Top Editing Tricks for Creating a Seamless Narrative

Top 4 Editing Tricks for Creating a Seamless Narrative

Top 4 Editing Tricks for Creating a Seamless NarrativeNarrative flow can be difficult to define, which makes it difficult to understand. However, most writers are also readers, so you may be more familiar with narrative flow than you might think! While reading, have you ever:

  • Found yourself turning page after page, unable to put a book down?
  • Been so engrossed you haven’t noticed someone talking to you?
  • Completely forgotten you’ve been reading at all?

If you answered yes to any of these, that’s excellent! You’re already familiar with narrative flow. Narrative flow simply refers to how a story moves. A piece of writing with narrative flow is like a peaceful stream, while one without it might be more like a river blocked by a dam.

A dammed river is like a novel with poor narrative flow.

When a story flows, readers will absorb the narrative like a sponge. The goal of narrative flow is for readers to forget a piece of writing is a piece of writing. You want your readers to buy your story’s descriptions, feel a sense of continuity in the plot, and understand the story’s elements as natural. This requires fulfilling readers’ expectations before they even have them.

If that sounds impossible, don’t worry! It’s easy to do by manipulating pace. Narrative flow is all about language, so simple editing tricks can help you vastly improve the flow of your novel.

1. Follow a Consistent Point of View

Nothing is more jarring than an inconsistent point of view, so once you’ve chosen one, stick to it. If your story is in the first person, your narrator has to be present in every scene he describes. If your writing in limited third person, don’t suddenly reveal the thoughts of another character.

While it’s easy to slip up and switch to a different point of view, doing so is confusing for readers and interrupts their reading. If you make them do a literary double take (where they have to scan backwards through your novel to understand what you’re saying), you’re sacrificing flow. The reader should never say, “Wait, what?”

2. Beware of Adjectives; Cut Adverbs

Adjectives are useful to liven or clarify but shouldn’t be overused. You don’t want weak nouns and verbs with a whack ton of modifiers. Instead of saying, “He ran with his small and fuzzy dog,” it’s better to say, “He raced with his Pomeranian.” By cutting the adjectives, the reader actually has more information and fewer words, both of which aid flow.

Be careful using adjectives that might seem powerful but actually don’t communicate much to the reader. Consider the adjective “beautiful.” By cutting it, you can’t be lazy and tell the reader that something is beautiful; you must show them.

Perhaps most importantly, be on the watch for adverbs in your writing. Some adverbs are redundant. Don’t say “loudly blared,” as “blared” implies loudness.

Worse, some adverbs contradict meaning. Something cannot be “very unique,” as “unique” cannot be compared.

3. Use Tense to Your Advantage

The English language has a huge variety of tenses and loads of irregular verbs, making it easy to use three words in place of one to communicate the same information. For example, the past perfect progressive tense would read, “She had been reading,” while the simple past tense would read, “She read.” An easy way to drive readers forward is to keep it simple! Literally.

Use the simple past, present, and future tenses to manipulate the immediacy of your words. If you want to completely cheat the system, use the present tense. It’s overlooked but obvious: since the present tense is, well, in the present, using it makes readers feel like the story is occurring with immediacy.

Take the following example: instead of “He watched as the hawk darted,” use “He watches as the hawk darts,” to place the reader in the moment. This helps the pace, and with a strong pace, readers will plow through the story. That’s exactly what you want!

4. Read Everything Out Loud

This advice is often applied to dialogue to make speech believable, but less often elsewhere. For example, unnecessary punctuation; breaks in sentences, paragraphs, or scenes; and too many short or long sentences can be detrimental. Luckily, all of these can be easily detected by reading your writing out loud.

While editing, you may notice you sometimes have to sacrifice grammar for the tempo of your story. What’s important is that your writing flows and is clear; if it accomplishes both, it doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s grammatically incorrect.

Nailing your novel’s fluidity is vital to making your story impossible to put down. While it can be difficult at first, editing will help ensure your novel has a good flow. Luckily, creating narrative flow doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Actually, it’s quite easy with these simple editing tricks!

Wordplayers tell me your opinion! Do you ever struggle with narrative flow in your writing? Tell me in the comments!

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About Jes Gonzalez | @Scribendi_Inc

Jes is a magician and a mechanic; that is to say, she creates pieces of writing from thin air to share as a writer, and she cleans up the rust and grease of other pieces of writing as an editor at Scribendi.com. She knows there's always something valuable to be pulled out of a blank page or something shiny to be uncovered in one that needs a little polishing. When Jes isn't conjuring or maintaining sentences, she's devouring them, always hungry for more words.

