Flow and Pacing for Effective Emotional Writing
I feel like this is something that really defines a good story but is rarely identified unless it goes wrong. And like the composition of a picture, it’s one of those skills that isn’t always easy to teach because it’s so subjective. How much do you pause in your reading when you come to a period? How about your friend; when they hit a coma do they pause just as long, or do they fly through them like they totally don’t exist? Why are pauses even important?
Part of good story telling is getting your reader to feel your story. You want their inner voice to be reading each word, not skipping, not stuttering, not running so fast ahead that they can’t slow down. How you present your story is going to enable that to go smoothly. But this is beyond punctuation. This is also your execution in general. A lot goes into this particular topic so I’m going to break it down into some key places where problems with flow arise the most.
Think of your story as a song. There’s a beat to it, a pulse, a melody where sometimes it gets louder, sometimes it gets softer, faster in some spots, slower in others. If you were to take a segment from the beginning of your story and compare it to a segment near the end, they could seem completely different. But when you read straight through, your story should be a whole being, one that evolves and changes, grows and ideally flows.
But a story doesn’t start finished. It’s actually made up of different plots, different characters, settings, and themes. These pieces flow through the entire piece, ebbing and growing, tangling to create your final entity.
Outline Your Tension
An outline is a great way to plot where changes occur and how they’ll have the greatest strategic impact. Outlining is the first stage in ensuring that your story will take the shape you intend. Make sure you keep your tension. Don’t give away the ending, don’t resolve those character issues, don’t just let your story fall apart. Throw an outline together and make sure you know when those surprises are going to hit, and then stick with it. I have a more in-depth post on outlining you can always check out, helping to keep your creative juices going while still plotting your story out.
When you go to create a story, you might have that end result in mind, but you still need to write it scene by scene. This is where you can find the flow of a piece go wrong the most. When you jump from scene to scene, you risk moments of confusion. Not only jarring from place to place but possibly jumping to different character perspectives, emotional moments, sometimes even time and culture jumps if you’re dealing with flashbacks, fantasy worlds, or time travel. Making sure these moments transition as smoothly as possible will do the most in ensuring your story flows as desired.
Honestly, the biggest way to make these transitions work is to make sure your reader isn’t confused. Sure, there may be moments when you want to confuse them—Someone wakes up with amnesia or you’re revealing information through a keyhole as you create atmosphere—but you can’t keep your reader in a state of confusion too long. It’s annoying. Really fucking annoying. I’ve given up on books damn fast because I had no clue what was going on. Jumps to scenes, characters not described (main characters, at that) no settings created so it’s like your characters are floating out in a void. When I read, I want a story, not to have to solve a puzzle just to understand what the hell is happening.
Create the world. Make your characters solid, the world their standing on (or room they’re in) real. You don’t need to go overboard, but you do need to make an effort to create some concrete points to focus your reader on. When you’re writing a story, you usually have a plot full of questions that aren’t answered until the end. You need something for your reader to hold on to and know is real while they’re waiting for those answers. Otherwise, it’s confusing. Annoying and confusing.
Sometimes your scene needs you to open fast and not get bogged down in detail. Action, excitement—your reader doesn’t care about anything but what your characters are saying as they argue. Just make sure after that you get some details in there to weigh the scene into the concrete world.
Hello, paragraph. Have you ever come across a wall of text in a book and just refused to go any further because it was so overwhelming? Yes, I know your English teacher taught you that 4-5 related sentences make a paragraph, and you might have more related sentences or just really long sentences and you want to keep it all connected. But as a reader, it’s daunting, sometimes exhausting. The end of a paragraph allows your reader to take a quick breath before moving forward. It’s important to let them breathe. You’re actually going to find that a lot of flow is about these two topics; pausing and removing confusion.
If you have an information dump in your story, make sure it’s interesting. Get creative. Put it in a dialogue or reveal it slowly. Give your reader pauses to absorb the information. The easiest way to do this is to have a character reacting to the information as it’s being revealed. If the character pauses to gasp in surprise, you just gave your reader a moment to let that sentence absorb before giving them more info.
I feel like this is so important in fantasy and sci-fi stories. When you’re making up terms and entire planets, spaceships, magics, etc, and you’re first introducing a reader to it, it can be confusing. Your reader isn’t just reading a story, they have to learn something brand new and foreign and understand it well enough to continue. Please give them a moment to ‘get it’ before you move on.
