the story line. Sometimes those scenes give better insight into the way characters think or interact with each other, even if the scene doesn’t fit with the story when it’s complete.

If pre-readers, editors, or critique partners are questioning a scene and its relevance, there’s a good chance it needs some revision. Give it a closer look and ask those important questions. If you don’t have a group of critique partners, tap into an online community and find one. Their input is invaluable, and a good crit partner will be up front if they think something isn’t working.

Trust your gut; if part of you realizes the scene doesn’t fit quite the way it used to, cut and save it.

The Recap Trap:

Recapping scenes in another character’s POV can cause trouble when it comes to flow. Multiple POV’s can bog the story down if they’re too repetitive. However, if they are well executed, multiple POVs may keep a story hopping. Sometimes it’s necessary to recap a scene so the reader knows where the characters are as the POV changes–—particularly if the story is action packed or emotionally charged.

In my own experience, recapping works when it’s brief. If scenes or chapters alternate POV’s the next voice should pick up where the first left off. A short recap gives the reader a peek into the affected character’s mind. The character may reveal how s/he feels about the events in the previous scene and connect the reader to the character.

If the recap furthers the plot line, revealing new or important information, then it’s logical to use that particular story telling device. If, on the other hand, it simply rehashes an event or scene from another character’s POV, re-evaluate which character should be playing center stage for that particular scene.

While getting another character’s perspective can help the reader understand the character’s emotional/physical/mental response to the previous event, it can also detract from the flow of the story. Repetition, even through a different lens, takes the reader out of the moment.

The bigger questions might be why do you feel compelled to write the scene from the other character’s POV? Is something missing in the original scene? Is it possible to add a few details to convey the reaction or emotional state of your character without a recap in their particular POV?

As a writing exercise, recapping a scene can help with character development. It can be incredibly revealing, giving the writer greater insight into their character’s mind. It’s an exercise I use when I’m struggling to write the next scene, or when my characters won’t cooperate. When using a recap to bring readers up to speed with the character’s mindset, ensure that the information is relevant and doesn’t bog down the story with repetitive details. Be brief. A few sentences or a paragraph can accomplish much and still move the story forward.

Every Sentence Should Move the Story Forward:

Trust the reader to understand inferences. If the characters are three-dimensional and the storyline is solid, a writer won’t need to spell everything out in minute detail.

During the editing process, look for repetitive phrases, or fall back words which might become commonplace in the story. Also watch for the use of obscure or unusual words. For instance, the word “kerfuffle” is awesome, but will lose its impact if overused. Million dollar words are too outrageous to see repeatedly and it will draw the reader’s attention away from the flow.

Stories are rivers of words; sometimes the current is soft and gentle and the ride is sweet. Other times, the current is quick and tumultuous and the journey is anything but pleasant. No matter the ride, the river keeps moving. If the words aren’t pushing the story forward, then the waters become stagnant.

Based on the information I’ve gleaned from writer’s websites, the writer’s group I’ve joined, and the conferences I’ve attended, there are a slew of words aspiring authors should try to limit or steer away from entirely. The following are a few of the most common culprits for clogging up a story: “was,” “were,” “had,” “has” and “that” fall into the “limit the use of” category. Avoiding unnecessary dialogue tags, clichés and repetition can also help maintain the flow of a story.

Below are a few links to articles that focus on words to avoid in writing:

http://www.tameri.com/edit/words2kill.html

http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/plague.htm

http://www.freelancewriting.com/articles/ten-words-to-avoid-when-writing.php

Back Steps in the Flow (Watch out for the cliff behind you):

Finally, avoiding back steps in the story will help maintain the flow. Back steps remove the urgency to the reader. While flashbacks can be an effective tool to further the reader’s understanding of the story line and develop characters, they pull the reader away from the current storyline. Flashbacks are most useful when they reveal important information that moves the plot forward.

Backstory, on the other hand, tends to bog down a story and interrupts the flow. Sometimes using backstory during the writing process helps the writer better understand their character’s motives and desires. These pieces of information can be revealed by incorporating details into the story itself, rather than in chunks that pull readers away from the conflict between characters.

Flow is essential to keep your reader engaged. Without it, a story cannot flourish. Remember, writing is a process, and everyone’s journey is unique. As a writer creates new characters, he or she will learn about their intricacies, so it’s understandable that changes will need to be made during the editing process. That might include cutting beloved scenes, watching for excessive or unnecessary recap, moving the story forward, and avoiding back steps in the flow.

This can be difficult to do alone. I have found my writer’s group to be the most valuable resource for editing support. Having the opinions of other people who aren’t as connected to your story can help bring much needed perspective. Join an online community or find your local writer’s guild and become a member. Developing a positive rapport with fellow writers and finding critique partners is an incredibly helpful part of the writing process, making the ride down the river of words much smoother.

Bio: Helena Hunting is an aspiring romance writer. She has recently completed her first novel/manuscript and is about to fall face first into the terrifying world of query hell. You can follow her on twitter @helenahunting or visit her blog at www.helenahunting.com

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