Comments

  1. Sara Baptista says:

    Great tips I must say! Especially the first one that is a punch in my face 😜! Now for real, if I have two consistent POV, is my narrative flow in pure danger?

    • This is an excellent point that requires further explanation. Following a consistent point of view doesn’t mean following one single point of view; it simply means being consistent within each. You can, of course, successfully employ two (or more!) points of view without sacrificing narrative flow; the key is that each must remain consistent on its own. As long as your character’s narrative voices are so distinct that your reader can follow the transition across their points of view, and as long as the transition is clear and easy to follow, then your narrative flow won’t suffer one bit!

  2. Clint Gibson says:

    Awesome advice once again :). I’ve tried expreimenting with both past and present tense narratives, but not at the same time. In other words, I have two identical chapters, written in two different ways. My question is, if I were to maintain a present tense narrative in a highly energetic scene (e.g. chasing someone through the streets), how easy would it be to change POV in the same scene without disrupting the flow?

    Thanks in advance 🙂

    • Changing the point of view in a consistent tense shouldn’t be an issue with flow at all! So long as the character voices and the timeline of the actions are both clear, you should be able to switch from one point of view to another with ease. The first thought that popped into my head was the narrative technique employed in Mrs Dalloway (have you read it?). The author uses the proximity of characters on the sidewalk to switch between points of view. It’s a delightful tactic! Employing a similar technique would help to maintain flow while switching points of view in your own story.

  3. This is great info! It helps to see things from the big picture when writing something like s novel, that includes so many elements and layers to consider. It’s all about narrative flow, keeping the story moving and building a page turner.

    The editing tips are very good too! They seem simple enough to grasp and applicable to keep the flow going. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hmm, I would push back on the tense examples. “She had been reading,” makes sense when it’s “She had been reading when she heard the noise outside.” That’s a scenario that calls for the past perfect progressive. Reading is a past action that ended at the occurrence of another past action. And that tense allows you to explain the situation and sequence of events.

    Or, “She had been reading about rockets for the past six months to prepare for the exam,” which could explain to her boyfriend why she never answered his letters. It’s a good tense for explaining what led up to or caused events.

    Whereas, “She read all about rockets” or “She read until dawn” or “she read every night” makes sense when the only thing that matters is that she had read in the past. In Spanish class they called this the “preterite,” for past events with a definite beginning and end. I’d forgotten the regular English terms so I had to double check this.

    So it seems the p-p-p tense would work at the beginning of a scene, to give a context for the action that follows. “She had been reading when she heard the noise outside. She slammed the book shut, grabbed her baseball bat, and crept into the kitchen. Her nails made tiny crescents in the wood as she tensed, waiting for the door to open …”

    That said, I do second the advice about limiting adjectives for the sake of showing vs. telling. I’ve done that, but it was an experiment to get around my weaknesses with descriptions. It works 🙂

    • You make a great point about grammatical tenses! Different tenses are definitely necessary in writing; however, a simple present tense narrative allows for fewer words and more immediacy in writing over a past tense narrative. Taking your delightful example, for instance, let’s look at how using the present tense alters the paragraph: “She’s reading when she hears the noise outside. Slamming the book shut, she grabs her baseball bat and creeps into the kitchen. Her nails make tiny crescents in the wood as she tenses, waiting for the door to open . . .” In this example, the flow is aided by the tense choice. I hope that clears up any confusion!

      • Oh, switch from p-p-p to present! Now that makes sense. I was stuck at the idea of switching to simple past, which I couldn’t make work. Objection withdrawn 🙂

        • I definitely understand the confusion, and I do share my apologies! I’m very partial to the simple present tense in narratives, so I think my mind just naturally goes there. But I thank you for your comment, as it allowed me to clarify a bit!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Jess!

    • Thank you for this wonderful opportunity! I think it’s so interesting how easy-to-apply and functional tips and tricks like these can improve writing so vastly. Plus, knowing how to fix grammatical issues once means knowing how to avoid them entirely in future writing. It’s nice to think we can always be improving as writers. Thanks so much again!

  6. I’m careful with the past progressive, but as noted above there are places where it’s called for.

    If a is in the process of happening at the moment B occurs, then use progressive.

    If A happened (and presumably finished) before B, the use the simpler past.

    Does is count as trimming adverbs if I just drop off the ‘ly’? “Hey, can you run down to the Sheetz quick? I need some cigs bad.” (I know people who talk like that.)

    • It’s very true that there are instances where tense changes are necessary. As I noted above, using the present tense can remove this problem entirely and is a lovely trick to help improve flow! As for adverbs, it’s advised that they’re cut entirely because doing so will force you to be more descriptive. Take your example, for instance: without the adverbs, some word choice changes are needed to communicate the same information. So, the sentence might look something like, “Hey, can you rush to the Sheetz? I’m dying for some cigs.” This way, the flow is aided, and the word choice is more effective! Of course, in the case of dialogue, this might be counterproductive to the characterization of your character, so that also needs to be taken into consideration.

