If the last time you thought about paragraphing was when you learned that a paragraph was comprised of a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a conclusion, listen up: that staid structure will not have the power to draw readers into your story.
A paragraph in fiction is rarely used to convey information, as our earliest grammar school compositions were intended to do. The reader didn’t come to your novel to find out what kind of cattle produces the juiciest steaks; she can google that. She wants to know what happens when your aging cowboy, still facing hours in the saddle, has overestimated the stability of his reconstructed knee while an unexpected winter storm is blowing in.
What readers want most of story is to be moved, quite literally—transported, from one place to another. Paragraph structure can boost that sense of story movement. These tips should help.
1. A paragraph should develop only one idea. This sounds simple in theory, but while your mind is juggling god-knows-how-many aspects of story, execution can be fraught. As an editor, it often feels like I’m bringing my pen into the midst of a cattle drive to cut out an errant all-terrain vehicle. The ATV is a distraction, obscuring the reader’s perception of where the cowboy is directing the cattle.
You might argue that the ATV is relevant because the novel is about old methods butting heads with the new. If that’s your point, great—but most readers will miss it if you bury that ATV in the middle of a paragraph. That leads me to my next point. (A paragraph should always set up your next point.)
2. A paragraph should help the reader remember important information. If a beta reader calls you out for reiteration—or worse, if she missed an important aspect of characterization or plot altogether—take a closer look at your paragraphing. A paragraph should support memorability.
My motto: Say it once, with impact, and you won’t have to repeat it.
If your beta reader missed the point of that ATV altogether, pull it from its herd of words, place it in a new paragraph, and give it an entrance to be remembered.
Have your aging cowboy swatting around his head, sure that only an insect wanting a bite out of his ear could create a buzz annoying enough to be heard above the thumping of cattle hooves. It grows louder—now the cowboy and even some of the cattle are looking over their shoulders. The herd shies away from the growing sound. The cowboy’s horse fidgets, necessitating that the cowboy apply pressure from his compromised knee. Then have the four-wheeler come over the rise in a cloud of dust, and give us our first glimpse of the damn fool who lives next door.
3. Order paragraphs so that each sentence builds upon the last. While editing fiction, I’m often re-ordering sentences for maximum impact. When I do, I always suspect the writer came to fiction through journalism.
Journalists learn the inverted triangle method of structuring a story, which places the most newsworthy information at the top, where those who only read the first paragraph will gain some sense of the news. Paragraphs are built this way too, so that skimmers who read only the first sentence of each paragraph will have gained some sense of the story’s most important information, if not all of its supporting detail.
Fiction writers should not encourage skimming.
Draw in your reader so she can’t help but feast on each subsequent line. Replace the idea of “delivery of information” with “invitation to story.” Your first sentence will set the topic, while each subsequent sentence will pull your reader deeper into relevant thoughts or actions. If each paragraph is a story, it will take the reader on a short journey—and at the end, the reader will arrive somewhere new.
4. Move your most important point into the power position. Where is the power position? In fiction, it isn’t first, as it was in grade school or at the newspaper.
Think “lasting impression.” Place your most powerful concept in that final power position, and it will resonate like a ringing bell over the terminal punctuation and the paragraph break beyond.
That final sentence will not be a conclusion, however. It will be an invitation into the next paragraph.
How the pros do it
Through the lens of these first four points, let’s look at a couple of examples from best-selling novels.
Example 1: Paragraphing an action scene.
In these two paragraphs from The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah exemplifies all of the points I made in this post. Each sentence builds on the last, transporting us to the final, most important concept Hannah wants to drive home.
Seventeen-year-old Leni drove the snow machine with confidence in the falling snow. She was all alone in the vastness of winter. Following the glow of her headlights in the predawn dark, she turned onto the old mine road. Within a mile or so the road became a trail that twisted and turned and rose and fell. The plastic sled behind her thumped on the snow, empty now, but she hoped that soon it would hold her latest kill. If there was one thing her dad had been right about, it was this: Leni had learned to hunt.
She hurtled over embankments and around trees and across frozen rivers, airborne on the snow machine sometimes, skidding out of control, sometimes shrieking in joy or fear or a combination of the two. She was completely in her element out here.
