Wednesday, April 8

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, April 08, 2015 8 comments
A speedy, lean machine (photo by xenia from 
Over winter break, back in December, I picked up a copy of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea by John Banville. It's a slim little volume about an Irish man coming to terms with the loss of his wife. I like prize-winning literary fiction for the most part. I love Ireland. And I'm always deeply moved by stories about grief. I'd heard good things about Banville. His writing is lovely and wryly funny.

And I just can't seem to get through this darned book.

Nearly every page is one solid block of text. At the end of a long day spent copy editing scholarly lit crit (where literature meets philosophy), I just can't seem to get through more than one dense paragraph a night. By about the twelfth line, my mind starts to wander--and not deeper into the story world.

I can't help thinking that I would have finished this book in a week, if only it had shorter paragraphs.

Maybe too infrequent paragraph breaks aren't your particular vice. Maybe you don't have a clear sense of what things to group together. Both issues stem from a common problem: understanding what a paragraph unit is supposed to be.

Paragraph defined

Our friends at Merriam-Webster define it like this:
paragraph - a subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line.

UNC's Writing Center adds this helpful distinction:
[T]he unity and coherence of ideas among sentences is what constitutes a paragraph.

So what a paragraph does for your writing is to put the prose into coherent chunks, make the prose bite-sized so to speak, or at least small enough portions for a reader to fit on her mental plate.

Paragraphing and pacing

This might seem an obvious point, but I suppose it bears saying nonetheless: shorter paragraphs make for a quicker reading experience, and provide a subtle clue that this section of the story is moving along at a fast pace. Action sequences generally have frequent paragraph breaks, while scenes in which a character is regrouping, formulating a plan, or contemplating a decision will generally employ longer paragraphs.

Scenes of suspense, I've found, most often combine short and long paragraphs. This not only keeps the reader a little off-kilter, it also inserts small crescendos of tension. For example, you might have a character being chased who will run, dodge an obstacle, wiggle through a tight spot, and then perhaps stumble or pause to hide or to catch her breath. That pause paragraph might stretch to momentarily release tension, so that you can continue building it, or it can stretch to draw out the inner turmoil the character is experience in order to amp up the tension.

What you don't want in a suspense scene is to insert a long, chatty character monologue about the scenery or her favorite holiday memory or worries about the state of her hairdo. Off-topic tangents, especially lengthy ones, tend to bring a scene to a screeching halt and frustrate the reader.

But what about those contemplative scenes? How do you not get carried away? Audience expectation is one thing to consider--middle grade readers will lose interest after seven or eight sentences, literary fiction readers can persevere longer.

Just keep in mind that the longer you draw out a paragraph, the more mental work you are asking of readers. They may gradually get lost and forget what the paragraph is all about if the topic sentence was six inches up the page. Adding paragraph breaks can be like adding spikes to a mountain face, giving climbers behind you more footholds, easing their ascent.

Paragraphing narration and description

Just because you have one "speaker" in a passage of narrative summary or description--either the narrator or POV character, it doesn't mean that an entire page of this material is necessarily the same kind of stuff.

Narrative summary typically covers hours, days, or even years of story time in a compressed manner. But within that summary, there will likely be shifts of focus or tone. Descriptions will likewise range across a number of different focal points, one after another.

With each shift in focus, subject, or emotional tone, you want a new paragraph

Here's an example from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family. Uncle Vernon was large and neckless, with an enormous black mustache; Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony; Dudley was blond, pink and porky. Harry, on the other hand, was small and skinny, with brilliant green eyes and jet-black hair that was always untidy. He wore round glasses, and on his forehead was a thin, lighting-shaped scar.
 It was the scar that make Harry so particularly unusual, even for a wizard. This scar was only a hint of Harry's very mysterious past, of the reason he had been left on the Durselys' doorstep eleven years before.
At the age of one, Harry had somehow survived a curse from the greatest dark sorcerer of all time....[continues with a brief summary of the attack that killed Harry's parents]. (Rowling, Chamber 9)

Notice how Rowling gradually shifts the attention from general description to a particular feature. That feature is discussed alone, making way for a segue into the backstory of that feature. Each of these separate paragraphs relate to what came before and after, but each has a different focus.

It may be partly because this book is geared to middle grade readers, but one can see "topic sentences" opening two of the three paragraphs ("Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family"; "It was the scar that made Harry so particularly unusual"). If in your writing you find a statement that is then followed by supporting details, that's a good indication that statement should begin a new paragraph.