  7. Good thoughts. In the hawk example, if the “he” is your point-of-view character, then leaving out the watching and just saying “The hawk darts…” might be even stronger. Everything the reader is seeing is what the character is watching, so pointing out that the character is watching it can sometimes take away that immediacy. (It depends on the context, of course; sometimes you’d need to say watches after all.)

  8. Joe Long says:

    Of course, the adverb thing was a joke. Honestly though, if I’m writing dialogue in the local dialect (of western Pa), mine flows much better than yours. People around here frequently drop the ‘ly’ in everyday speech.

    • It’s surprisingly difficult to tell in text, isn’t it? I thought it was, but I didn’t want to ignore the question in case it wasn’t! It does also bring up the question of flow in dialogue, though; it’s possible to use all of these tips to ensure all your characters have unique voices by manipulating the flow of their dialogue in different ways. Interesting!

    • Joe Long says:

      Eh, was supposed to be a reply to Jes.

      Here’s one of the last things I’ve written. The story is 1st person past, and this snippet has examples of past progressive to show what Mom and Dad were already doing when I entered.

      ***

      Arriving home later than usual, Dad was already back from school, reading the paper at the kitchen table as Mom was fixing food at the stove. She asked me, “How was your day, honey?”

      I paused, clutching my notebooks. “Pretty good – got Dr. Foster again, but Matt was in all my classes today.” Mom nodded but Dad continued unaffected. “I’m going up to lay down for a little bit, call me when supper’s ready?”

      ***

      Also, I do read everything out loud, several times. That’s where the bulk of my editing comes in. If I’m silently reading something I’m familiar with there’s too much of a chance I’ll start skimming.

      • I totally understand the need for different tenses, and it’s not that all stories should use the simple present tense, or even one single tense, all the time. Doing so is just a simple editing trick that easily aids narrative flow if or when a narrative lacks it, which won’t always be a concern. Like you’ve pointed out, reading text aloud is common in editing, and it will help determine whether a story’s flow needs any assistance! Thanks for your input!

  9. Great article! I just linked to it on my blog. Thanks!

  10. Thank you! Very helpful tips. Great to keep in mind as I work through my editing process. I can take each one and just look for that one specific issue and then go back through and look for the next issue.

    • Editing can be the most painful part of the process, I find, so working through simple but effective edits one step at a time is a great strategy. I’m so glad you found these tips helpful!

  11. Some very good points, especially the one about the over use of adjectives and adverbs. I tend to do that more than I should.

    • It’s definitely an easy habit to slip into, but the good news is that it’s also an easy edit to employ once you’re looking for it!

      • Joe Long says:

        I thought of something else that I believe was discussed with Katie last year but is pertinent here.

        I hate to repeat words and frequently spot duplicates in my editing. It always catches my eye when I read repeated words. Using replacements makes the language richer.

        When I posted the snippet above…

        I’m home and Dad’s home…so Dad was ‘back’
        Mom was making supper and I asked about supper…Mom making ‘food’…Mom ‘fixing’ food, I like that better…ah, but a Yinzer would always say how much, as in ‘fixing some food’

        • Great point! Since repetition is easy to spot, as you mentioned, it’s easy to break reader focus if they notice the same words appearing again and again. So, maintaining reader interest using varied language instead of repetitive descriptions also helps to improve flow. Awesome!

  12. Great post! I second the advice about reading out loud. In my critique group, we read our chapter out loud while everyone follows along and marks their own copies. I read it to myself beforehand and always end up making more revisions to my supposedly final version before bringing it in. Sometimes, even having read it aloud once, I notice new glitches when I read it to my group, because I can’t just gloss over anything. I can hear where the flow slows down, when I’ve repeated words, when the sentences are all too long or too short. And of course, they can too, and find other problems that I didn’t notice. I especially appreciate it when one of them says, “You read it like this, but on the page, it looks like this other thing.” Aha!

    • Joe Long says:

      Just like long sentences, I found a few long paragraphs.

      Near the beginning the MC was at a gathering talking to person 1 while observing person 2. Originally he did the first, then the 2nd, so I interspersed them, to the point where person 1 comments that the MC isn’t paying attention.

      Later on my first draft had two instances of a character info dumping back story to another character. It’s still there as they were relevant to the scene, but I broke up the long paragraphs. Whenever there was a natural pause when reading out loud, I had the other character say something in reaction.

