Featured From the Archives: What is “Flow”?

Next week, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on editing and “voice.”  (It’ll be at the NW Bookfest Conference, if you happen to be attending.) “Voice” is one of those oft-touted, rarely-defined writing terms, and as I work on compiling my thoughts on it, I figured we’d revisit another tenuously defined term — “flow.” I’ll post notes from the panel (well, mostly the material I present) for those of you who won’t be joining us there, but for now, let’s start the discussion off with . . .

What is “Flow”?

by Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 10/19/12

Stop the snickering and dirty jokes, I’m not talking about that type of flow. 😉

I stumbled on an interesting and rather heated discussion this week (as most conversations involving the dissection of writing tend to be), about the use of “flow” as a literary term. The forum seemed pretty evenly divided between writers that absolutely despised it and felt it should never be used in a critique (an argument that instantly smacked of stereotypical writer pretentiousness), and those that felt it was a valid descriptor (instantly hailed as amateurs by the snobby residents of the Anti-Flow brigade). And it got me thinking. What exactly is literary flow?

Technically, “flow” isn’t recognized as a legitimate literary term — go ahead, Google it. I did. You’ll find it’s omitted from nearly every list of valid literary terms. Yet it’s probably one of the most frequently used words when discussing someone’s work. I know I’m guilty of using it — you can find it’s offensive four letters listed among the things I look for when freelance editing. So how did it become such a firm presence in our literary vernacular if it doesn’t technically exist? And why is using it tantamount to dropping another four letter word starting with “F”?

My theory is that it’s because no one really knows what it means. Is it referring to the structure of the piece as a whole, the “flow” of the words themselves, the pacing, what? It’s this vagueness that makes feedback including it seem awfully similar to:

“I loved it!”

“This sucks. I hated it.”

While those are, I suppose, acceptable reader responses, they fail to tell the writer anything useful, namely — why? In order for any critique to actually help the author, it has to explain why the reader felt the way they did, and what they would have liked to see different or not. Telling us that our work is lame, that you think it’s utter crap, or on the flip-side, that it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever read ever, really doesn’t help us improve or repeat the success. Telling us why you hated it, or loved it, is like feeding a starving man — it’s what we really care about. Nothing will get your opinions ignored faster than failing to quantify your experience as a reader. I believe this is why “flow” causes such a divide among writers — it gets thrown around like it’s a brilliant little gem of insight when really it’s just unhelpfully frustrating.

I don’t agree that it’s a bane to literary terms, though. Actually, I think it’s a perfectly valid starting point for a critique, as long as the reviewer goes on to define it. The definition is crucial, because “flow” is one of those terms that can mean about a million different things to different people.

For me, “flow” is synonymous with “smooth.” When something flows, it should have an effortless feel that allows me to forget the words and really immerse myself in the story. It’s a visceral sensation of rightness that you only really notice when it’s disrupted. I tend to imagine storyline as a thread running through the center of a piece. Ideally, that thread should be smooth and straight, holding everything tightly in place. When that happens, the story “flows.” But if the thread gets crinkled up in a tangent, veering away into a knotted section of confusion, or frays into several disjointed, broken paths, the story’s flow feels off. Much like the way a river flows toward the sea, everything in the story should flow toward the final goal. This is part of why you need an editor, or critique partner, or random-person-off-the-street to read your work. Authors are usually too close to the story to be able to catch these flaws in the thread. But your readers sure will. They may not know exactly how to define it, but they’ll feel it.

I use “flow” to start a conversation about the structural integrity of a piece, but I can think of at least two other ways in which it could be defined. Let’s put that to the test, shall we? In the comments below, tell us what “flow” means to you. And please refrain from derailing this into the gutter. This is a serious, (ok, semi-serious), literary discussion, and I do have the power to decline your comments (Mwahaha!). So family-friendly only, please. 😉


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