Paragraphing interior monologue

Interior monologue will usually entail a character working through his or her thoughts and feelings about events or interactions or relationships, bit by bit. Most often a character will cycle through a range of responses, moving from a negative emotional state to a positive one (or vice versa), from confusion to clarity, or from indecision to decision.

Paragraphing for interiority can be tricky, because at times you are trying to show gradual changes in emotional states. It takes a little finesse to know when the emotion has shifted.

As a guiding principle, your interiority should follow a feeling through its exploration to a change. Pick up the new feeling, created in the change, in the next paragraph. Think of it as a kind of relay race, with each new emotion a baton moved forward.

When it's a mixture of emotion and thought, watch for topic shifts--those are a good indication that your character is perhaps processing a different aspect of the emotion, and each new angle or facet will call for a new paragraph.

Here is an example from Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life:

Despite all the love lectures and even though I just said it to Dylan, sometimes I'm not sure I know what it really means to say "I love you." These days with Dylan -- when we're together -- it's more friendly and cozy than romantic and exciting, but it still soothes me. Isn't that more caring about myself, though, than loving him? Shouldn't love have at least a little to do with the other person, separate from yourself? But how can you see anything or anyone in the world apart from yourself? I mean, everything we experience is subjective, since we have no way of experiencing it other than through our eyes. And I get to thinking that love is just a word we use to describe what boils down to a selfish and temporary state of happiness.
I'm not trying to be a cynic. I seriously wonder about this. Because after my dad died, I thought a lot about what a pathetic job I did loving him, and I couldn't figure out why I was so bad at it or what made it so hard. Then I thought maybe I didn't really love him until he was gone. And that made me wonder whether love is impossible until it is too late. 
Except I know that love is possible, because I know my dad loved me and loved my mom. What I don't understand is how he learned to do that so well and what I'm going to do now that he's not here to show me. Maybe I can't do it. Maybe I don't have whatever it takes. (Zarr, How to Save 91-92)
In a few paragraphs, Zarr takes us through mental and emotional processing of a pretty big topic: What does "I love you" mean, and how does one love? Interestingly, in each paragraph, the character begins at a somewhat more positive state and cycles back to a negative state: from realizing love should be selfless to realizing how impossibly selfish we can all be; from desiring the ability to love well to feeling hopeless that it's even possible; from grasping hope in the example of others to once again feeling defeated and irredeemably flawed.

Each paragraph takes a slightly different angle on the topic as well. It begins with romantic love, moves to familial love, and finally examines the teachable nature of love. In her longer paragraph of the three, she uses questions (asking the reader to engage) and transition phrases ("I mean," "I get to thinking") to keep the forward motion of the thought.

More next time...
Paragraphing dialogue is another animal that deserves its own post to be explained effectively, I plan to do that next week, Stay tuned!

Do you find it easy or difficult to separate material into cogent paragraphs? Why?


  1. I struggle with how it looks on an e-reader screen versus on a text book. I don't want the paragraphs to "look" long for a reader, especially when I'm writing YA or MG novels. I feel like every paragraph needs to not only follow regular paragraph rules, but also be a manageable chunk of reading for modern and young readers who are used to quick texts and chat-boxes.

    BTW - I gave you a shout-out today at my blog. :)

    1. Audience is so important when considering how long is too long. There's a degree that you can't entirely control how something looks on an e-reader, however, since the size of the type is controlled by the reader. The best you can do is make it look good on a smallish paperback page and hope for the best.

      Thanks for the shout-out! It was cool to be featured. :-)

  2. I think I find it easy to write shorter paragraphs because I prefer to read them. But I do get hung up in dialogue, breaking the paragraph when I'm not changing speakers.

    1. Dialogue scenes are tricky--I plan to talk about those separately. In Banville's case, it's exceedingly long interior monologue that's the issue, and I find myself wishing I could insert hard returns as i read.

  3. This was very interesting--definitely made me think.

    1. Glad you found it useful. Funnily enough, many writers don't give a lot of thought to these kinds of structural techniques like using paragraph length to change the story's pace.

  4. I love using paragraphing to move the action forward. It's a powerful tool and it creates white space that today's readers like. Thanks, Laurel. Great post.

    1. Thanks, Lee. Paragraphing is one of those tools for pacing that doesn't seem to be talked about much. It's a pretty simple way to turn up the speed, or when needed, slow it down (for a breather, or to stretch out an anxious moment as a means of creating tension).