      In the 1st, person 1 adds commentary, the MC reacts, (“Yeah, I know!”) then gets back to his narrative, repeated three times.

      The 2nd time, she starts with, “Just listen.” the MC tries to say something to person 2, but she responds, “shhh…I’m not done yet!”

      In each instance, I created a back and forth dynamic, but done a little differently each time.

      • Long paragraphs can feel clunky, I agree. Sometimes they look fine on the page, when but I read them aloud I realize, Wow, I’ve been on this same paragraph for forever!

        Info dumping is a whole other issue, although you’re right, it can easily lead to long paragraphs and repetitive dialogue. I figure that if even I, as the writer who’s in love with the chapter, recognize it as an “info dump,” then it’s got to go. I chop it up into smaller chunks, cut half of it out, and scatter most of the rest into later chapters. It always surprises me, how little the reader really needs to know right at this particular moment to understand what’s happening for the rest of that chapter.

        • Thanks for chiming in! I love what you mentioned about reading out loud in front of a group. That’s definitely an effective strategy for editing for flow because you’re held a lot more accountable for your words. Any blunders are (sometimes painfully) obvious; luckily, that just means that it’s so much easier to edit them and improve your writing!

  13. What a timely post – I’m just starting to edit my book.

    One of the things I know I need to watch out for is exactly that past perfect progressive tense. I tend to speak that way, so it comes out in my natural voice, even though I’m aware that it’s kinda clunky when it’s written.

    This is another one to bookmark. Thanks for posting!

  14. “Worse, some adverbs contradict meaning. Something cannot be “very unique,” as “unique” cannot be compared.”

    Gah! No!

    Everyone has a unique set of eyes. This is why retina scanners work; they are premised on everyone’s eyes being unique. However, some rare conditions make one set of eyes more unique than others. People with heterochromia, for example, have rather unique eyes. And, if one of those eyes also happened to be violet, you could indeed say the pair was /very/ unique.

    Unique just says that there is nothing else identical to it. Attaching an adverb to “unique,” meanwhile, can convey the /degree/ to which the item deviates from everything else,–that it is unique in unusual ways (pupil looks like a Mobius strip) or unique in a large variety of different ways (color, shape, size, blink rate, dilation are all a couple standard deviations off the mark)–not simply that it deviates as everything else does.

    That is not to say that stating a character’s eyes were “very unique” is not a lazy description. You are better off describing the features that make the eyes “very unique.” But, if you are describing an alien’s eyes as a matching pair of black dots ringed by a brown iris framed by white, and then you label those as “very unique” for that alien’s species, that might be a perfectly acceptable descriptor to add, as it does convey clear information that human normal is not alien normal.

    Anyway, point is, “very unique” is correct usage, even if it may not get you style points.

    • I totally get where you’re coming from! The idea I tried to cram into that tiny sentence probably requires further discussion.

      Basically, adjectives that cannot be compared (like “unique” in my examples) cannot be modified by “more” or “less,” and they do not have comparative or superlative forms. So, you can’t (by standard grammar practices) say that my eyes are less unique than your eyes; you would simply say that your eyes are unique. In the same way, even if your eyes are unique, they aren’t the “uniquest” (even if they are, say, orange and purple!).

      As you’ve pointed out, though, many writers use intensifying modifiers (like “very”) with adjectives like “unique.” While it may be accepted because it’s not terribly uncommon to use “very unique,” it would be rather silly with another intensifying modifier like “quite” or “somewhat” with unique. That’s because the idea behind using the word “unique” in the first place(and other adjectives that cannot be compared) is that the eyes you’re describing are either unique—or they’re not!

      What’s great about not using adjectives like these is that you’re forced to describe the eyes, just as you’ve pointed out in your comment. I would definitely make the case that your fascinating description of eyes is much more appealing to a reader than the use of “unique” (or “very unique”), and I would argue that adding the descriptor “unique” after is unnecessary (and can disrupt flow, if it becomes a habit to include adjectives and adverbs too often).

      Of course, it’s each writer to their own devices, and that’s what makes each piece of writing “unique” (insert winking face) and that much more fun!

      • Joe Long says:

        Here’s an example

        deal noun (AMOUNT)
        › [U] a ​large ​amount or very much: “She used to ​talk a ​great deal about her ​childhood in Indiana.”

        People almost always use a modifier with this. When was the last time you heard, “She used to talk a deal about her childhood…” (except for syndicated radio host John Batchelor, as listening to him made me realize there was an unmodified form.)

  15. Jeffrey Barlow says:

    I just read through Dreamlander and did so faster than I’ve ever read anything. Here, you explain exactly why that happened.

    Thanks for the post. And Demander was fantastic by the way! 🙂

    Cheers

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