"Your Story Has A Nice Flow": What Does It Mean?
Updated: Nov 24
Have you ever been given this compliment? “Your story has a nice flow.”
In my high school writing group and even in professional critique groups, the word "flow" confused me. Sometimes my critiquers would tell me a chapter flowed well, and sometimes they would tell me something didn't flow. It frustrated me because I couldn't tell exactly what it meant. Here's what time has taught me.
By the strict definition, a story has a nice "flow" if every sentence has a clear way it serves the story. I find this definition troublesome when it is applied to a scene. For one thing, a scene might be structurally perfect with zero detours and still fail to serve the novel as a whole. For another, a part of a scene that looks like a detour can make more sense in the context of of the complete novel. For these reason, carefully evaluate this type of "flow" feedback from people who have only seen part of your story.
It's also important to understand that the term gets used a lot more broadly than this definition. A lot of writers lean heavily on its connotations and associations, and this is where a lot of the confusion comes in.
In reality, when someone says a story has a nice "flow," they often mean that it is readable, digestible, and compelling. If your story were a drink, it would go down smoothly. If it were a river, it wouldn't have boulders in the middle. Let's break down exactly what goes into creating this "smooth" effect.
"Nice Flow" Meaning #1: The Writing Is Clean
"Flow" can also mean the writing is clean and easy to get lost in. There's a George Orwell quote: "Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane."
For some readers, especially those with an editorial bent, every time they see a punctuation or grammar error, it's like a pebble hitting that window pane. It pulls them out of the experience. Often writers say something has good "flow" because it's free of these interruptions.
This philosophy is associated with high anxiety, so try not to sweat the small stuff too much — that's what editors are for!
I have more thoughts on cleanliness vs. clarity in writing, but both are strengths, and both are contributing factors in the the way the layman uses the word "flow."
"Nice Flow" Meaning #2: The transitions are strong
If a story has choppy transitions between thoughts, paragraphs, and scenes, it's not going to have a great "flow."
Thought-by-thought transitions in description and dialogue are strongest when they follow cause and effect. If one character stumbles while talking, the next character might laugh, scoff, or help steady them during their next line. They might break the conversation to say "Careful!" or "Watch your step," but the conversation then resumes. The events also appear in the correct order. For example, "He stumbled so I helped him up" is stronger than "I helped him up after he stumbled."
This logical sequencing is where the definition of "flow". Every sentence at least feels like it has a logical meaning. This is an important part of pacing in general.
Thought-by-thought transitions within the character's inner monologue are strongest when they reflect their thought patterns (not necessarily your own), especially if you are using deep point-of-view (which uses specific techniques to eliminate distance between the reader and the character to enhance the reader's experience of what the character is feeling).
Paragraph-by-paragraph transitions typically follow certain rules. Use a paragraph break when:
A new line of dialogue begins.
A new line of thought begins.
You want to emphasize a line by having it stand alone.
You can also use techniques such as reflecting a some of the wording from the last paragraph in the first line of the new paragraph, but if this feels forced, restructuring might be necessary.
If any type of shift logically follows and fits, the transition should be smooth. If you feel like it should and it doesn't, don't panic. A lot of logic breaks can be healed. For example, if you get the feedback that a character's dialogue seems really rude in a way that doesn't make sense, you might realize you need to set up her mean streak earlier on in the story.
"Nice Flow" Meaning #3: Other Components of Pacing Are Strong
Pacing is easier to define than flow, but it still means different things to different people and has many components that go into it. Having strong pacing might mean how well your sentences are varied rhythmically, how the certain types of scenes such as action sequences are spaced across your novel, how the exposition is fed into a story, or even how well the story follows a formula.
The most helpful approach to pacing for me is looking at how the hooks are placed and layered in my story. For example, in any book (genre fiction, literary fiction, or nonfiction), the first paragraph of the book should contain a "hook," something that sparks curiosity and intrigue in the reader. Authors often end each chapter with a strong hook to create a page-turner.
I'm planning a future blog post about more elements of pacing, but here are some articles that might be helpful in the meantime:
Conclusion: Congratulations, Your Writing is Clean and Compelling with Strong Transitions!
Give yourself the credit for the skills you have deliberately worked toward and those that have come more naturally to you. If you have suspicions that some of these are not as strong as you would like, ask clarifying questions. These are usually still allowed in critique groups where backtalk and arguments are taboo, but you might need to pursue a private conversation to avoid taking up group time.
Beyond that, continue to read, research, and feed your passion. Happy Writing!