The Presentation Of Your Sentence
Now we’re getting into the details of flow. On a micro level, you might not really notice that this has an impact on the flow of your entire story. It does. You usually know it when you see it done in a way that doesn’t work.
a) Blood was pounding in her ears and she didn’t know what to do besides stand there stock still in fear and wonder if the monster was going to approach.
b) Blood pounded in her ears. She stood stock still, fear freezing her completely. Would the monster approach?
a) Lips soft as rose petals. Skin pale as cream. Eyes glowing with haunting desire. He had never seen anyone more beautiful.
b) Lips soft as rose petals, skin pale as cream, and eyes that glowed with haunting desire; he had never seen anyone more beautiful.
a) “I don’t know. Maybe it will be okay. Maybe nothing bad will happen. Jerry never lets anything bad happen.”
b) “I don’t know; maybe it will be okay, maybe nothing bad will happen—Jerry never let’s anything bad happen.”
c) “I don’t know… Maybe it will be okay. Maybe nothing bad will happen—Jerry never lets anything bad happen.”
d) “I… I don’t know. M-Maybe it will be okay… Maybe nothing bad will happen. Jerry n-never lets anything bad happen.”
This is all about knowing what you want to say beyond the actual words you’re saying. Have you ever texted someone only to realize you’ve been fighting with them the last five minutes when you had only thought you were having a simple conversation? Apparently, you were being a bitch because you forgot to add you were being sarcastic. The written word can be interpreted so many ways, and rarely the way you want it to be when it’s most important. How you present your words is going to help with that.
Do you want to make someone sound so overwhelmed they can’t think straight? No commas, no pauses, no moment for them to breathe. The run on sentence is someone freaking the fuck out.
Ex. I don’t know what’s going to happen but if I don’t get out of here in five fucking seconds I’m going to start screaming really really loud and I don’t care how many people are looking at me at the time because if they look at me I’m going to just scream louder…
Yeah, freak out. As a lover of the English language, you might be really pissed to see a sentence like this. But it serves a purpose. The emotion and flow of the piece. To be clear, this type of sentence is confusing to read and should be used sparingly to portray an overwhelm of emotion. Over done, people just think you have no idea how to use a comma or break up a sentence.
Do you want drama, a moment of suspense? Fill your sentence with details. Get sensory. Get your reader so into that scene before you release your villain so they feel it all. This is a great place for way too much setting. You might have never had a reason to mention the color of the floor, but when your main character is stepping on that one rotted, creaking wooden floorboard while trying not to alert the guy with the gun, suddenly it’s damn important to describe the frayed carpet.
Curt, short sentences give a feeling of immediacy. Great for arguments and scenes of tension. Action scenes. Again, don’t overuse it. These sorts of things are accents for emotional impact. When you don’t have that impact to create, using the same expressions just gets confusing.
Ex. They went to the beach. It was hot. No clouds marred the sky.
Hardly the best scenic description. Minimalist in a rather ugly way.
Ex. The sword clattered to the ground. His breath caught. Before he could stop himself, he dove.
It works well for action scenes, but even then I would be sure to balance with normal sentences as well, otherwise it loses the impact and will get redundant.
What do all of the above have in common? Just messing around with the presentation of your words. Using a comma, a dash —, this ‘…’ little beauty, a ; and the period can create different results. It can create emotional results if you know how to fiddle with it enough.
Edit Out Confusion
Just a final note. When you’re reading a sentence and you stop and fumble, assume your reader might do the exact same thing. Go in and fix it when editing. Don’t just skip over it. Figure out why you’re having trouble in that spot so you can avoid it next time. It could be you’re trying to cram too much into a sentence. Maybe you had something rhyme inadvertently. Repetition of words, a word that looks too much like another word, confusion with pronouns, too much in a paragraph; All these things can effect the flow of your story.
When your reader stops cold with their mind stuttering to a halt, you’ve fucked up. If a book frustrates me, I won’t finish it. Doesn’t matter how much the plot might interest me; I don’t want my reading to be work. I want it to be fun. If I’m going ‘what the fuck?’ every minute, it’s not enjoyable and I give up and look for something fun to actually do. I can only assume my readers don’t want to waste their time either. Make it readable first, then worry about being artistic.