Flow and story

It may sound a bit like a Self-Help book, particularly with a subtitle like “The classic work on how to achieve happiness”, but Flow takes a rather more scientific approach than your general “Yeah! Go for it!” self-improvement type of book. (I love what Sarah Millican said on the recent My Life in Books series, that if you read a Self-Help book all the way to the end, it hasn’t done its job. The whole point is to kick-start you with its enthusiasm. But Flow isn’t about that.) In Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sets about trying to see what characteristics are common to all the things people do which they find the most rewarding, and which lead to an experience he calls “Flow” — that state of being “in the zone” when you’re really absorbed in what you’re doing. He comes up with eight:

“When people reflect on how it feels when their experience is most positive, they mention at least one, and often all, of the following. First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.”— Flow, p. 49

One of the major differences between Flow and the type of Self-Help book that teaches you how to achieve your business goals is that this isn’t a book about achieving success, but about enjoying what you do, whether it’s for yourself or others, for no money or for millions. The activity I thought about most while reading Flow was, well, reading.

I know that I enjoy some books more than others. Usually the ones I really enjoy keep me reading for a good chunk of time, and make the real world disappear for however long it is I’m reading. That, to me sounds like flow. So, how do Csikszentmihalyi’s eight points relate to reading a good story?

1. “A task we have a chance of completing.” Unless we’re talking about Borges’s Book of Sand (which has pages so infinitesimally thin, it packs as many between its covers as there are grains of sand in a desert, so you’re not likely to get to the end of it), reading a book is a task you have a chance of completing. Simple enough.

2. “We must be able to concentrate on what we’re doing.” The obvious part of this is you must be able to concentrate on the act of reading, and if you don’t, it’s hardly the book’s fault. But there are things a book can do to hurt the flow in this sense. There could be, for instance, typos or spellos of various kinds, or the awful formatting you get in so many free ebook versions of classic novels, or it could just be bad writing — anything which bursts the story-bubble is a sin against the second ingredient of flow.

3. “Clear goals”. A book has a clear goal in that you’re reading from the start to the finish. But a story has a different sort of goal. I recently finished reading a novel where every chapter was a pretty much separate piece of fiction, linked only by the fact that it was told by the same narrator. It was pleasant enough to read, whilst I was reading it, but when I put it down, nothing called me back to continue reading it. Why? Because story is what calls me back to reading — the desire to find out what happens next. You can only have that desire if you have a sense of large-scale movement behind the immediate, little movements of the scenes and episodes that make up the forefront activity of a piece of fiction. In the case of this novel I was reading, the story had no shape, no clear goal, it was just a series of fiction-flavoured slices of a loaf-shaped novel that ended because it hit the crust at the end. I like a story to have a well-defined shape. That doesn’t mean I like to know what’s going to happen, but I do like to know the sort of direction it’s heading in. I don’t have to, for instance, know if the hero’s going to live or die at the end, but I do want to know if this is a will-the-hero-live-or-die type of story, or if it’s something quite different. Otherwise, it’s just so much sliced loaf.

4. “Immediate feedback”. A well-shaped story creates expectations in the reader (“Is the hero going to live or die?”). It may do so only to play with those expectations, but at least there are expectations there to be played with, the reader is engaged. And the great thing is, you win whether you’re right or wrong. If you think things are going to go one way, and they do, you feel rewarded by the intrinsic rightness of it; if, on the other hand, you think things are going to go one way and they go the other, you’re rewarded with a sense of surprise.

5. “A deep but effortless involvement”. For me, this is the same as point 2. Nice writing helps.

6. “A sense of control over their actions.” Your “action” as a reader is your engagement with the story. Those expectations again! But also it’s the way you feel free to let your imagination roam about the edges of the writer’s words or the artist’s illustrations, the way you can add your own value to a story. I love it when I find myself thinking, “What would I do in the hero/heroine’s situation?” In that way, you get two stories for the price of one!

7. “Concern for the self disappears”. This, really, is Tolkien’s “Recovery” — the sense you get, from immersing yourself in a well-told story, that when you emerge you are seeing reality (both of the outer world and the inner you) that much clearer.

8. “The sense of the duration of time is altered.” Well, we all know what time does when you’re having fun. But the great thing about a good story is it seems to pack a real punch of timelessness into however long it takes to read it. A life is a story, but so is a five minute encounter, and both can have the same weight.

Flow applies its ideas to a wide range of activities. Of course, you don’t have to know about flow to experience it, but I find it has clarified my ideas on what makes for a good read, and so what makes for a better reading experience, which can only be for the good.