Rivers and Highways—Why You Should Pay Attention to Pace and Flow




I’m pretty sure that you have all heard of this quote:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

——Gary Provost

And it is all too often that I end up reading a piece and it drones, on and on, almost as though the writer has yet to hear of such wonderful things as commas, semicolons, em-dashes, and the myriad of other options that an author has to vary up the pace of any passage. What I’ll try to do here is introduce you to the two extremes on the macro scale of flow, as well as a few small features you can use to manipulate flow.

Normally, I make specific references to places in a piece of work that I am critiquing to highlight the importance of flow; I can’t list examples here so I’ll try and explain my philosophy from the ground up.

Let’s introduce a metaphor: writing is laying down a road or sculpting a river; reading is taking a trip down the path that the writer has created. The reader experiences the world at the pace and in the clarity that a writer shows them. Every adjective is a dip, run-on sentences are steep downhills, and useless adverbs stick to the wheels like tar. The writer’s objective is to give the impression that the reader is strolling through a meadow when the narrative concerns a character strolling through a meadow.

The flow of words impacts the emotion and the impression that any given passage exerts on a reader. From here, we can draw parallels to the writing and the reading process, and examine the two opposite cases to which I have ascribed silly names.

The Straight and Narrow

The straight and narrow road is the easiest, yet most tedious, to paint. The landscape is flat and unvaried, and continues in all directions to the horizon.

In practical terms, this means that the sentence structure remains constant. Every sentence is a similar number of words, and every period is a reminder to the reader that they really should do something else. The purpose of these passages is often to scaffold or set up the beginning of a story with the necessary background information: they’re highways, designed to get the reader from point A to point B in the plot, or their understanding of the world the characters live in.

But as boring as these sequences are to write, they are even more painful to read. A paragraph, a few seconds on this road can be tolerable, but spending any more time begins to grind. Naturally, the reader begins to speed up, to skim, and eventually any details hidden in the mists of this kind of writing is rapidly forgotten as soon as the reader begins on something more interesting.

As important as worldbuilding and expository sequences are, it’s important to not dump it all in a big pile of paragraphs at the beginning of a scene. All the information contained within an straight and narrow section can be sprinkled throughout your narrative, or even left out altogether so that the reader needs to engage in critical thinking in order to come to their own conclusions. Ultimately, you want a reader to experience your world, rather than just observe it.

The Jungle

Somewhere along their writing career a novice is given the impression that they must better their strokes with metaphor and rich, intricate imagery. The road they build grows muddy with each passing nested adjective, and the reader faces a hard slog through the bush in order to get out.

Not only do these passages suffer from an extreme density of description, they usually lump it all into one confusing, looping sentence that references and re-references itself in an attempt to seem clever—readers will need to equip their thesauruses out in order to check up on words like ‘phantasmagoria’ and ‘preternatural’. And that is really the only purpose of these kinds of passages: so that the writer can re-read the passage to himself and stroke their own ego. Anyone who gets lost in the middle is simply not intelligent enough, obviously.

And transitioning from a nice highway pace into a thicket of jungle tosses the reader into a completely new environment—they’ve read half the paragraph already without noticing—and they’re just as likely to go back to the beginning and try to absorb everything as they are to just skip ahead.

The whole purpose of illustrative and detailed imagery is to be beautiful—and if the reader is slogging through saccharine muck then they’re not enjoying themselves. Don’t lump the exposition and emotion in one place because that’s like shoving molasses down the reader’s throat.


These two cases are the two opposite ends on a scale, from a macro view. But the key differentiator between them is the speed at which they are (intended to be) read. Different points in any written piece can and should vary up the flow and pace with respect to structure, and here are some key speed modulators that you can use to manipulate flow. I’ll skip over periods and commas, even though I still see people make mistakes with respect to them, because It goes without saying that they’re just stop signs and potholes respectively.

Adjectives

From a flow perspective, an adjective is literally taking a noun and making it longer.

The door opened

reads a lot more objectively than

The walnut panelled door opened

reads a lot more objectively than

The walnut panelled, brass-bolted door opened

and each of these different uses of adjectives and nested adjectives bestows upon the reader a different reading pace and assigns a different mood and attitude to the scene, the door, and any other related context.

Adding more adjectives places the reader in an observational, almost slow-motion mode where they can build the scene. Do not fill the reader like a vessel with detail, because remaining economical with your adjectives means that the scene becomes much more believable and the narrator seems much less like some kind of wannabe Sherlock Holmes. Adjectives are speed bumps.

Em-dashes

I use these way too often, because they serve two beautiful purposes.

The first is to give the narrator an aside, a place to reveal either inner information or additional detail. Encasing a thought or clause in an em-dash is similar to placing it within parenthesis, except it lends a more curious air to the piece and is honestly a lot more pleasurable to look at.

The door—walnut panelled, brass-bolted—opened.

It allows the reader to take extra note of these particular details, because the narrator even had to interrupt themselves doing it. It slows the pace down to a crawl for those crucial few details, and lets it resume right up to where it was before. A police speed trap, if you will.

The second is to give the impression that the narrator is thinking, that the information they just garnered needs to be processed. It places the reader in a quizzical sort of mood where everything can be interpreted in some kind of interesting way.

The door opened—without the squeaking, rattling or groaning that he had come to expect.

Similarly, it places emphasis on what follows, but places it more in a conversational kind of pause as someone thinks through what’s just been said to them. A slight curve on a mountain road.

Semicolons

A semicolon is where you could have ended a sentence but chose not to because the two independent clauses work better together than they do apart.

The door opened. He held his breath.

The door opened; he held his breath.

A semicolon is literally a bridge between two independent clauses, letting the reader just drive on through rather than needing to swim. In flow terms, it turns what would have been a full stop into more of a yield, like the light just turning green as you pull up to it instead of slowly ticking over.

Elipses

It’s hard to pull these off without sounding corny. Oftentimes they can be replaced with m-dashes or periods, but a lot of the time they’re left out to dangle at the end of some cliffhanger or the end of a piece in a ‘I’m fourteen and this is edgy’ sort of way.

The door opened . . .

They’re strange because they do not halt the flow, because they literally represent a trailing off of the narration. It’s fourth-wall tapping, like finding that your car is slowly turning into an electric scooter capped at thirty miles an hour, or waking up to find that no, you're not in Kansas, it was all a dream.

Dashes

Dashes mean that something’s been cut off, and the pace is running quicker than usual-

Run-on Sentences

Quite literally defined as the lack of full stops between lines, run-on sentences are kind of like ‘evidence by omission’ where because the road has no slowing features whatsoever the reader is borderline forced down it as their eyes scan fruitlessly for a resting place to try and reflect on what is even going on

Works well with dashes, as you would naturally expect, and if you really want to knock on the fourth wall you can refuse to use punctuation at all, even at the end.


As you can see, not all features of flow are punctuation-based. They all have to do with what you’re trying to express and how long and with what you’re going to express them with. Just like how driving in parking lot traffic can make you angry, flow can also be used to manipulate mood and emotion. On a macro level, flow on an individual, feature-by-feature level can influence the overarching structure of a piece by making some plot points whiz by and others take hours to slog through.

Whenever I write a critique I always read through the piece twice to see if I’m modulating my pace I read at based on information a first-time reader wouldn’t have. If I did, then that means that the writer’s flow is not ideal, and that can have pretty serious consequences for the readability of a piece even if everything else is perfect.

© Piconeeks, July 2015