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How Do I Write Flowing Prose in My Novel?

Even though we’re all avid bookworms many of us will still spend a lot of time watching stories on screen – whether it be on television or at the cinema.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that some aspects of scriptwriting creep into our work as fiction authors.


Too much information

When it comes to creating flowing prose, one of these aspects is particularly damaging – the inclusion of too much extraneous information. On screen there can be an awful lot for the viewer to take in. If our hero is walking down the street, there are probably other pedestrians, cars and buses, workmen with a radio blaring out pop music, clouds in the sky…

The key point is that, on screen, it is quick and easy to show these things – and quick and easy for the viewer to absorb them. In a book it is much more of an effort to write about them – and to read about them.    

Let’s suppose you’ve invited some new friends round to your home for a meal. As they’ve never visited you before you thoughtfully send them detailed directions on how to get to your house.

There’s just one problem; instead of sending them by the most direct route, you send directions that will take them on a lengthy detour around the surrounding neighbourhoods.

If you’re lucky, they will eventually arrive on your doorstep, albeit late and irritable after an unnecessarily long journey. Some of them might get so frustrated while trying to navigate their way that they give up and go home – taking their bottles of wine with them…

In either event, they will be unlikely to accept any future invitation to your home – deciding that it’s just not worth the effort.

It’s the same with your readers. When they accept your invitation to sit down and read a compelling and engaging novel, that’s what they are expecting to do. They don’t want to find themselves ploughing through lots of unnecessary text that contributes nothing to the story but takes up valuable time and effort.

Let’s take a look at the example below:


Liz carefully reverse-parked her ageing Ford Fiesta outside her mid-terrace house, making sure she avoided hitting Mr Fletcher’s Volvo estate. After checking that the handbrake was on and the gear stick in neutral, she opened the door, picked up her bag from the front passenger seat, climbed out of the car, closed the door and locked it. Walking up the short pathway, she fumbled in her pocket for her house key and unlocked the front door.

Once inside her house she hung her coat up on a peg in the hallway and walked through to the kitchen. Taking a jar of decaffeinated coffee from the cupboard, she poured a small amount of water into the kettle and switched it on. While waiting for it to boil she went upstairs and changed out of her work clothes. Going back into the kitchen she made her coffee in one of her collection of multi-coloured mugs, carried it into the living room and switched her television on. She flicked through several channels before settling back to watch Pointless, shaking her head at a contestant who mixed up Kingston and Kingstown.

It was then that she realised she was not alone.


Once we’ve recovered from wading through all that, it’s not hard to identify what the problem is. There’s too much non-essential information; things that add nothing to the story but clog up the text and make it much more of an effort to read. The text ends on a dramatic note but the reader is probably in no mood to appreciate it.

In fact, anyone sitting down with a book written in that style is likely to quickly give up and check what’s on Netflix. A potential reader coming across something like that while browsing a bookshop is unlikely to even buy the novel in the first place.

How do we solve the problem and create prose that flows more easily? Using our example with Liz, we can see below how it could be rewritten in a more streamlined manner.


Liz parked outside her terrace house and went inside. She quickly changed and settled down with a coffee in the living room.

It was then that she realised she was not alone.


While this seems to flow much better, some authors might argue that it has become too streamlined. They may feel that the extra detail in the first example provided us with valuable information.

For example:

  • Liz’s old Ford Fiesta and terrace house suggest she is of modest financial means.   

  • The care she takes not to prang her car shows a level of attention and responsibility.

  • Her multi-coloured mugs suggest a colourful side to her personality.

  • She has the discipline to get changed before settling down to watch television.  

  • Her reaction to the contestant on Pointless suggests she is intelligent – and proud of the fact.


Moreover, all of these things contribute to an overall picture of Liz. She is an ordinary person, going through the kind of post-work routine that millions of other people experience each day. We feel an empathy for Liz because she reminds us of ourselves and people we know. This empathy means that the impact of the final, ominous line is greater than it would have been otherwise. Who’s in the house with her? Is she in danger? We want to know because we identify with Liz and care about her.

Moreover, a little fleshing out to show what an ordinary kind of life Liz has will heighten the shock and drama of her being wrenched out of it by the realisation that there is an unknown person in her house.

Finally, including one or two extra bits of information will slow down the pace just a little. While still much easier to read than the first example, this would allow just enough time for tension to build as the reader anticipates something dramatic is about to happen.

