I=It Has to Flow (Feb 10)

Does this flow?: ““So we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past, boats against the current.” // Shutterstock

‘Flow’ is when “every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.” This description by psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gets at a mental state where everything can be followed with ease.   This whole series on writing is, in one way or another, about flow.

In the GARNER lesson, we looked how sentences flow grammatically.  Now, let’s focus on how the topics (and ideas) connect via this flow.

First of all, the topic must be clear.  It can be in a sentence (on a page) or utterance (in a script) or panel (for a comic) or premise (for a joke) or ideas and feelings (in a conversation).   Next, there must be something the writer wants to tell the audience about that topic.   Give the audience a subject, then add what you want to say about said subject.  Educators such as Joseph Williams define this structure as TOPIC + COMMENT.

Once you have TOPIC + COMMENT, there are two ways to continue.  A writer can use parallel progression by taking the same topic and add a new comment.  Or a writer can use sequential progression by taking the comment in one sentence, then saying what happens next.

That’s it.

Flow can also combine the parallel and the sequential.  A writer can bring up a topic, make two or three comments about it, then progress from the first topic to a second one.   Your audience expects, even demands, one of these two moves. 

Keep in mind that different languages have different ideas about flow. In 1966 linguist Robert Kaplan looked at how writing flows in different languages. It turns out Japanese writing often flows differently than Arabic. Both have a slightly different flow than English.  

Don’t worry about that now. To write sentences and paragraphs (and chapters and scenes), just focus on two steps going forward: the parallel and the sequential. Then your ideas will connect – and flow.  In improv, this concept is called Yes …And – meaning you accept an idea and add to it. In writing, Elmore Leonard wrote Get Shorty by moving ideas in the same way.

The only thing left, then, is heart  (see our earlier lesson, DRIVE TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER). What do you really want to say?  What feeling do you want to convey?

LEARN: Read these five passages from world literature. In four, the word order has been re-arranged. Try to figure out which one was left intact, and try to recast the rest as the author wrote them.

1. “God created the heaven and the earth, in the beginning.”

2. “So we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past, boats against the current.”

3. “Terry held the pistol at arm’s length on a level with his eyes – the Russian Tokarev resembling an old-model Colt .45, big and heavy. The shots left a hard ringing sound within the closeness of the brick walls. Terry made the sign of the cross with the gun over the dead.” 

4. “Ivan Nikiforovitch is rather shorter in stature, but he makes it up in thickness. Ivan Ivanovitch is tall and thin. Ivan Ivanovitch’s head is like a radish, tail down; Ivan Nikiforovitch’s like a radish with the tail up.”

5. “Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

USE: Check if you got it right. Here are the originals:

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (first line of the Bible) 

2. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

3. The shots left a hard ringing sound within the closeness of the brick walls. Terry held the pistol at arm’s length on a level with his eyes–the Russian Tokarev resembling an old-model Colt .45, big and heavy – and made the sign of the cross with it over the dead. (Elmore Leonard, Pagan Babies)

4. Ivan Ivanovitch is tall and thin: Ivan Nikiforovitch is rather shorter in stature, but he makes it up in thickness. Ivan Ivanovitch’s head is like a radish, tail down; Ivan Nikiforovitch’s like a radish with the tail up. (Nikolai Gogol, How the Two Ivans Quarrelled)

5. No changes in this one, the last line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez.


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

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