Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Controlled Flow - Your story in motion/moments

In athletics, form -- the shape and fluidity of motion -- can make the difference between success and failure. This is obviously true in kinetic arts, like dance, as well. Is it true for writing? Is this an element that can make the difference in your writing?

I believe it is, and I think it would be better recognized if form didn't already have a different meaning (article, short story, novel, poem, etc.) in writing. Some of the controlled flow of words, sounds, story, and content is assumed within discussions of style and voice, but looking at it in isolation might be useful. Let's look at each of the elements of controlled flow.

Goal and design - A mason wants to build a wall that serves a purpose (supporting a roof), has aesthetic value, and satisfies the client. From many choices, he chooses a design that will satisfy these needs. My goal for a scene of a commercial novel could be a number of things -- to reveal a clue, to create an obstacle for the protagonist, to reveal character. Scenes fit in to a larger story, usually with logic, and bring the story forward in ways that keep the reader engaged. The overall goal of most scenes is to create emotion within the reader.

Content - The bricks of a scene are the events, discussions, narrations, viewpoint character's thoughts, and facts that are used to build it.

Order - Taking those scene elements and sequencing them may be obvious, tied to cause and effect or assembled like arguments. But many of the best works put the elements together in ways that create surprises, pace reveals, and, most importantly, build toward an emotional ending. The best way to understand how order can freshen a scene and change the impact on readers is by looking at what your favorite authors do in the scenes that mean the most to you.

Transitions -These are the mortar between your bricks. How do you move effectively from dialogue to narration? From action to the thoughts of a character? From paragraph to paragraph. These shifts can be smooth and barely noticeable or harsh and abrupt. I like to think of these in terms of film, where dissolves, cuts, changes in perspective, and many other transitions help to direct attention, moderate energy, and alter the mood of the scene. Or observe how a gymnast doing floor exercise controls the story of the movement by pausing, turning her head, or cocking her hip.

Pace - Some of the above directly impacts the pace at which a scene evolves, but direct attention to how the overall pace goes is essential to controlled flow. Here, paying attention to sentence and paragraph lengths, echoes and repetition of words and images, and placement of reveals can give you the power to time the reader experience in a way that meets your goals.

Music - Read the words out loud. How to they flow? How do they meet each other and what currents do they create? Would they do the emotional job even if they were in a different language?

Structure - Much of the structure is created in the design, but, once the scene is finished, the experienced structure emerges. I find that I can't see this structure immediately after I'm finished. It shows itself to me after I have the chance to get away from the manuscript for awhile and forget my design. This is one way letting the story rest for a month or so pays off.

While I have dealt with scenes here, much of the above could be adapted to control the flow, on the one hand, of elements within a scene, and, on the other hand, larger units like sequences, chapters, and the story as a whole.

Overall, I'm talking here about your story in motion and how its moments engage the head, the heart, and the body. Go back to choreography. Dance, at its best does this, and watching a master dancer share his of her art captures your attention, stops your breathing, and makes it impossible to sit still. Do that with your story.

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