Director’s Corner: Uncovering the Mysteries of Flow in the Opening of Stephen King’s 11/22/63

jeanneJeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.

Find out more about Jeanne here and more about the Odyssey Writing Workshop here.


Flow remains shrouded in mystery. I’ve rarely seen writers explain it or analyze it. When you read a story by someone else, you probably sense when it flows, but you may not know why. When you read your own work, it’s likely harder to sense the degree of flow. Even if critiquers tell you that flow is a problem, they may have a hard time explaining why or offering suggestions to improve the flow. As the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust, I’m constantly critiquing fiction in our online classes or in-person workshops, and I’ve come to realize how important flow is to a story. A story may have an exciting plot, compelling characters, a fascinating world, and a clear style, but without flow, we’ll be struggling to reach the end.

What is flow? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that, when applied to composition or speech, to flow is “To glide along smoothly, like a river.” So a story with flow is one that carries the reader ahead smoothly and effortlessly. That describes the sensation we may feel when reading a story with flow, but what techniques can we use to write stories with flow?

This article was inspired by two interesting blog posts by V. Moody analyzing the opening of Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, and the openings of Stephen King novels in general.

Those posts led me to read the five-page prologue of 11/22/63. (If you have the opportunity to read the prologue now, I’d recommend that. Hint: Amazon will offer you part of it through the “Look Inside” feature, and Google Books will offer you the part you can’t get on Amazon.) Those five pages involve an English teacher thinking about his life and grading essays. As an English teacher who has graded many essays, I can’t imagine anything less interesting to read. The prologue has minimal action and conflict and lots of little pieces of backstory (exactly what conventional wisdom would tell you not to do in an opening). Yet the prologue drew me in, pulled me through, and left me very close to tears. How did King keep me reading, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and page by page?

Through flow.

And how did he create flow? Let’s find out.

FLOW FROM CURIOSITY

V. Moody describes the flow in the prologue this way:

What King does very well is to keep the information rolling. You learn one thing, and it makes you wonder about one aspect of it, and that’s the aspect he mentions next, which brings up another point, and (you guessed it) that’s what he talks about in the next line.

A key aspect of flow, then, is providing content that makes the reader curious to know something more, and putting the information in a specific order so that the “something more” the reader wants to know is what comes next.

Let’s put V. Moody’s theory to the test. For this to work, don’t scroll down more than you absolutely have to. Keep the line that you’re reading at the bottom of your screen and scroll down one line at a time. We’ll start with the first sentence of the novel.

I have never been what you’d call a crying man.

What does this sentence make you wonder about? What “something more” do you want to know? Come up with a quick answer off the top of your head. (Don’t scroll down until you have your answer.)

For me, the sentence makes me wonder, why does this matter? Why does he think this? Does he never cry?

Now let’s see if King provides this “something more” in his next sentence.

My ex-wife said that my “nonexistent emotional gradient” was the main reason she was leaving me (as if the guy she met in her AA meetings was beside the point).

Whoa. That was much more than I was expecting. It provides a satisfying explanation to “Why does this matter?” and “Why does he think this?” And it opens many new things to wonder about.

So what does this second sentence make you curious to know? (Answer before scrolling.)

It makes me want to know these things: What evidence did his wife have of his “nonexistent emotional gradient”? Is she right? Is the wife as horrible as I think?

Let’s see what King provides:

Christy said she supposed she could forgive me not crying at her father’s funeral; I had only known him for six years and couldn’t understand what a wonderful, giving man he had been (a Mustang convertible as a high school graduation present, for instance).

King answers my question about what evidence she has, and he’s also giving me a sense of whether the wife is as horrible as I think (yes).

What does this third sentence make you curious about?

I want to know what other evidence she has. And in what other ways is she horrible? In addition, the very structure of the sentence (that “she supposed she could forgive me” for X), sets me up to want to know what she could not forgive him for.

Here’s the next sentence:

But then, when I didn’t cry at my own parents’ funerals—they died just two years apart, Dad of stomach cancer and Mom of a thunderclap heart attack while walking on a Florida beach—she began to understand the nonexistent gradient thing.

This satisfies my desire to see some other evidence his wife used to make her judgment, and it shows me what she could not forgive.

What does this fourth sentence make you want to know?

What I’m interested to know now is how Christy’s initial understanding developed and led to a divorce.

Here’s the fifth sentence:

I was “unable to feel my feelings,” in AA-speak.

This indeed shows how Christy’s initial understanding developed, through the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It’s also interesting that this paragraph begins with Christy’s accusation (with the second sentence, “My ex-wife said . . .”) and ends with Christy’s accusation restated (with the fifth sentence, “I was ‘unable to feel . . .'”), just as a topic paragraph in an essay often begins with a topic sentence stating what you’re going to prove and ends with a concluding sentence restating what you’ve proven, with evidence in between. This shows how important organization is to flow, which we’ll discuss more in a little while.

