Thursday, December 2, 2010

Going Over The Wall

This week’s title is one of those references that only works if you watch a lot of prison movies. Or maybe if you remember living with the Berlin Wall. Or if you’re a 1200 year old Mongolian.

Okay, I guess it works for a lot of people.

You know what gets skimmed over a lot? The paragraph. No, I’m not making a writer joke. Think about it. In school you learned about simple sentences, complex sentences, sentence components, sentence structure, and more. As someone who came pretty close to being a high school English teacher, it wouldn’t surprise me if you ran the numbers and found out half of all English and grammar instruction revolves around sentences.

Now, granted, the sentence is one of the basic building blocks of all writing. Words may be your electrons and protons, but until they’re in a sentence they’re not really doing anything (unless you have some sort of literary particle accelerator, but that would be dangerous and reckless to use). They’re vague abstractions on their own. Once you start linking them together, that’s when the fun begins. That’s when you get to express thoughts and ideas and memories and dreams. So learning about sentences and how to construct them is an invaluable skill. Without it we’d all be muttering “fire bad” or “Hulk smash” and gesturing a lot.

The next step up--in both construction and in skill--is the paragraph. It’s a group of sentences that have related ideas behind them and they come together to express bigger thoughts and more complex ideas on a given topic. As such, it’s kind of sad that the paragraph only gets a small amount of attention from most instructors. Heck, I’ve got a baker’s dozen of writing books that I’ve collected over the years and you know how many of them have “paragraph” listed in their index? Two.

Let’s go over a couple of the basics of paragraphs. Most of you probably remember these from grade school, but it’s probably not a bad refresher for all of us. Including me.

First off, as I mentioned above, a paragraph revolves around an idea. It’s almost always a single topic. Keep in mind “a topic” can encompass a lot of things. For fiction purposes, think of it as a single step or beat. Solving a mystery is a topic. So is realizing you’re in love. Kickboxing with the enemy, downloading MP3s, reading a book, getting eaten by one of the Elder Gods-- these are all topics. Any one of these simple ideas can get fleshed out into a paragraph with more description and additional details (and sometimes into more than one paragraph)

This brings us to the topic sentence (yeah, your skin’s starting to crawl a bit, isn’t it? That fifth grade English class is coming back to you now). In simple terms, the topic sentence sums up the rest of the paragraph. It sets the stage, so to speak. The topic sentence gives me, the reader, an idea what the paragraph is about. For example, look back to the first sentence of this paragraph. It lets you know that this block of text is going to be about topic sentences. Make sense?

More often then not, the topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph. It doesn’t have to be, mind you. In more casual, conversational prose it can end up as the second or third sentence. If you’re presenting facts, it might even come at the end, like a lawyer summing up his or her case for a jury ( “...and that’s why Superman could beat Mighty Mouse in a fight.”).

You should also have some kind of a closer. It doesn’t need to be “Now I am done,” but it should be apparent that this particular bundle of information is now complete. As I mentioned above, sometimes your closer can be your topic sentence. The important thing is that a paragraph just doesn’t drift off at the end. One simple way you can prevent that is this.

Of course, the real question here is... so what? Are paragraphs really that important? If they were, more than two out of thirteen books would talk about them, right? They can’t be that big a deal.

Stop. Did you catch that two paragraphs back? Awkward as hell, wasn’t it? It stumbles because it ends with a sentence that should be leading directly into another one. Not only that, but said sentence is actually expressing a separate idea. The main paragraph is about the need for a closer, but the last sentence is about a method of preventing awkward endings. It should really be the first sentence of the next paragraph, with further explanation coming after it.

There is no simple method of prevention, by the way. Well, there’s “don’t do it,” but that seems like kind of a cop-out answer.

Anyway...

If you don’t have paragraphs, what you have is a wall. We’ve all seen them. In books, sometimes in scripts, and probably a fare share of time here online. Heck, I dealt with it here on the ranty blog just a few weeks ago. It’s when the page is simply filled with words. No breaks. No pauses to breathe. Every single line hits the left hand margin for as far as you can see. It’s intimidating. It makes us cringe back almost instinctively. The reader’s overwhelmed by this monster block of text that incorporates four or five or more topics.

Y’see, Timmy, paragraphs make a story easier to read. In the same way that punctuation slows and regulates the flow of words, making sure the reader gets the words at the pace the writer intended, paragraphs break the story up into bite-sized bits. You don’t want to eat all the food in a meal at once (which is why you have sentences) and you also don’t want to eat all your meals for the day at once (which is why you have paragraphs). The wall of text is one of those horrific force-feeding fetishes, where the author is just cramming more and more and MORE and MORE down the reader’s throat.

When used correctly, paragraphs help tease the reader on. One sentence leads into the next. Each paragraph leads into the next. Chapters complement each other (but never, ever compliment each other). This is what gets readers hooked on your writing, and once or thrice here I’ve referred to it with the term flow. Well-constructed paragraphs are a huge element of flow.

Paragraphs can also help with dialogue. In this case your topic is usually what Yakko is saying, and perhaps what he’s doing while he’s talking. When you cram multiple speakers (or thinkers, or action-ers) into a single paragraph, you become more dependent on descriptors, and that can slow things down. While there’s no hard rule that says every speaker needs a new paragraph of their own, in my experience it usually makes for a cleaner, easier read.

And that’s what we’re all going for. A clean, easy read that will keep our audience turning pages when they should be cooking dinner, folding laundry, or doing their homework. So the next time you sit down to fill a page, maybe you’ll think of some of this. And maybe you won’t actually fill the page.

I might need to miss next week while I finish up this draft. Once I’m back, though, I thought it’d be a great time to talk about drafts.

Until then, go write.

3 comments:

  1. this is the first advice i can ever remembering hearing about paragraphs... except maybe from my year 7 teacher who insisted all paragraphs should be at least two sentences long (i still feel her disapproving glare every time i write a one-sentence paragraph). Paragraphs seem like a pretty important thing to get right, now you mention it. I wonder why it doesn't get covered more often?

    And: "While there’s no hard rule that says every speaker needs a new paragraph of their own..."
    Augh, it's a hard rule as far as i'm concerned. Any time i see more than one speaker per paragraph, i get the urge to hunt people down and beat them with shoes. :D

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  2. Three or four years ago, I linked from my blog to this column by Matthew Cheney, "How to write a paragraph", that you may find interesting:

    http://strangehorizons.com/2007/20070507/cheney-c.shtml

    I haven't seen much advice on this topic either, although I give it in my modest workshop, because I think the handling of paragraphs is essential to the rhytm of your writing. Apart from you and Ceney, I only remember John Gardner having written specifically about this topic.

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  3. It's kind of sad, isn't it? When I was checking through my books to see how many mentioned paragraphs, I figured I'd end up with five or six out of thirteen. Just two stunned me. Some of these are textbooks, too.

    Sadly, I think the lack of instruction comes down to expected use. Figure about 70% of most students are never going to use their writing skills for more than the necessary term papers and a few cover letters. It'd be like a driver's ed course giving Grand Prix lessons for all those times we've got our cars up around 140 mph.

    Ahhhh, well...

    Thanks for the link, Sebastian. Very nice article.

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