Many authors, therefore, would opt to leave in a little of the extra information to reveal things about Liz and to create a feeling of mundaneness that is about to be shattered.

For example, they might go for the following:


Liz carefully reverse-parked her ageing Ford Fiesta outside her terrace house, making sure she avoided hitting Mr Fletcher’s Volvo estate. Walking up the short pathway, she went inside her house.

She switched the kettle on and went upstairs to change. Going back into the kitchen she made a coffee in one of her collection of multi-coloured mugs and carried it into the living room. She flicked through several TV channels before settling back to watch Pointless, shaking her head at a contestant who mixed up Kingston and Kingstown.

It was then that she realised she was not alone.


How much, if any, detail to include is a question for our judgement as authors. Some writers will prefer something whittled down to the bare bones that the reader can shoot through at breathless pace; others will include a little extra detail which still flows nicely but enables the intrigue to build and our characters to become more in-depth individuals.

Whichever option we take, though, it’s likely to be an improvement on the first example!


Stop doing that!

A simple way to improve the flow of our prose is to cut out unnecessary words. A prime example of this is the use of ‘that’ before names and pronouns. In many cases, it can removed without causing any confusion or ambiguity:


James knew that Clare was out of his league.

James knew Clare was out of his league.


Mr Fletcher said that it was okay to borrow his lawnmower.

Mr Fletcher said it was okay to borrow his lawnmower.


Shirley said that she’d be there later.

Shirley said she’d be there later.


Joe and Susie said that they wanted me to work for them.

Joe and Susie said they wanted me to work for them.


Once again these are minor changes which, over the course of your book, will have a major impact.

As with many of the ‘rules’ of fiction writing, though, there are exceptions! There are some occasions when a sentence instinctively feels wrong when ‘that’ is removed in this way.

It would be better to write, for example:


I still maintain that I am innocent

Steve declared that he was resigning with immediate effect


There are also cases when it could cause some confusion:


James knew Clare’s brother was called Mike, but had never met him.


Initially it might seem that James knows Clare’s brother – but then we see that he doesn’t.

It would be clearer to leave the ‘that’ in.


James knew that Clare’s brother was called Mike, but had never met him.


This is another area where the decision is down to your judgement as the author. Taking out ‘that’ where possible is a valuable way of improving the flow of your novel. Always check, though, that the sentence maintains its rhythm and clarity following the deletion.


How should I use contractions in my novel?

Most of us use contractions so regularly in our everyday conversations that we take them completely for granted.

Because writing a story feels a more formal undertaking than simply chatting to our friends, though, it’s easy to fall into the trap of not using contractions.

As well as making text more clunky and difficult to read, it also has an unnatural feel to it that could distract readers from the story.

Let’s take a look at the examples below:


I am going to phone Simon first thing tomorrow and tell him that it is all over between us.

You will have to tell the others what we are planning.

They are hoping it will all be worth it.


Few of us speak like this in ordinary conversation. This kind of dialogue gives the characters an artificial feel and reminds the reader that they are not real people – making it much harder for them to immerse themselves in our fictional world.

Here’s what the dialogue looks like when we use contractions:


I’m going to phone Simon first thing tomorrow and tell him it’s all over between us.

You’ll have to tell the others what we’re planning.

They’re hoping it’ll all be worth it.


We can see how the text now flows much more smoothly, feels more authentic and avoids taking our attention away from what’s happening.

The effect of using contractions might appear relatively minor when we look at just a few sentences. But over the course of an entire novel, the decision of whether or not to use them will have a huge effect on the book’s readability, and the characters’ credibility.


The exception that proves the rule 

Another advantage to using contractions most of the time is that when we deliberately don’t use them (in order to add emphasis or a sense of formality) the impact is far greater:


I am leaving home – and there is nothing you can do about it.

You are not going anywhere until we have all sat down and talked this through.


Both the sentences above would still read fine with contractions. Again it’s a question of judgement and depends on the precise effect we’re trying to create.


Making your prose flow in a novel: Conclusion

Writing prose that flows is a key ability for any fiction writer to master. Cutting out unnecessary details and words, and using contractions are all important ways of achieving this when writing a novel.

This is not a rigid rule, though, and writers should always take a rounded view, constantly checking if their decisions are enhancing their book – or working against it.

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