Anyone who has driven a car knows that a clunky sound in the engine is bad news. There are any number of problems this could be attributed to, but the bottom line is that we as humans are sensitive to rhythm. When we don’t feel even rhythm, or worse yet, we hear a “clunk”, we are instantly aware of a problem.
Writing can often be “clunky”. When a proper flow is lacking in writing, the reader instantly senses it and their “problem sensor” is aroused. When an audience reads a piece of writing, particularly a piece of fiction, they want to be able to read somewhat subconsciously. If a piece of writing is “clunky”, they are suddenly aware that they are reading someone else’s writing and the story immersion vanishes. Here are several examples in which clunky writing affects a story, as wells as some suggestions to smooth out your writing into a proper flow.
Dialogue, perhaps above all other forms of writing demands proper flow. The reader should move rapidly from quote to quote without being “struck in the face” by sections of clunky writing. Observe the example below:
“I want to get a dog,” said Mike.
“I don’t want to get a dog,” said Sarah.
“You just don’t want to admit you’re afraid of dogs,” said Mike.
“That’s not true,” said Sarah.
“Yes it is,” said Mike.
This example is clunky for several reasons. One, the dialogue jumps back and forth without any context whatsoever. What are Mike and Sarah’s emotions? Is this a heated or playful argument? What is the environment in which they are arguing? Is it crowded or private? Adding context to this section of dialogue would go a long way in improving the flow, as well as some well placed adverbs, like “heatedly” or “sarcastically”.
Clunky Sentence Structure
Sometimes the entire composition of a paragraph is clunky. Choppy sentences are often the villains of these scenarios, but crowded descriptions and rambling narrations can also be killers. Observe the paragraph below:
Mike picked up his phone. He looked at his messages. He put the phone down and walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. After looking around in the refrigerator, he pulled out a sandwich and shut the door and sat down at the kitchen table. Mike took a big bite of the sandwich. He chomped noisily.
These sentences have so many problems it’s hard to know where to start. This paragraph would be what I refer to as a “moving paragraph”. In the course of the six sentences, Mike performs several motions which take him from one room to another and from one activity to another. The narration, thusly, should move with him, and at the same pace. Here is a “cleaned up” version of the same paragraph:
Mike picked up his phone and flipped through his messages. Setting it down, he walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. After looking around for a few moments, he pulled out a sandwich and shut the door. Sitting down at the kitchen table, Mike took a big bite of the sandwich, chomping noisily.
Clunky Character Progression
When it comes to clunky writing, nothing irritates me more than clunky character progression. This is seen most commonly in low budget movies when major and minor characters experience sudden changes of heart because the movie is ending and all of the loose ends need to be quickly tied up. Human emotions are complex; care needs to be taken to ensure that a character’s turnaround is realistic to their individual psyche. If a character is presented throughout the entire movie as an incurable racist, it is unlikely that a single word of advice from a friend at the end of the book/film will cause them to “see the light”. It is much more likely that a compilation of events throughout the story will cause the given character to experience a change in perspective.
Clunky Scene Progression
Similar to character progression, clunky scene progression is a sure sign of poor writing skills. The audience is aware to a certain extent of how long something should take to transpire. If the speed with which events progress is increased or delayed beyond what is realistic, the audience will grow quickly disinterested. For example, suppose a man is told his wife is about to deliver her first child. Observe the following sentences which describe the husband’s flight to the hospital:
- Dan raced to the parking lot and jumped in his car. He drove to the hospital and ran up the two flights of stairs to his wife’s room.
- Dan yanked open the door of his car and slammed it behind him. Buckling his seatbelt, he looked in his rearview mirror to make sure the lot was clear, then backed out. He drove quickly down the road until he came to the highway. He continued until he came to the proper exit then turned, following the road all the way to the hospital. Pulling into the parking lot, he parked, unbuckled, and exited, locking the car behind him.
Both of these examples are clunky. In the first, events occur much to quickly to be followed. According to the sentence, Dan drives to the hospital, then seems to teleport to the stairwell of the hospital. In the second example, unnecessary descriptions of Dan’s drive and actions getting into and out of the car drag the pace of the sentence down to almost a crawl, killing the tension of the scene.
There are many other examples in which writing can become clunky. It can be nearly impossible to avoid at times; proper flow takes years to master. An excellent way to eliminate clunky writing is to read through a section of your own writing. Clunky writing should stand out like a sore thumb; the lack of rhythm will seem like a skip in a record or a note out of tune. Remember: a story is a flow of words running together. Disrupt the flow, and you disrupt the story.