After this, King gives a few more examples of times the narrator, Jake, didn’t cry. Then we get to a new paragraph. Here, I’m just going to give you King’s sentence and what it made me wonder. If you want to continue to play along, stop after you read King’s sentence and write down what it makes you wonder. Then see if he provides that in the next sentence.

But I’m not emotionally blocked. Christy was wrong about that.

I want to know what does make Jake cry.

One day when I was nine, my mother met me at the door when I came home from school.

I sense Jake is going to tell me something that made him cry, so I’m eager to know more. What happened? What did the mother say?

She told me my collie, Rags, had been struck and killed by a truck that hadn’t even bothered to stop.

Did he cry?

I didn’t cry when we buried him, although my dad told me nobody would think less of me if I did, but I cried when she told me.

We hurry through the sentence looking for where Jake cried and are satisfied by the ending.

Now I want to know how that made him feel. Why did that make him cry?

Partly because it was my first experience of death; mostly because it had been my responsibility to make sure he was safely penned up in our backyard.

This paragraph has wonderful flow. We start with a topic sentence and then move into a specific example, with setting (time and place), what happened, Jake’s reaction, and why. King is feeding us the information we want exactly when we want it, so we move effortlessly ahead. The choice of information and the order of information are key.

FLOW TOWARD A FOCUS

The final piece of evidence Jake provides about his crying is his reaction to the janitor’s essay, which is one of those he’s grading. This involves the last three pages of the prologue.

This piece of evidence is the most developed because it’s the most important. This is the one that’s going to tie to future action.

Studying this mini-story within the prologue can provide more insight into flow, particularly into how a story can move from less important content to more important content, zooming in on the focus, all while maintaining flow.

The reader is carried effortlessly into this section through this combination transition and topic sentence:

I can only remember one other time when I cried as an adult, and that was when I read the story of the janitor’s father.

King then spends two sentences setting the scene, establishing where Jake was when he read the essay. King is slowing the pace, focusing in on this place and time. We’re curious; we want to know. And King is channeling our curiosity in a particular direction.

King establishes the subject Jake had assigned to his adult students, briefly describes a couple of the other students’ essays, and discusses the problems of teaching adults. Each sentence flows to the next, but more than that, it flows in a direction, from general to specific, from necessary context to the core event at the center of that context.

King draws us further into the moment, describing what Jake is thinking (hoping Christy will be sober when he gets home) and feeling (he has a headache and is struggling to get through a few more essays).

Jake takes the janitor’s essay from the pile and describes its physical appearance. Then he quotes the opening paragraph of the essay. Do you see how the flow has carried us closer and closer to this essay and this moment?

This flow toward a focus, this zooming in, makes the moment of actually experiencing the essay very powerful.

We don’t get all of the essay now; we don’t need it all now, and King wants to leave us wanting more. So after zooming all the way in and getting a glimpse, we pull back just a bit. What’s important for the prologue is Jake’s reaction to the essay. That’s what King has made us want to know more about, and he never forgets that. So after quoting that first paragraph, the focus turns to Jake’s reaction.

We see Jake cry, tying this section back to the overall subject of the prologue, and we get Jake’s thoughts about the janitor and the events described in the essay. The reaction is a page long, showing us how important this is, that it is not just proof that Jake does, on occasion, cry, but a key event that will have consequences in the plot. And that generates curiosity about what those consequences will be, which creates flow from the prologue into Chapter 1.

FLOW FROM ORGANIZATION

Above, we saw how important organization on the sentence and paragraph level is to flow. Now let’s look at organization on a bigger scale and see how it can tie the paragraphs together and make one paragraph flow into the next.

Since the prologue involves lots of little pieces of backstory, it would be very easy for this to feel fragmented and unfocused—characteristics that would inhibit flow. To prevent this, the prologue needs to instead feel unified and focused. And the way to achieve that is through organization.

In these five pages, King uses three different large-scale organizational methods as well as many smaller-scale organizational techniques.

*Organization Method 1

King organizes the text like an essay, with a thesis (a claim that’s going to be proven), antithesis (the opposite claim, a contrast), and synthesis (a combination of the previous two to create a unified whole).

Thesis: “I have never been what you’d call a crying man.” This is stated on p. 1 and followed by evidence of times Jake hasn’t cried.

Antithesis: But sometimes I cry. This is implied on p. 2 and followed by evidence of times Jake has cried.

Synthesis: I am not emotionally blocked, but I don’t bust out bawling on cue. This is implied later on p. 2 and followed by evidence.

This organization leads us through the various parts of the prologue and ties them together. It makes us feel at every point that we know where we are and allows us to feel anticipation about what’s to come and to form questions we want answered. In a disorganized scene, we won’t be able to anticipate what’s to come, so our questions will likely not be answered. More than that, our questions will probably not reflect our engagement with the content (such as “What evidence does Christy have that Jake is emotionally blocked?”) but instead will reflect our despair at being lost (such as “What the heck is going on?”).

