From “What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow,” a chapter in Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction Writing—

“According to [Virginia] Tufte [in Grammar as Style], ‘The better the writer . . . the more he tends to vary his sentence length. And he does it as dramatically as possible.’ Since variation of sentence length results from varying sentence structure, ultimately it’s our syntax that determines whether our prose flows or not. As Stephen Dobyns tells us, syntax is like a landscape: If it’s too uniform . . . our prose will look more like Nebraska than Switzerland. A variety of sentence structure—and therefore of sentence length—will give our prose a more flowing, and appealing, landscape.”

“Thus, altering our syntax does more than help us write flowing prose; it allows us to get our thoughts off the normal track on which they run. Syntax is nothing if not the very structure of our thought, so if we change the way we think, we can sometimes change what we think. But don’t take my word for it; take Yeats’s. In the introduction to his collected plays, he wrote, ‘As I altered my syntax I changed my intellect.’ . . . Rather, I believe that as we alter our syntax, we discover our intellect—i.e., we find ways to say what we always knew but never knew we knew, our deepest beliefs and feelings.”

“What alters our consciousness, then, is not so much syntax but the effects—feelings—evoked by its sequence. . . . [I]t stands to reason that one purpose of syntactical variation is to convey rhythmically the emotion we wish to create in the reader. If we fail to create the appropriate rhythm, we will most likely also fail to convey fully the appropriate emotion—and that can have disastrous effects on the story as a whole.”

“As we progress in our craft, however, we begin to think about structure in larger and larger terms. We begin to vary not only the structure and length of sentences within paragraphs but the structure and length of paragraphs within scenes and the structure and length of scenes within chapters and so forth. And we try to make the flow of each of these parts rhythmically mimetic, or at least appropriate, to the story’s events and the characters’ states of mind. . . . The best writers . . . vary the syntax of their scenes, sections, chapters, and so forth much as a composer varies the structure and tempo of a symphony’s movements.”


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