This Thursday’s Child–Flow

I thought that this early autumn glimpse of a stretch of the Grand River might give your imaginations some relief from the heat and drought the weather has been delivering lately.

Broad, calm, deep, but always moving. A river exists to flow. We search for the flow state in our daily activities, enjoying its productivity. We’re drawn deep into the repeated actions, and distractions don’t reach us.

Stories ought also to flow. Flow in literature is a subtle concept. Although at first you might believe that flow is merely the movement from event to event in the plot, this is not so. Nor is it the pace at which the plot develops.

Flow is independent of consciously applied rhythm, and has most to do with meaning; in fact, one can advance clearly and logically from idea to idea, and still miss flow, if the sentences in each paragraph are all in similar construction. The rhythm then becomes noticeable enough to force the reader’s mind out of the story as it begins to read like awkward poetry.

What to do? The only sure revision to cure lack of flow is to vary sentence structure. Rambling dialogue can cause readers to object, so it’s probably wisest to focus on passages of narrative description.

This is easy enough to write, but I fully expect that it’s likely going to be harder to do. I seem to have taken the witticism “keep it simple, sister” too much to heart. As a result my manuscript is lacking enough of the complex and compound-complex sentences that, although long, contribute to the development of flow.

I’m currently reading one of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize Finalists: Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. By page fifteen of the novella, I’d encountered a somewhat extreme example: The first sentence of a paragraph there runs for 115 words, but it also layers in multiple sensory details, and expresses mood. The second sentence, much shorter, runs only ten words in length. The third, four words. After that, the closing two sentences were progressively longer.

I don’t think I’ll be mimicking this pattern precisely, but I will dive back into my story and see where I can recombine areas where my sentences currently behave like a hurdler doing stutter steps. If my story is ever going to run like a river, it must have flow.