Go with the Flow
Posted September 21, 2010on:
What is the Flow, you ask?
Well, probably you didn’t ask. In fact I’ve mentioned the flow several times lately, and most people seem to know what I’m talking about, but no one has ever talked about it directly so I’m going to now.
My son and I were talking about editing last night (no joke, he’s an editor with my publisher and they issued some new directives, and no he doesn’t edit my work). I had just suggested naming a character OK just to drive them nuts. Then I pointed out that the only real reason to depart from rules like these was to preserve the flow of the story. I also came up with color and flavor as story attributes but they’re even less definable than flow so I’ll save them for a separate post.
Color and flavor are attributes of the story, flow is an attribute of the telling of the story. Flow is the way the words work together to make a sentence. In part it’s simply good grammar and in part it’s mechanics. How many times in editing have you been told to get rid of the WAS and WERE and HAD and lots of other small common words. There’s a reason they’re there. Without all the small common words our sentences are just big clunky ones all lined up together. That won’t work any more than a body without joints or tendons.
It’s true that they can be overused. There can be too much flow in a story, which paradoxically does not equate to dynamism. It equates to dissipation. When the flow dissipates it doesn’t carry the reader along, he has to get out his oars and that’s not a good thing. A little work on the reader’s part is good, I think, but we don’t want to make them do the heavy lifting any more than we want them to feel totally uninvolved. The most they should have to do is steer, and for that you need to have a good flow to move the boat.
Every verb in a story cannot be in the past perfect form, but that doesn’t mean that no verb should be. Sometimes the flow of the story calls for ‘he did it’, sometimes it feels better to say ‘it was he who had done it.’ Do I know when? If it’s my story I do. ‘He did it’ is a short and choppy sort of sentence, and you need those in short and choppy places. Does this mean I’m always right? No it does not. Sometimes a story needs to move along in a smooth glide, but sometimes it needs rapids, or even a falls, and some authors may find some flows more suitable to their temperaments than others. That’s where editing comes in.
Editing can never be a mechanical process any more than the writing was. It’s easy enough to highlight all the instances of a word in a manuscript, but which ones do you remove? The issue in editing is to find the right alternative flows, to point out the need or the opportunity for one and let the author take it from there. Sometimes the story needs more explication, not less. (That happened to me with my first book. The editor didn’t see the need for a section which I knew was going to be crucial not only to the book but to the series. But I had left out the flow, the sense of connection, that would let the reader see this. Or the entire half page I removed in favor a two words, shorter and sweeter and much more to the point.)
A good example of what I mean is in the very first line of my very first book:
“He was called Thranj, which meant nothing, and he was a god, which meant everything.”
The first ‘was’ is an auxiliary to ‘called’ and can be dispensed with, except that the second ‘was’ is the main verb of its clause. On simple mechanical grounds the first ‘was’ should go, but I kept it in order to maintain the symmetry, the poetic connection, between the two halves of the sentence. Another example I thought of while writing this sentence is that of pronouns v. descriptive phrasing, and which to use in a particular place.
Have I explained Flow? Probably not. Do you know what I’m talking about? Almost certainly.