In writing, we strive to make the story flow to the reader as naturally as a breath of air, while assaulting the reader’s mind with surprises and new information, or new worlds, or new ways of thinking and reacting to situations. But the flow of the story, characters and dialogue is often not what holds authors captive to the status of “inexperienced” or “struggling” – rather, it is often the sentences themselves and the choppy, unsmooth flow of each sentence to the next. Many of us struggle with this, particularly in first drafts, but when you get to the final draft and the chapter says exactly what you want it to say yet it lacks flow, what do you do about it?
In this blog post, I’m going to discuss how I scour through my manuscripts for choppy sentences, lack of flow, subtle perspective roadblocks and colorless language. Often, I’ll restructure a chunk of text four or five times to weed out the problems and arrange it just right – much like unknotting string, you must start with the big problems and work down to the smaller problems, and then you just have string so you might as well tie a better knot. I’m going to demonstrate that here, using my exact process for eliminating poor flow in my manuscripts.
THE CHOPPY TEXT FROM HELL
I walked into the room and blinked. The large living room had a jig-saw puzzle patterned carpet. It made my eyes hurt, so I walked through the room and left out the back door. Outside, I sat on the porch.
Breaking this chunk of narrative down, there are three major things (and several minor things) wrong with it.
The first is that it is repetitive and colorless with the use of “the” “it” and “I.”
Secondly, the word “had” is lazy. “Held” “contained” “was adorned by” are such more engaging words to use in its place – “had” is one I use very sparingly, though it could easily drop into many sentences. “Had” is passive. Avoid it if you can.
The third thing that’s wrong with this is that it’s not a sentence. It’s a cluster of sentences that could be so much cleaner if it was strung together as one statement, since the point is really that I went to the porch because the carpet was ugly. However, the way this is currently worded, it takes a bunch of periods to get to that point. At each period, your readers take a mental breath. Ask them to breathe too often and they’ll find themselves hyperventilating and needing a break from reading to smooth over their thoughts – and that’s the opposite experience you want your reader to have as they invest their hearts in your characters and story.
Finally, with the above section of text, think about perspective. It’s not exactly something wrong with this text, but something that could be done better. Yes, the living room had a jig-saw puzzle patterned carpet, but in that single sentence prior to the period, I have given you no reason to care about that fact. It’s from an observational perspective, and it sticks out like a sore thumb because it has no justification prior to the period for why the observation is there. What is important to your reader is how I react to that carpet. Does it matter if the room had a patterned carpet? Yes, because it made my eyes hurt… but that needs to be stated before your reader takes the obligatory mental breath at the period, or the connection is often overlooked.
A LITTLE BIT BETTER:
I walked into the living room and blinked. The jig-saw puzzle patterned carpet made my eyes hurt, so I walked through the room and left out the back door to the porch to relieve my eyes.
This is a bit better connected – it is now two sentences instead of four. It still contains all the same elements, but the frequency of “the” is reduced by it being fewer sentences. “Had” is gone, and you immediately care about the carpet because I told you it made my eyes hurt before the period.
I also gave a reason to for the reader to care about the porch, by telling you that the setting change relieved my eyes. There are still problems with the flow of this chunk of text: you will notice two “walked” uses and two “eyes” uses within the same point. By repeating these words in a situation where the motive and goal is obvious, you’re calling your reader stupid.
If you take one thing from this, please take this: Never, ever call your reader stupid. You don’t need to tell your reader that a car has wheels, or a dog has drool, so why would you tell your reader that I not only walked to my first destination, but to my second as well? I didn’t take a jet-ski through the living room, did I?
I blinked when I walked into the living room, the jig-saw puzzle patterned carpet hurting my eyes enough that I crossed through the room and left out the back door to relieve my eyes on the porch.
Now, I did not just walk into the living room and blink. I blinked as I walked because the carpet hurt my eyes so much that I left. All of that happened in one mental breath, without hyperventilating, and with reason given to each section of text. Also, the use of “walked” is dropped to once, with “crossed” substituted for one use.
It feels more active on a subtle level, too, because the carpet no longer “made my eyes hurt” but “hurt my eyes enough that I left.” All forms of “made” – “Made me feel, made me think, made me realize…” are passive. They are lazy and telling, rather than showing, so if you simply show what hurt my eyes rather than what “made” my eyes hurt (because the inanimate carpet can have a painful effect, but realistically not a painful intention), the activity of the statement is enhanced.
Can this be made better still?