Example 2: Paragraphing an interior scene
It’s easiest to learn these techniques with action scenes, but they can order interior turmoil as well, as Mary Doria Russell shows us in the opening to Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow. Too often, a character’s emotional churning results in reiteration that fails to advance characterization. Also of interest here is that like many novels, Russell’s begins with a one-sentence paragraph. Does it suggest a story and deliver you to an emotional place? You be the judge:
Sweating and nauseated, Father Emilio Sandoz sat on the edge of his bed with his head in what was left of his hands.
Many things had turned out to be more difficult than he’d expected. Losing his mind, for example. Or dying. How can I still be alive? he wondered, not so much with philosophical curiosity as with profound irritation at the physical stamina and sheer bad luck that had conspired to keep him breathing, when all he’d wanted was death. “Something’s got to go,” he whispered, alone in the night. “My sanity or my soul…”
He stood and began to pace, wrecked hands tucked under his armpits to keep the fingers from being jarred as he moved. Unable to drive nightmare images away in the darkness, he touched the lights on with an elbow so he could see clearly the real things in front of him: a bed, linens tangles and sweat-soaked; a wooden chair; a small, plain chest of drawers. Five steps, turn, five steps back. Almost the exact size of the cell of Rakhat—
There was a knock at the door and he heard Brother Edward Behr, whose bedroom was nearby and who was always alert for these midnight walks. “Are you all right, Father?” Edward asked quietly.
Am I all right? Sandoz wanted to cry. Jesus! I’m scared and I’m crippled and everybody I ever loved is dead—
But what Edward Behr heard as he stood in the hallway just beyond Sandoz’s door was, “I’m fine, Ed. Just restless. Everything’s fine.”
Example 3: Paragraphing a more complex story
You may recall my advice here is to have each paragraph develop only one idea. In Colum McCann’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin—following a three-page sentence evoking the horror and disorientation of a high-speed crash—we find this paragraph, in which events playing out in two different locations are shuffled together. The POV character is helping out his brother’s girlfriend Adelita and her children, while on the other side of town, his brother and passenger are victims of the crash. One clear POV suggests that the character put the puzzle of these moments together in retrospect:
Who knows where we were, driving back, in another part of the city, on a ramp, in a traffic jam, at a toll booth—does it matter? There was a little bubble of blood at my brother’s mouth. We drove on, singing quietly, while the kids in the back seats dozed. Albee had solved a problem for himself. He called it a mutual checkmate. My brother was scooped up into an ambulance. There was nothing we could have done to save him. No words would have brought him back. It had been a summer of sirens. His was another. The lights spun. They took him to Metropolitan Hospital, the emergency room. Sprinted him down through the pale-green corridors. Blood on the floor behind them. Two thin tracks from the back trolley wheels. Mayhem all around. I dropped Adelita and her children outside the tiny clapboard house where they lived. She turned and looked over her shoulder at me, waved. She smiled. She was his. She would suit him. He would find his God with her. My brother was wheeled into the triage room. Shouts and whispers. An oxygen mask over his face. Chest ripped open. A collapsed lung. One-inch tubes inserted to keep him breathing. A nurse with a manual blood-pressure cuff. I sat at the wheel of the van and watched as the lights went on in Adelita’s house…
This is only part of a paragraph, in a series of long paragraphs. Each features many disparate elements, yet do develop one singular impression: the way two brothers are connected in time if not place, each helping someone out by driving them somewhere, each powerless to stop the vicious unfolding of the day. Positioned as they are in the novel, the effect of these paragraphs leaves you breathless.
5. Paragraphing that helps the reader will help the writer, as well.
I’ve placed this tip in the final power position because if you remember nothing else, remember this: Writing craft that ushers the reader through story can’t help but benefit the writer who aims to construct meaning from that movement.
That’s a good enough reason to consider doing a paragraph edit as early as draft two—or even in the middle of draft one, if need be. If you’ve stopped dead in the story, and have no clue how to move forward, your own prose may have caused the problem.
Look at the last paragraph you wrote. Did its final sentence create a sense of conclusion, as if you’d just closed a lid? If so, swap that out for a sentence that raises a question about what’s to come, and you just may be off and running once again.
Have you ever paid attention to the way paragraph structure spotlights important concepts and supports story movement? Have you ever stopped to admire a well-constructed paragraph, or do you feel this to be an invisible part of a story’s architecture? If this post inspires you to edit a paragraph—and you are willing to share—we’d love to see your before and after!
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