Go With the Flow
by Marg McAlister
Cast your mind back to those early schoolroom lessons in writing. The basic advice was probably this: "Every
piece of writing has a beginning, middle, and an end." Your job as a writer is to let readers know what is going on
in the beginning, to fill in all the details in the middle, and then wrap it up satisfactorily at the end.
It's a simple plan - and effective. Unfortunately, many writers seem to lose the plot
(literally!) once they start to write. Their writing simply doesn't flow, and readers get confused. They get one
character mixed up with another. They are dragged back in time, made to spend time there for a while finding out
what happened in the past, and then are catapulted back into the future - meanwhile losing track of what characters
are up to. Sometimes, readers struggle to understand why characters act as they do, or they have no idea how a
character got from one place to another.
Some of these problems can be resolved by tightening the plot; others by having a better
understanding of characters. Still other problems could be fixed by improving technique. However, many of them will
disappear if the writer simply keeps in mind that all writing has to FLOW.
What is involved in making your writing flow?
Let's go back to the basics: the beginning, the middle and the end.
You could do worse than use a typical shopping mall map as a model. Usually, this is in the form
of a large diagram of the various outlets - K-Mart, clothing outlets, shoe stores, electronic goods - and, mostly
importantly, a big red arrow with the message 'YOU ARE HERE!'
Aha. Right away, you move from knowing nothing about where you're going to having an essential
reference point. Once you know where you are NOW, you can move on to where you really want to go.
Have you told your readers where they are at the beginning? Do they know where they are in time;
where they are geographically, and who is telling the story?
The following diagram will be useful to you in checking that your beginning has all the elements
needed for your story.
In the middle of your story, you can encounter some serious problems in getting your writing to
flow. It's all too easy to get bogged down in the details - or to give in to the temptation to simply whisk your
character out of a tricky situation without really explaining how it happened. The action slows to a crawl, or
starts to seem disconnected.
So what does it take to make your story flow?
The simplest thing you need to check is CAUSE AND EFFECT. Think of a row of dominoes, all
standing on end. You knock over the first one, and it has a flow-on effect... the whole row of dominoes falls, in
one long, slow wave.
That's what you need to aim for in your writing. The flow has to seem effortless - one domino
falls, and the rest follow suit. It has to appear inevitable: there's no other way that things COULD
To achieve this, you need to think about two things: (a) the character's motivation, and (b)
whether those actions are feasible.
Motivation and Feasibility
In the corporate world, before they invest time and money, businesses run feasibility studies to
ensure that a project will pay off. I often think it would benefit writers to take the same approach. Before you
have your character take any action, ask yourself: "Is this feasible?" You have to consider two aspects
One: COULD it happen? [That is: is the character old enough/mature enough to make
this happen? Would the law allow it to happen? Are the conditions right for this to happen?]
Two: WOULD it happen? [Does it 'fit' with the character's personality? Is it the
action that you would take in the same situation? Is there a more sensible or practical action that most people
would take? Is the character overlooking the 'easy' way simply because you want to complicate the plot?]
In non-fiction, if you are writing self-help, you have to ask similar questions: COULD the reader
do this himself? Or is the action you recommend simply out of question for most readers (because of lack of
expertise or lack of funds)? WOULD the reader do this? [Is it practical? Is it asking the reader to sacrifice too
much or take foolish risks?]
Do you pay attention to your transitions? These are those short segments that link one scene to
the next. All too many writers don't bother with a transition between one chapter and the next. They simply leave
it all up to their readers' imagination to work out how Mary, on a quest to find her sister, got from being on a
train in New York to driving a car around London. This is an extreme example: most transitions involve moving the
characters forward in time just an hour or two, or from one suburb to the next.
Transitions can involve more than a move in time or space, however (although these are the most
common transitions.) What about a shift in the way a character thinks about someone (or something)? How did this
transition occur? What accounts for the change of attitude?
Readers need to know these things. It's simple to link one scene to the next. The easiest way to
do it is to foreshadow what's coming next at the end of the previous scene.
Mary decided to grab a couple of hours' sleep while things were
quiet. At daybreak, she could be on the move again. [END OF CHAPTER]
[NEW CHAPTER STARTS] The sun was not yet over the horizon
when Mary shouldered her backpack and set off down the rutted track.
Can you see how we've made one chapter (or scene) flow into the next, by linking her intention to
set off at daybreak with her actual departure? At the end of the first chapter, the reader is left with the image
of Mary moving at daybreak. At the beginning of the next chapter, we get an instant 'snapshot' of the time of day -
the sun is not yet over the horizon: we know it's pretty close to daybreak. Note, too, that we have avoided
repetition here: there are different ways of showing the same time of day.
Two more examples of quick transitions:
Link people: 'She wondered how Wayne was getting on.'
--> 'Three hundred miles away, Wayne was wishing he'd never heard of Desiree Martin.'
Link weather: 'Dark clouds were gathering fast. A storm
couldn't come at a worse time.'
--> 'Terri huddled beneath the sparse cover offered by a wind-whipped palm tree, jumping every time thunder
The first thing you should know about flashbacks is that a great number of readers HATE them.
They really object to being dragged back in time just as they've got comfortable in the 'now' time of the story.
Quite often the flashback is there because the author has chosen a dramatic moment to open the story, but then
needs to go back in time to show how the character GOT to this moment.
But... is this really necessary? If you're tempted to use a flashback, ask yourself: 'Would the
story flow more smoothly if I simply wrote it chronologically? Or could I achieve the same effect by showing a
snippet of the future in a prologue?"
In general, flashbacks stop the forward motion of the story. In other words, they stop the flow.
That's why they have to be handled with care.
Don't let the flow of your story slow down as you approach the end. Avoid spending half of the
last chapter in tedious explanations of how things worked out or how someone cleverly put together all the clues.
Nor should you give a tedious explanation of why the villain acted as he did throughout the story.
It's important to wrap your story up in stages. Tie up all the loose ends of the sub-plots before
you wrap up the ending of the main plot. The ending should not detract from the climax of the story by forcing the
reader to stick around for a debriefing. Shock them if need be; satisfy them, then let them go.
And think twice before deciding to kill off the main character! Sure, maybe this does happen in
real life... but most readers open a book to escape from the real world. When they've spent 300 pages cheering for
the main character - and suffering with them - they're not going to forgive you in a hurry if you let that
Sure, avoid the schmaltzy, saccharine, too-perfect Hollywood ending - but don't let the reader
down, either. A beautifully flowing story can be ruined for readers if you leave them feeling let down and
unhappy... almost as though you'd played a nasty trick on them!
What about non-fiction endings? Typically, a satisfying non-fiction ending will provide a 'call
to action' (a suggestion or plea to the reader that he acts upon the advice given) or it will sum up the advice
You have read a few basic tips on 'going with the flow' in your story. There are many more
strategies you can use: whenever you are reading, jot down any approaches you see that work well, and resolve to
add them to your own writer's toolbox.
copyright Marg McAlister