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The Importance of Narrative Flow
The flow of a narrative is one of the most important parts of telling a story. But it is one of the least understood parts of the art. Why is it so hard to understand? Because the concept is hard to define and the way it works is not well understood.
So what is "Narrative Flow", how does it work and why is it so important? Let me answer those in the reverse order that they were asked. Narrative Flow is important because it keeps the reader engrossed in the story being told and assists in building and maintaining a "willing suspension of disbelief".
How does it work? Quite simply it works by allowing the reader to lose track of the individual words as the scenes and situations play out in their minds. When a story has a great flow the reader will make it from the start of the story to the end and not notice how long it has taken.
Then what exactly is "Narrative Flow"? It is the congruence of the author's narrative voice and the proper use of the language in which the story is being written. And what does that mean? Well… When the language is used properly the sentences will "flow together" such that the punctuation marking the end of a sentence does not constitute more than a notional break, just as the separation between paragraphs will not constitute more than a notional separation between separate ideas.
And I can hear it now: "But how can I know when I've got good flow going on?"
That, sadly, is not easy to answer. For some people there is a hard to quantify "feeling" about the flow and for others it takes the form of different tricks. The single most effective trick is to read the story out loud and listen for where you want to phrase things differently than how it is written.
Take a look at the following paragraph—it's borrowed from a story that some friends are working on and highlights a breaking of flow.
Fearfully, she glanced around the seemingly deserted structure. But it was dark, and her night vision hadn't been the same since shi'd been nearly blinded by a mortar blast months ago. She didn't have much time, but she wasn't about to walk into a trap—not again. Sniffing the air revealed not much, but it wouldn't be the first time her nose had failed her.
The flow in that example is broken because of the un-natural structuring of the sentences. While they are all technically correct the structuring does not sound natural. Go ahead and read it out loud yourself—don't you find yourself wanting to change the wording? That, dear reader, is how you can tell for sure that the flow is broken.
Fixing that paragraph is possible, but a possible fix with it would be something like the following (note that this is what I have suggested to one of the authors of the story this example is taken from and is not, exactly, how I'd expect them to fix it):
She glanced around the apparently deserted structure fearfully. The dark hampered her vision, which hadn't been the same since she'd nearly been blinded by a mortar blast several months ago. There wasn't much time, but she wasn't about to walk into a trap again. Sniffing the air didn't reveal much, but it would not be the first time her nose had failed her.
See what I've done for the suggestion? It changes the word selection, re-orders the clauses of the sentences into a more natural order and gives an idea of how to fix the flow problem. A real fix would take the author of the original—who know a lot more about the character than I do—rewriting the paragraph themselves.
Oh, and now you want to know why people have problems with flow? Why thanks for the easy question! The most common group of people that have problems with flow are new authors. They tend to feel that they have to fully express their narrative voice in every sentence. This leads to them trying to make every sentence unique and causes them to lose flow because of un-natural use of the language and this causes the narrative to become "stilted" and lose flow.
Another common group are those that feel the advice to keep sentences short and structure simple as a hard-and-fast rule. That action leads to them forcing their sentences to be either un-naturally short or un-naturally simplistic. This makes the narrative feel stilted, out-of-place or both, breaking the natural flow and, if it comes after the first several paragraphs, will completely jolt the reader out of the story.
And what of the type of flow breakage that I gave as an example above? That kind of breakage is not as common as the two I've detailed above in "finished" works you'll find on the websites of amatuer authors and in other places on the web. It is, however, extremely common in early drafts of stories and is mostly caused by the author needing to get the ideas of the narrative written. The reason it isn't common in works you'll find on the net is that the authors usually catch them and fix them before making the story public.
But note that writing truly is an art. There are no "hard-and-fast" rules to writing outside of the basic rules of syntax and grammar that all languages have. Even narrative flow can be intentionally broken and not be an error.
Wow… That is a lot of people scratching heads all at once. And yes, I see the raised hands. No, I'm not going to call on you because I already know the question. "Why, after all the time you've spent explaining what narrative flow is and how insanely important it is do you go and tell us that it can be intentionally broken? Doesn't that go against everything you've just said?"
The answer to the latter question is 'No'. As to the former question… I am telling you because it is the truth. There is no reason to slavishly hold onto the flow of a narrative, but if you want to break it intentionally you had better have a very good reason. There are some places where it is imperative to break the flow of a narrative—almost always to drive home the importance of some event or statement by a character. And when you do break the flow there it should be in such a subtle manner that the reader doesn't notice—they just get the point of the statement or event and go "What the Frak?!?"
You can also break the flow to highlight action. If it's confusing, disjointed or just something that a good director (no, not Uwe Boll!) would use a fast-cut for when filming or editing, you can break the flow using a few specific tricks—like purposefully short and staccato sentences—to mimic that effect. Similarly you can break the flow to to highlight sudden, violent movement or something occurring that comes as a complete and total surprise to the viewpoint character (if you have one).
An example of the above—breaking flow to highlight confusing action and mimic "fast cuts"—follows. Again, I found it in a story written by a couple friends of mine. The confusion in it is in the viewpoint characters mind—caused by events that were ongoing at that point in the story. Being out of context it probably will sound more broken and make less sense than it otherwise would.
Time slowed down. Time sped up. Everything happened at once. Everything remained frozen forever. Somewhere, someone screamed. Someone cried. Someone YOWLED. Strongtail's throat was raw. There were bits of something stuck between her teeth, and something wet and salty on her tongue, and something wet pooled around her pawhands.
See how the breakage isn't jarringly obvious? This is a subtle example, but it serves to present a flash of wild action, where many things are happening at the same time. Yes, the flow is broken in it and yes, it is normally something you'd want to avoid doing. But here it works well and doesn't cause the reader to be jarred out of the story at all—nor will it cause them to lose the "willing suspension of disbelief".
For those wondering what exactly caused this specific choice of structuring for the example, well… The structuring itself has been done to highlight the symmetry of the flashes of confusion by making the sentences themselves highly symmetric. And the reason for the change from short, very active sentences to the much longer sentence that ends the example is because the confusion of the viewpoint character is fading—being replaced by a solid certainty of action and thought.
Furthermore dialog can break the narrative flow itself. Sometimes it is natural that it breaks the ongoing flow without breaking the overall flow. At other times it is used to break the current narrative flow to further the plot or another key aspect of the story. However, in general, letting dialog break the flow instead of having the dialog fit into the flow cleanly is not something that should happen. Even when a character is speaking the language in a badly fractured manner it should fit with the flow so well that it "feels like it belongs there".