When writers talk of story flow, they are referring to the movement of the story and whether a novel moves smoothly from start to finish.
Every story needs to be dynamic in this way. It needs to be smooth, seamless and coherent. This is what we know as story flow, but it shouldn’t be confused with pace because pace is the speed at which a story moves. Flow, on the other hand, refers to how the story moves along. It’s all about movement, and how it draws the reader in.
But why is flow important? It’s something that needs to occur in for the story to make sense to the reader. If a story doesn’t flow, then the story may be too confusing or disjointed for the reader to make any sense of it. This is why the movement of the story is critical – it must constantly move forward. This is why we refer to the importance of a story moving forward.
How does story flow work?
Both scenes and chapters need to be relatable – the action needs to progress in a logical manner and not go off at tangents. Actions must be logical and escalate accordingly – the time and the order of unfolding events need to be in a certain order, so a character does something that leads to another action, and that leads to other actions and so on. In other words, one scene needs to lead effortlessly and consistently to the other, all while revealing the plot. And a story that sticks to the plot is a story that works.
Subplots also support story flow – but they need to be relatable, too, in the same way that the main plot is. The help to continue the story forward, they help with this constant movement because they provide extra threads of interest for the reader which helps to push things towards the conclusion.
Varied pace is also key to story flow. Reflective scenes coupled with action scenes give the reader the sense of things speeding along or slowing down, which helps with the movement of the story.
Dialogue is another important tool. Through dialogue, characters reveal information and hint at things to come and so on, and are therefore vital to story flow. Dialogue links narrative to description and vice versa, and helps to link different scenes, thus giving the sense that the story is moving.
The most obvious thing when all these factors are brought together is that the story makes sense, that it’s uncomplicated and it moves smoothly.
When a story doesn’t flow, the problems are compounded, because it has a negative effect on the writing. There are familiar problems with flow. The obvious one is that the story won’t make sense; therefore the order of action won’t work. This is down to poor writing and the reader will find it hard to follow the plot. The other problem is that the pace may be affected, too.
Confusion also causes problems. If the reader is confused about badly written characters, or there are too many characters, this will impede the story flow. Not only that, but writers can also make the story so convoluted that it’s impossible for the reader to understand what’s going on. New writers in particular are guilty of making their story too complicated in the belief that it will make a better story. It doesn’t. Stories can be complex, if thought out properly, but it’s better to keep things simple.
You can spot all these problems when you read through the story. If you have to read sentences twice, or you trip over certain words or sentence constructions, then it means the flow isn’t working. Chapter and scene breaks can interrupt flow if they are not done correctly. That’s because if you create a break where there shouldn’t be one, it can disturb the entire flow of the story. The more you do this, however, the better you become at seeing how flow works.
So how are these problems corrected?
They are usually noticed at the read-through stage, when the writer realises that the story isn’t quite right; it seems to jump aimlessly, or it feels disjointed, or it might be obvious that the story goes off course and doesn’t seem to bear much relation to the main plot. Sometimes the structure of the story is haphazard and hasn’t been thought out. This is where rewriting is a writer’s best friend.
Writers need to recognise such problems. They will then be able to rectify them and ensure the story sticks to the plot - that chapters don’t waffle and the subplots are relevant to the main story, but more importantly, each scene moves from one to the next logically and effortlessly.
Create the right words and sentences – this is what writing is about. Writing should be smooth, easy to understand, have rhythm and pace, fluidity, a sense of movement. Actions, scenes, chapters and plot should all interconnect. That may sound daunting, but it really isn’t. Think of painting by numbers. Connect the dots and you make a picture. If you don’t connect the dots properly, then you have a problem. It’s not that different with writing. Connect the dots – character actions, within structured scenes, logically happening in sequence within specific chapters which relay the plot – and you have a full picture.
And that is story flow.
Next week: How important is realism in fiction?