Keeping Readers in the Flow - Justin Lee Anderson

5 Dec 2023

I recently read something about ‘tips to keep a reader reading’ or something like that (as if readers need to be encouraged!) and it made me think about some of the things I do automatically now, but which I of course had to learn once upon a time. I thought it might be interesting to just talk about them a little bit. The two things that came to mind for me are not things I see people talking about a lot in writing advice, but they’re essential elements to making a story flow and keeping your readers hooked: rhythm and transitions.

Neither of these is the kind of thing most readers will ever notice, but if you do them well, they make for a seamless reading experience that will keep people immersed in your writing and, most importantly, in the story. I’ve said often that the job of the prose in most cases is to get out of the way of the story. Unless you’re writing highly poetic prose and that’s part of your style, where you want people stopping to reread a sentence because of its innate beauty, then largely speaking you don’t want people to be conscious of the fact they’re reading. You want them lost in the story.

Rhythm is something that everyone knows when it’s done badly. A sentence just clunks in a way that makes it difficult to read and if it’s particularly bad, it might even make the reader go back to reread it and make sense of it. But if you do it well, good writing should have a musical lilt to it. The best example of this, in my opinion, is Dr Seuss. Yes, he makes up a lot of words, but his writing is lyrical. The varying stresses and pacing of his lines just flow beautifully and carry you along. Look at this passage for example, from The Sleep Book:

“Do you walk in your sleep…?
I just had a report
Of some interesting news of this popular sport.

Check out the rhythm of those lines:

Dah dah DAH dah dah DAH
Dah dah DAH dah dah DAH
Dah dah DAH dah dah DAH dah dah DAH dah dah DAH

It’s musical. And that music carries you along naturally. Now this is an extreme example, but it’s a good way of showing what I mean. You have to be aware of the rhythm of your own writing. Try not to drop in anything that’s going to make it clunk, and pull your reader out of the story. I’ve often rejected edits where the editor has suggested something to be clearer, or even just more grammatically exact, but that have made the sentence clunk like a brick, so I’ve kept the original for flow. It’s an underrated piece of good writing advice that I think should be talked about more.

One of the best ways to learn this is to literally read your work out loud. If you stumble over a bit, your reader will too, so change it until the rhythm flows smoothly.

Transitions are another thing I think about a lot. They’re often easier to highlight in TV and film, because you literally watch one scene move into another. There are lots of different ways to do them well, but one my favourites that I often reference is in the first Avengers film.

In the scene where Thor and Hulk are fighting, while Tony and Cap are trying to fix the helicarrier’s broken engine, Hulk misses a punch, hitting the wall instead of Thor. As the punch lands, we cut to the other side of the wall, to see it bulge from the impact. But then, there’s a second hit and the wall blows open to reveal: Iron Man! We’ve cut seamlessly from one storyline to the next. Joss Whedon (for all his many faults) does a great job of this all through the movie, not least in the climactic battle of New York, where the action moves from one character to another. Watch it with that in mind and you’ll see how well it’s done.

The Bitter Crown is the second book in the Eydin saga, by Justin Lee Anderson

But how does that translate to writing? Well, if you’re moving from one chapter to another, or one scene to another, and you want to keep your reader in the story, give them a nice transition between scenes that stitches them together. Here’s an example from one of my own books, The Bitter Crown:

Allandria’s eyes flickered. She didn’t like it. But she wasn’t going to argue with the king.
“Of course, sire. Makes sense.” She didn’t even look at him as she brushed past to the horses.
Oh good. This won’t be awkward at all.

It was painfully awkward.
Allandria tried to focus on the horse. The ride. The rhythm of the hoofbeats.

This shifts from a scene in Aranok’s POV to one in Allandria’s, and the ‘awkward’ references almost act like the two halves of a joke, pulling the reader from one scene directly into the next. You obviously don’t have to do this in every scene change (it would become tedious if you did!) but every now and again throw in a nice tight transition and your reader will appreciate it, even if they don’t consciously notice it.

My wife and I have talked about transitions so much in relation to the scripts we write together that one of us will often be heard saying “Ooh, nice transition” in the middle of a TV show or film. Once you know about them, you can’t stop seeing them!

And once you start thinking about these two things, you’ll notice them both in your reading and your own writing. To begin with, you’ll probably have to consciously choose to work on them, but eventually it’ll become second nature and you’ll be thinking about your rhythm and seeing opportunities for smooth transitions everywhere.

If you are interested in Justin Lee Anderson's books, you can order them using this link

About Justin Lee Anderson


Justin spent 15 years as a professional writer and editor before his debut novel, Carpet Diem, was published in 2015. It became a best-seller and won a 2018 Audie award. His second book, The Lost War, won the 2020/21 SPFBO award and was picked up by Orbit as the first of the four-book Eidyn Saga.

Justin lives with his family in East Lothian, just outside his hometown of Edinburgh.