February 8, 2009

Go With the Flow

Wow, this is overdue, isn’t it? I blame my editor, who for some reason I can’t fathom refuses to process my invoices until I’ve turned in my assignments. And I also blame my landlord, who is so insistent about getting rent every month.

No, that’s not fair. My landlord’s a pretty cool guy.

So, anyway, have you ever read a book you just can’t put down? One where you start reading just after lunch and suddenly realize it’s two in the morning? I actually sat down to read the script for the new Witch Mountain movie last week and found myself completely engrossed. Almost missed a meeting because I was so into it.

There’s a term some gurus like to toss around called flow. I first heard it used by a woman named Drusilla Campbell, writing coach and self-proclaimed Simpsons addict. Put at its simplest, flow is the readability of your writing. It’s the way every line, paragraph, and chapter rolls into the next and carries you along for the ride. It means your writing is smooth, slick, and slides better than Bruce Springsteen at halftime. Readers can’t help but keep reading because it’s actually easier to keep reading than to put the book down. A friend of mine calls them “beach books”—the ones that are great to occupy your mind when you’re sitting on your towel between dips, because you also don’t care if they get a bit wet or sandy.

Another way to define flow is in the negative light. A story that makes you stumble a lot doesn’t flow well at all. Clumsy, wooden dialogue and poor characterization doesn’t work either. Whenever a reader pauses to scratch their head or roll their eyes, that’s another bump in the road. If you’ve ever tried a book and just couldn’t get into it, odds are the flow sucked. You’d read, trip over a page or two, and put it back down.

A story…

Many years back I arranged a weekend away with the woman I was dating. It was off-season, so we got a little cabin up in Big Bear, California, for a decent price. Balcony with a view, fireplace, king size bed, and jacuzzi right there in the main room. What more could a couple of healthy kids in their mid-twenties ask for, right? We spent the day wandering through town, hitting a few used book stores, and I ended up finding a copy of The Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

It’s not a great book, by any means. The story is a bit clumsy, the characters are stereotypes, and there are a few plot holes you could fit a small car into. However, it does have fantastic flow. You couldn’t ask for a quicker read. There’s nothing here but action and story, and the pace builds beautifully as the narrative cuts back and forth between different groups of survivors trying to avoid the monster. I started reading it at a little cafe and picked it up again back at the cabin. As the evening progressed, my girlfriend put her own book down and announced she was going to fill up the big bathtub and maybe open that complimentary bottle of wine that came with the room. I told her I wanted to read a little more, but I’d probably be in soon.

Yes, that’s right. I had a very pretty, very naked Italian girl not-so-subtly asking me to join her in the jacuzzi with a bottle of wine and my response was “Hang on– just let me finish this chapter…”

That is writing you can’t put down.

Clive Cussler, author of Raise the Titanic and Sahara among other novels, once talked about his “potato chip chapters” in an interview. He makes a point of always writing short chapters with compelling endings so people feel the need to read “just one more.” His books may never win the Nobel or a Pulitzer, but he’s also published about thirty more of them than all of us here put together and people are always asking for more.

Now, for the record, I don’t believe flow is something you can easily work on and develop in your writing. It’s one of those X-factors, where you can manipulate each of the variables but still not affect the final outcome. For example, in Goju-ryu, one of the original three forms of karate developed in Okinawa, there’s a kata called senchin (no, trust me, this is another one of those brilliant metaphors). The instructors would teach all the moves to the white belt novices with the vague hope that by the time they became black belts, they’d have a vague understanding of how all the moves go together and could start to work on the form itself. The Okinawan masters understood that working on parts doesn’t help you master the whole. One day, it just all clicks.

So, a few things you can do to help the flow of a story. The different parts of the form, if you will.

Be interesting. Easiest way in the world to keep readers from getting bored—don’t be boring. If you’re telling a story, get to the story. If it’s a murder mystery, give me a body. If it’s sci fi, show me something amazing. If it’s a love story, show me passion on some level.

Be honest. People don’t give long speeches about love, honor, or duty in real life (unless you just got inaugurated). Most of us stopped with the silly, mushy, giggly, fluttering eyelids in ninth grade. And it takes a lot for someone to stay angry for days, let alone years. Fake emotion comes from fake people. Fake people are boring.

Watch your word choice. If you’re picking obscure, awkward, or overly-long words just to show off your vocabulary and create flowery descriptions, there’s a good chance you’re disrupting the flow of your writing. It’s really cool that you can picture what a glabrous Caucasian male with atramentous works of muted ink inlaid in his flesh looks like, but it’s much faster, smoother, and just as visual to tell us he’s a bald man with black tattoos.

Watch your dialogue. You can get away with one character who talks like a robot. Maybe another who keeps slipping into a foreign language. Possibly one more who uses all those obscure, overly-long words I was just talking about. Too much stylized, unnatural, or just plain bad dialogue brings things to a grinding halt, though. People should talk like people, cats should talk like cats, and heavily armored mutants from Skaros should talk like… well, you get the point.

Have characters act in character. Drusilla once commented that when the nun viciously kills a gardener, that’s also when most people remember that laundry they have to fold. Doctors who constantly break medical protocol, sharpshooters who can’t hit when they’re aiming at the main character, and geniuses who miss obvious clues. They’re the people who get books and screenplays tossed in the big left-hand pile.

Take it seriously. Everyone makes a joke now and then to break the tension, but things need to carry the correct amount of gravity in your writing. Rape, death, and unrequited love should not be things you casually bring up and then toss aside. If you’re kicking puppies, slaughtering camp counselors, or unleashing deadly plagues, these acts should be getting a very specific emotional response. When the reader thinks you’re not taking the events in your book seriously, well… why should they?

Again, tweaking these things does not guarantee that your writing will now have beautiful, compelling flow. But if you keep at it and continue to work on them, one day it’ll all just click.

Hey, it took over three years before my sensei would call what I was doing senchin.

Next week I wanted to talk a bit about love for the holiday weekend, but I’m not sure I’ll have a rant formulated by then. I may just have to be critical about things.

Until then, go write.

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