This organization builds our interest in whether Jake is cold or caring, makes us want to keep moving ahead to find out, and thus creates that sense of flow.

*Organization Method 2

This method also contributes to flow while offering a slightly different way of stressing and focusing on this feeling issue.

We start with her accusations, supported by evidence:

I was “unable to feel my feelings,” in AA speak.

Christy says,

“I have never seen you shed tears.”

Then we move to Jake’s assertion, supported by evidence:

But I’m not emotionally blocked.

Then we get Jake’s conclusion, followed by more evidence:

But blocked? Unable to feel my feelings? No, I have never been those things.

This method of organization emphasizes the conflict between Jake and Christy. Since this prologue has minimal conflict, presenting his emotional state as the subject of disagreement between husband and wife introduces some conflict and interest, and puts something at stake (their marriage).

As with Method 1, these statements lead us through the prologue, tying the different pieces of backstory together, providing focus, and most important, creating flow.

*Organization Method 3

As discussed earlier, Jake’s reaction to reading the janitor’s essay is the final piece of evidence he provides about his crying. This makes up over half of the prologue.

King introduces a new idea at the start of this section:

Who can know when life hangs in the balance, or why?

This is actually the one spot in the prologue that doesn’t flow. This statement comes out of nowhere and stops us, so we know it’s important. I remember having to go back to the previous paragraph and read that, then read this sentence over several times, trying to understand how it fit in. King strategically breaks the flow to draw our attention to this compelling idea. This book is going to be about a key moment that changes everything.

After introducing the idea, King then repeats and develops the idea through a series of statements, allowing us to recover from the break and fall into a new flow.

Jake establishes the subject of the essays he’s grading:

“The Day That Changed My Life.”

As Jake picks up the janitor’s essay, he tells us,

my little life was about to change.

As he reads, thinks about the essay, and cries, he thinks,

Life turns on a dime.

one night his life turned on a dime.

And isn’t that what A+ writing is supposed to do? Evoke a response?

These phrases make us wonder how things are going to change and how Jake’s life is going to connect to the janitor’s life. On a small scale, our curiosity is being satisfied, because we’re wondering what happened to the janitor and we’re finding out. But questions about the bigger picture remain unanswered; the final phrase implies the essay is going to cause Jake to do something, which makes us want to know what he’s going to do.

The prologue concludes by tying this new idea to Methods 1 and 2:

I wish I had been emotionally blocked, after all. Because everything that followed—every terrible thing—flowed from those tears.

All three methods of organization achieve closure at once: the synthesis, the differing beliefs of Christy and Jake about Jake’s emotions, and the idea that something big is going to change. Moreover, it’s going to change in a very bad way. That makes the end of the prologue very powerful and propels us into the next chapter.

*Yet More Organization

I mentioned at the start of this section that King also uses smaller-scale organizational techniques to help create flow. I’ll just mention one here.

Parallel structure, or parallelism, involves using the same grammatical structure to stress similar or contrasting elements. In addition to emphasizing those similar or contrasting elements, it provides clarity and focus, and helps to create flow by connecting ideas.

Here are a couple of examples, with the parallel phrases underlined.

“. . . she could forgive me not crying at her father’s funeral. . . . But then, when I didn’t cry at my own parents’ funerals . . .”

What made the job hard . . . What made the job dispiriting . . . ”

FLOW THROUGH REPETITION

One more technique King uses to create flow is repetition. As discussed, this prologue involves lots of little pieces of backstory. It would be very easy for this to feel fragmented, wandering, and unfocused—characteristics that would all inhibit flow. Repeating key words and phrases helps tie the various pieces of backstory to the bigger topics, so we don’t feel like we’re getting information about a bunch of things in Jake’s background, even though we’re getting information about a bunch of things in Jake’s background. Instead, everything feels unified, focused, connected: everything flows.

The words/phrases crying, cry, cried, tears, tearlessly, eyes began to sting, wiping my eyes, feel, feelings, emotionally, bawling, and blocked appear twenty-eight times in five pages.

This helps to focus our attention and thus our curiosity, so not only does King anticipate what we’ll want to know and provide that; he also directs our attention so we want to know the very things he wants to tell us.

THE POWER OF FLOW

By directing and satisfying our curiosity, driving toward a compelling focus, ordering details and organizing them to draw us ahead, and repeating key words to tie everything together, King creates a powerful sense of flow that carries us through.

We become engaged with the text, both intellectually and emotionally, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. This is especially important in a chapter like the prologue, which has little conflict or suspense. But flow is important in every scene, and King uses these same techniques in all his scenes.

While many readers may credit suspense, or plot twists, or struggling characters for keeping them up until 3 A.M., all of these depend on a key, underlying element for their power: flow.

So what are you curious to know now?

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