October 12, 2017

Time For A Break

            Well, this is overdue.
            So sorry for the long delay.  I’d hoped to get this up before I left for NYCC, but that day turned into the usual rush of dealing with this and that and more of this.  I don’t know why it’s always so frantic. It’s not like I was going to be there for a week or something.  Two nights, but I always pack as if I’m gone for a week anyway. I’ve got stuff for different weather conditions.
            Stuff for downtime.  Some stuff for fans. I’m ridiculously overprepared.
            But let’s take a brief break from that and talk about paragraph breaks.
            Like that weird one I just did up there.
            I’ve mentioned paragraphs here once or twice before.  If sentences are taking a nice bite of the story, paragraphs are three or mouthfuls before having a taste of something else.  I eat some spaghetti, then I have a sip of wine or maybe nibble some garlic bread.  The different tastes and textures work together to make the meal more enjoyable.  If I just had to sit and eat a bowl of spaghetti with nothing to break it up, it’d get kind of monotonous. No matter how much I like spaghetti.
            Hell, at some point, depending on the size of the bowl, I’d probably even start dreading the stuff.
            And that’s what I’m trying to avoid with paragraphs.  I don’t want readers to get bored or intimidated by what they see on the page. I want to break up the text in a way that furthers the story.
            For example, when two people are talking, my attention goes back and forth between them.  Yakko to Wakko.  Someone new talks, and my attention shifts to them.  Perhaps it’s going back and forth, or it could be bouncing between three or four people.
            Think of paragraphs as those moments of attention.  If something shifts my attention away, I should have a new paragraph.  And then maybe it’ll shift back. or perhaps shift to something new, and my attention will follow it there.
            Even if the same character keeps talking, it can get broken into two or more paragraphs. In any long monologue, I should be able to sense the pauses and shifts, the places where our attention moves on to a slightly different aspect of the topic.  Maybe I’m going on about death, with a slight shift into funeral arrangements, my time in Kazakhstan, maybe even thinking ahead to my own end.  Perhaps we’re talking about relationships, and being in love vs. young love vs. older love, and maybe those few times we mistook sex for love, or knew it wasn’t love and didn’t really care at the moment.  In each of these long discussions, it’s easy to see where it could—and should—spin off into a separate paragraph.
            Y’see, Timmy, when I don’t break things up, I end up with a paragraph where it jumps around a lot, nothing’s really described, and it covers a lot of ground.  Sometimes I may do that for a certain effect, yeah, but most of the time… that’s not great storytelling. Of course, the flipside to this is breaking something in the wrong place.
            When I do that, the flow stumbles, because it means I’ve probably broken a point of focus.  Like up at the top, when I broke the second paragraph in the middle of describing the items I was packing.  Or just two sentences back.  I should’ve started the new paragraph on “Of course,” because where I did break it cut off this whole idea I’m trying to explain.
            Which, granted, helped to explain it.
            See—new idea, new break, great flow.

            Breaks also alter the pacing.  Have you ever noticed in a lot of movies and television shows, we get more cuts (jumping from one camera angle to another) as action and tension build?  We jump from Arya to Brienne, back to Arya, to a wide shot, to Sansa watching them duel, then back to Brienne and Arya for that dagger flip… 

            You can feel the energy and the pace right there, just seeing it written out, can’t you?  We understand there’s a lot going on and that all these people are—in their own way—involved in making this complete scene.  Our attention jumps around in one paragraph, but it does it fast because this is a fast-paced scene. 
            See, in prose (unlike film), those breaks would slow down the action.  Notice how the whole Arya–Brienne fight, almost two minutes on film, gets summed up really nicely in there?  When an action scene moves into several paragraphs, it tends to make things drag.  If I take six or seven lines to describe something that happens in one or two seconds, I’m altering the flow and forcing the action to that pace. 
            There may be reasons to do that, sure… but I’d better have a reason if I’m doing it that way.
            There’s also another issue at work here.  As readers, we kind of expectthese breaks.  How often have you seen a wall of text in a book or online and just groaned a bit (out loud or internally).  They make that TL;DR reflex twitch in the back of our brains.  It’s because we understand information doesn’t come in giant slabs like that.  A wall of text is someone going on way more than necessary about a single topic. 
           The breaks help us keep things organized, too.  Remember I mentioned the back and forth aspect of watching a conversation?  We tend to follow that in prose, too.  If I have dialogue between Yakko and Dot, we don’t expect that dialogue to share a paragraph.  The breaks help us set the back and forth rhythm in our minds.  And when something disrupts that rhythm, it also breaks the flow.
            And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, breaking the flow of my story can be fatal.
            Because that’s my ultimate goal.  To have my story be smooth and readable. For it to draw people in, not push them away.  You’ll find people who try to tell you the punctuation and formatting of a story don’t matter, that a good story will stand on its own despite those things.  The truth is, though, the way it’s set out is going to have a huge impact on how it’s interpreted by readers.  How easily it flows.  How fast it feels. How accessible it looks. 
            So break things up. Y’know before your readers decide they need a break…
            Next time, I’d like to talk a little more about the center of our attention.
            Until then, go write.
December 3, 2010 / 3 Comments

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.


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.