Ask an Editor: Story Flow
In my giant open edit letter, I talked about how it wasn’t enough to be able to create cute individual scenes and moments, but that you needed to make sure that there was a flow between one scene and the next. Since then, a couple of people have asked me to expand on this.
Almost anyone can write a good scene. Even people who aren’t writers can, with enough time and effort, craft a scene that works. It’s a fairly basic writing exercise that is assigned all the time in English and writing courses. The trick to being an author is being able to craft multiple interesting and unique scenes and then being able to link them together into an engaging story, so that the reader can move quickly and easily from one scene to the next.
Think of that single perfect scene as a photograph, or better yet, since a perfect scene should have movement and action – think of it as a gif. It can have movement and action or moments of humor or sadness.
And maybe you can write several of these scenes. They all have the same characters, they all have movement and drama or humor or sadness.
These scenes are appealing on their own, they draw the reader’s attention, and they convey emotion. But they still aren’t enough. A series of individual scenes, even ones featuring the same characters, aren’t enough to make a novel any more than the series of gifs above are a movie.
A bunch of scenes, even if they are shown in order, aren’t a story. The story is in the connections. How do you get from one scene to the next? It’s not enough to know that your characters are fighting or kissing or laughing… We, as readers, need to know why they are doing them, and how they got from point A to point Z. What happened to cause the tears or the laughter? And most importantly, how are the events making the characters grow and change?
So… How do you know if you have a story or a bunch of individual scenes that happen to feature the same characters? Try asking yourself these questions:
– Do your characters have reason for their emotional reactions? And can you (or a beta reader) point to them in the text?
– Is there growth? Is your character significantly different at the end of the book than at the beginning?
– Remember that people don’t change unless they have a reason. If you have character growth, make sure that there were actions and mistakes in the text of the novel to cause these changes.
– Can you make a timeline for your novel that makes sense? Or are your characters (and by association the readers) lost in time and space?
– And don’t forget the transitions. Pick a scene from your novel. How did the characters get there? What where they doing before, and how do they get from that scene to the next one?
In conclusion, as you are editing your novel, read through all those beautiful scenes you’ve written and look carefully at the cause and effect of each scene and how they link together. Here’s an exercise to help: Pick a couple of random scenes from your novel. For example, look at page 30. Then pick somewhere in the middle (around page 100). Can you explain, in a few short sentences how your characters got from the scene on pg. 30 to the scene on pg. 100? Does that explanation make sense? If not, then you need to go over the events step by step until you find the scenes that don’t make sense and break the flow. Fix them. Now, Look at page 160. Can you explain how they got there from pg. 100? Even better, can you explain how they got there from page 20? Do this a few more times, until you get to the last scene of your book. Now, go back and read the first scene of your book. Does it come full circle? Can you track how your characters move from the beginning to the end in a way that makes sense, or did you get lost somewhere on the way?