The Nitty-Gritty of Editing: Flow

CC image by Marc Wathieu

CC image by Loren Javier

CC image by Loren Javier

Welcome to the end. Of this series anyway. I sincerely hope this content has been helpful to you as a spring board into editing your work. If you have not read the last five blogs in the nitty-gritty of editing series, I hope that you will take a moment, grab yourself an iced coffee, and give them a read. This last category in the series is flow, the most touchy-feely of them all. I always think of Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove saying, “You threw off my groove!” Don’t mess with my flow!

If you are a poet, you are already familiar with rhythm and cadence and fluidity and sound and freakin’ enjambment or caesurae of all things. That’s the little picture. I want to look at the big picture for now. To do so, let me try to ground this concept for you (with a metaphor of all things). You want your writing to be like a journey your readers take down a stream. You can jostle them as you wish, throw in the occasional stomach lurching waterfall. What you don’t want is for them to be snagged. You also don’t want them to drown. How do you keep that from happening?

Balance.

All extremes are bad! (See what I did there?) What I should say is that extremes can be a red flag. Most stories contain five categories of writing:

Action
Dialogue
Thought
Description
Exposition

Your job, my friend, is to juggle all five seamlessly. Sound easy? You’ve never juggled, have you? I believe all of us can have a tendency toward one or more of these. That could be your style rearing its ugly head. Don’t get me wrong, style is important. Please continue to explore and develop it, but never use it as an excuse:
“So what if I have five pages of dialogue, that’s my style!”
“Well, yeah my first ten pages are exposition. My story has complicated plot.”
“This story takes place entirely in her head to show my deep philosophical tone.”

Bull.

There can be fads in terms of the use of these categories. And it always changes. Many of the classics you were forced to mow through in your English classes have a particular leaning toward one or more of these. I think the current trend is toward action, given the unbelievable flood of first person present tense novels out there. I’m drowning in them and I don’t particularly enjoy it. But that’s a beef for another day.

You will likely have strong leanings toward a few of these. Maybe you call it your style. You need to look long and hard at your writing and make sure there is still enough balance that your readers don’t drown. You should feel comfortable enough to know how to use all of these masterfully. Each one is heavy-laden with pros and cons.

Action
Action is exciting, but I believe it is also the most challenging to write well. The reason is that there is a tendency toward a string of “He did this. He did that. Then this happened, then this happened, and suddenly, suddenly, suddenly!” As a writer, you may have a clear image in your head of what is taking place, but on paper it’s about as clear as mud. You have three males in the scene and the pronouns are all confused, and repeating names sounds redundant. But wait! One of them wasn’t even named, so you have to continually refer to him as “the man.” Or you hopefully gave him some attribute so you can at least say, “the bearded man.” Some writers are obsessively detailed, telling me what both the right and left hands are doing, every breath, every step. Some are not detailed enough, and it’s like watching a dark scene in the movie with a shaking camera.

CC image by Marc Wathieu

CC image by Marc Wathieu

Dialogue
Dialogue is tough to do naturally and it hinges entirely on the writer’s preference. There are stories with no dialogue. There are stories with only references to dialogue, “He told me that…” There are stories that have entire pages of dialogue. What you have to watch out for is unnecessary dialogue. Yes, in the restaurant it is realistic for the server to say their full script. Is it necessary to your story? Sometimes we forget that it’s the same person writing these ten characters, and we don’t realize they all sound the same. Sometimes we really like that one liner, and we don’t realize that the dialogue to set it up sounds ridiculous. Sometimes our characters say things that don’t actually make sense just to make a point.

Thought
Many stories I’ve read by developing writers take place entirely in the head, and they don’t realize it. I’ll learn about something that happened in the character’s life, not by seeing it in action, but by having to deal with the character thinking about it for ten pages. It’s like reading someone’s diary. This is why creative writing teachers harp so much about image. What single, implicit, beautiful, showing-not-telling line of action or description can communicate that entire paragraph? One teacher made people highlight in yellow every line of thought in their story. Some stories looked like a dog had peed on it. There is also a dangerous tendency to end a story on thought. One creative writing teacher I had made us look for the words “Realized” and “Understood.” If the story ended on a realization, it had to be rewritten.

Description
Everyone always uses poor Tolkien as the epitome of too much description. I actually give quite a lot of grace to people who have done world building. Of course, they want to explain it to you—they created an entire world! I agree though, too much can be too much. If you are not tactful in your approach of describing the setting, the reader is overwhelmed and generally confused. Like action, it can be difficult to paint a picture using words. But some writers are overly fond of their words. They really like to describe to you all of the trivialities that have nothing to do with their story. Some writers like to pause time when a character is introduced and give you paragraph long description of their height, hair color, eye color, clothes, etc. Other times I’ve seen writers that don’t give you any scrap of detail. I’ve actually been told by someone that they didn’t give detail so that the reader could use their imagination. That’s a pretty high demand on that reader’s imagination. You might as well hand them a blank page and ask them to write the story themselves.

Exposition
Here’s the deal. Exposition is a necessary evil. I think some writers don’t see it that way. They think their backstory is incredibly interesting. It is the weakness of a lot of genre fiction, in my opinion. I open up a fantasy book and have to read ten pages of history and names I can barely pronounce—death by exposition. Exposition must always be handled tactfully and in small, merciful doses. I like to think about it like a murder mystery novel. The “how it happened,” the exposition, isn’t just laid out for you in a boring page. It’s doled out, piece by enticing piece. And it’s not all thrown at you at the end either. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. You have to explain all of something at once. So how do you do that?

I hope you’re ahead of me as to the answer here. Don’t let these stand alone. Combine them. Balance them. Intersperse your action sequence with some thought and dialogue. Use exposition to skip over unnecessary dialogue. Always solve the thought problem with action. Think, what is your character doing that communicates as much as the thoughts themselves? Tie your character’s experience of the setting in with the description (action/thought/dialogue). And how do you solve the exposition problem?

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat is a book on screenwriting that is every bit as applicable to writing books. He had a wonderful solution to the problem that he called “The Pope in the Pool.” The idea came from a screenplay titled The Plot to Kill the Pope by George Englund. There is a hefty bit of exposition that takes place at the Vatican pool and the Pope is in his swimming suit swimming laps. Basically, the setting itself and the action taking place is so distracting that the exposition is over with before you know it. You don’t always have to take a humorous approach, but think of ways using action or description that liven up the unavoidable exposition.

My greatest advice to you is to read everything aloud—the entire story. I don’t care if it’s an eight hundred page novel; this will benefit you more than anything else. Reading aloud offers you a fresh perspective. You will notice when you lean too strongly on one of these categories. You will also notice if something is too wordy (maybe those five five-syllable words weren’t such a good idea) or alliteration or rhyming, which while being a poetic tool can make your prose sound like a children’s book. It will help you notice unnecessary dialogue tags, poorly planned paragraph breaks, and problems with sentence variation.

I also suggest that you read aloud just the dialogue. This will help you hear how natural it is and notice if the characters are saying each other’s names too much or responding not to what the other character said, but what he thought. If you can, I also suggest recruiting a friend to read with you. Going back and forth with the dialogue will give you a more accurate perspective. Sometimes your friend may read something with a different inflection and interpretation than you intended. Nothing will benefit you more as a writer than the perspective of others.

Thanks for sticking with me and Tracy Buckler through this series. It’s been fun. If you have any questions or topics you would like us to explore more, you know how to reach us. Good luck editing!

By Rachelle Clifford