HELL YEAH, IT CAN.
The jig-saw puzzle patterned carpet of the large living room strained my eyes when I entered, so I crossed through the space and strode out the back door, where the beige of the porch and soothing emerald of the lawn relieved my stressed irises as I sank deeply into a chair, sighing.
Oh, how colorful, visual and mood evoking… but with major problems of its own. Let’s break that down. Firstly, “strained” is a more accurate word than “hurt” for the effect a chaotic carpet can have on my eyes, and I’ve eliminated another “I” statement. Remember, above, I told you that you should keep perspective in mind with regard to the carpet’s pattern – the same is true here, but rather than a sentence that sticks out as out-of-synch with perspective, the observed statement is used as an introduction. The subject of this half of the sentence is “I” and the predicate is “crossed through the space” so “The carpet” is an introduction, not its own subject or predicate, not an observational hang-up in the middle of a smooth, first-person action.
But a few things are problematic, as well. Yes, the carpet has a jig-saw pattern. Am I going to stay in that room long enough for that to matter? No, I leave immediately. Scratch the adjective out – it’s distracting for the reader to have too many descriptions to visualize. Yes, the porch is beige… and as much as your reader can picture that, does it matter? Not really, the emerald of the lawn is what soothes my eyes, so let go of the “beige” too.
Commercial break for name drop: My agent, Michelle Johnson of Corvisiero Literary Agency, is an absolute MASTER of giving just enough description, and never too much. I learned a lot about how this is accomplished simply by reading some of her work.
Does “living room” matter? I think yes, because after I’m done sitting on the porch I will have to traverse that space again to leave the house, and it would be silly to name/label the room after I’ve already been through it once. Might as well explain it the first time!
And when I sink into a chair, personally, I almost always sigh. “Sinking” implies a sense of tired and relaxation and relief, so “sighing” is a redundant. You wouldn’t call your reader stupid by specifying that you sneezed through your mouth and nose, would you? So don’t think they can’t make the connection between sinking into a chair and relaxation without that extra verb… they can. They are humans and live in the condition about which we write every damn day. Scratch the extra verb.
One thing on “stressed irises” – it is better than “eyes” because I already used that noun, but for the love of all that is sacred, DO NOT say, “blue irises” or “sparkling irises” or “bloodshot eyeballs” for one reason: this is not the place for a physical description of myself. Am I looking into a mirror? Do I typically sink into a chair when my eyes are tired and think, “Boy, my grey eyes sure ache today as I blink with brownish lashes…?” No. People don’t describe themselves, not even in passing thought. People stay in the moment, in the room, so help your reader remain there, too. Keep your own observations out of the observations of the first person main character, because you, the author, are not in the scene.
NOW THAT YOU’VE UNRAVELED THE KNOT, TIE A MUCH NEATER, TIGHER KNOT
The pattern of the living room carpet strained my eyes when I entered, so I strode beyond the chaos to the porch and sank deeply into a chair, the soothing emerald of the lawn relieving my stressed irises.
Removed two verbs and an “and”, the adjectives are gone and it’s shorter, because the action itself is short in duration. I also eliminated the back door, because unless you’re including a floor-plan with your manuscript, there door itself is irrelevant and your reader knows that to reach the porch from the living room, a door is typically involved.
The carpet was chaotic so I left and relaxed in a chair by the soothing lawn. That is the ultimate point of this sentence, and the author has expressed it clearly, vividly and smoothly without interrupting the stream of consciousness, the perspective or the poetic beauty with which we write.
Every single sentence should have the following:
Did What: “strode to the porch and sank into a chair”
When: “when I entered”
How: “beyond the chaos” – covers “Where” as well, because in everyday, normal-person action, “how” is somewhat unnecessary
And Why: “the living room carpet strained my eyes.”
The Short of It:
String the choppy sentences together into as few as possible, getting rid of lazy, passive text like “had” and “made.” Take out redundancies and make sure the perspective is believable and consistent. Amp up the writing with adjectives and adverbs, then decide if you really need them and axe half, along with verbs that are self-explanatory. Finally, check that you have Who What When How/Where and Why.
I’m sure others have much smoother, shorter ways of explaining this process… but this is how I break down my paragraphs as I form a final draft, and it has worked for me so far. I hope you find this post informational and helpful! It’s long-winded and in-depth, but hey, that’s how I work best! Find your niche and perfect it, and you’ll succeed at whatever you set your mind to accomplish.