Paragraphs on the Chopping Block
As early as elementary school, young writers learn how to construct sentences and put them into paragraphs. Throughout their education, teachers prod them to add more detail and deeper sentences. Before long, the more accomplished students can write a good academic paragraph, which often looks like this one: A good-sized block of text with very little white space. In fact, I’ve known of teachers who could predict the grade of a student assignment by just checking to see if the paper had several paragraphs structured like this one.
In fiction, the paragraph does not serve the same function. Breaks are much more necessary to keep readers engaged and to help them understand things like tone, attitude, urgency, and even which character is doing an action or speaking.
Here’s a checklist of good places to break paragraphs in a fiction scene.
1. When the acting character switches.
Example: Lainey brought Megan a piece of cake and handed her a fork. Smiling, Megan dipped the fork in the icing and licked it clean. “This icing is incredible. What kind is it?”
See the problem? Who says the dialogue? Lainey or Megan?
Now, if I move Megan’s action to the next line, it’s clearer.
Lainey brought Megan a piece of cake and handed her a fork.
Smiling, Megan dipped the fork in the icing and licked it clean. “This icing is incredible. What kind is it?”
It’s also a good idea to avoid sentences like this as often as possible:
Lainey handed Megan a piece of cake, and Megan began eating it.
One, it’s wordy. Repetition of Megan’s name kills the flow of the sentence. But also, you’ve tied two acting characters into the same acting sentence. A good story reads like a back and forth banter between characters with dialogue and action. A pattern something like this:
“Character 1 speaks.” Character 1 acts.
Character 2 acts. Maybe they don’t speak, but there’s some kind of reaction to character 1’s words.
Character 1 acts. “Character 1 speaks.”
“Character 2 speaks.” Character 2 acts.
2. When the speaking character switches.
Megan frowned. “Lainey, do you think Mark is coming?” Lainey nodded. “He should be here by eight.”
Just like the last example, this is confusing to tell which character gets the dialogue. But a simple line break makes all the difference. When I edit, I find that writers make this simple mistake all the time, and a lot of times they can see great improvement in their writing just by me going through and readjusting the line breaks.
Megan frowned. “Lainey, do you think Mark is coming?”
Lainey nodded. “He should be here by eight.”
3. When a pause in the text would increase urgency or emphasis.
Here’s an excerpt from my Christian fiction novel, Cavernous. It’s from a high-impact scene where Callie, the main character, learns that her world is about to turn upside down.
The anchorman dissolves into a photo of the US President and Vice President, which then cuts to a huge street riot. The remote slips from my fingers, and I clutch the edge of the couch. According to the caption, both men are dead.
Now, notice how breaking just before that last line increases the suspense.
The anchorman dissolves into a photo of the US President and Vice President, which then cuts to a huge street riot. The remote slips from my fingers, and I clutch the edge of the couch.
According to the caption, both men are dead.
What it does is forces the brain to pause a brief instant before reading the line, and then when you reach the new line, it places extra emphasis on the words. There you have it. Your chilling sense of urgency.
4. When there’s a transition in the type of action.
A red brick half-wall ran along the edge of the driveway, past the swimming pool, and several yards into the backyard. On the grassy side, three lawn chairs surrounded a glass patio table, which sat crooked on the uneven ground. Rain pelted the concrete drive and spotted the light oak deck.
Paragraphs like these show up often when the writer is wanting to convey a setting, and even with action verbs, they can feel a little like an info dump. Clever paragraphing can help.
A red brick half-wall ran along the edge of the driveway, past the swimming pool, and several yards into the backyard. On the grassy side, three lawn chairs surrounded a glass patio table, which sat crooked on the uneven ground.
Rain pelted the concrete drive and spotted the light oak deck.
Notice that we’re first looking at descriptive detail about a house. Then, the action transitions to the weather. Great place for a cut, and it gives a slightly shorter paragraph.
Note that you don’t want to get carried away with this. It’s great to cut back a little, but you don’t want to do this because writing in single sentences the whole manuscript would be cumbersome to read.
A red brick half-wall ran along the edge of the driveway, past the swimming pool, and several yards into the backyard.
On the grassy side, three lawn chairs surrounded a glass patio table, which sat crooked on the uneven ground.
Rain pelted the concrete drive and spotted the light oak deck.
5. When there’s a transition in the train of thought.
Lainey grimaced. She’d never make it on time. The last flight left in ten minutes, and it was a fifteen-minute drive. She could drive… It would take longer, but she’d at least make it to the wedding before it started.
See how Lainey’s mood changes in the midst of that sequence of thoughts? From defeated to hopeful. But a lot of readers will not pick up on the hopeful shift in that paragraph.
Why? Science has shown that people generally remember the first part of an interaction, and sometimes the first and last.
The popular show, Brain Games had a segment once where it showed two twins giving the same responses two an interview. One twin started with her redeeming qualities, and the other started with her flaws, ending on a high note.
It was amazing. Even knowing what was going to happen, my brain convinced me the first girl had the better personality.
The same thing will happen in your paragraphs. If you change the mood in the middle, readers will have a hard time transitioning. Better to split the paragraph at the mood.
Lainey grimaced. She’d never make it on time. The last flight left in ten minutes, and it was a fifteen-minute drive.
She could drive… It would take longer, but she’d at least make it to the wedding before it started.
6. When the location of action changes.
Yawning, Lainey climbed out of bed and slipped into her fuzzy slippers. She opened the curtains, blinking as the bright morning sun flooded her sight. As she shuffled down the hall, squeaks from the shower intensified.
Notice how Lainey starts off in her bedroom then moves to the hallway. Breaking the paragraph will help readers visualize a different place.
Yawning, Lainey climbed out of bed and slipped into her fuzzy slippers. She opened the curtains, blinking as the bright morning sun flooded her sight.
As she shuffled down the hall, squeaks from the shower intensified.
Last point–you need breaks in your paragraphs to make your writing more interesting. Perhaps this concept goes against every college or high school paper you ever wrote, but blocky paragraphs scream boring story. They just do. That’s true for blog posts, as well.
Making use of extra paragraphs in fiction is important because of something called White Space. Query agents and editors have told me that readers will often glance at a book with little or no white space and put it down. Here’s a great article from C.S. Lakin illustrating this and why it makes for better fiction. As Lakin points out, most often when you write with big, blocky paragraphs, you’re telling the story rather than showing it.
Or, better yet 🙂 :
Making use of extra paragraphs in fiction is important because of something called White Space. Query agents and editors have told me that readers will often glance at a book with little or no white space and put it down.
Here’s a great article from C.S. Lakin illustrating this and why it makes for better fiction. As Lakin points out, most often when you write with big, blocky paragraphs, you’re telling the story rather than showing it.
Christian Fiction Freebie: Pandora-the One Who Ran Away
Meet Pandora, the first of the seven Humbled Goddess Girls. Pandora’s Deed released from Mantle Rock Publishing in February 2016. Click on the image below to purchase the Kindle version for $2.99.
SAVANNAH BARRETT balanced the stack of envelopes atop her still-steaming latte and bumped the mailbox closed. She stepped to the right, making room for her fuzzy-leopard-coated neighbor and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes.
A blast of wind tore through the parking lot, and Savannah pivoted, losing a long, white envelope with embossed teal words.
“Here you go, sugar.” Leopard-print knelt straight down, her tiny skirt shrinking as she retrieved the letter. She stood and placed the envelope on Savannah’s stack.
“Thanks.” Savannah brought her latte close to her chin, securing the mail as she crossed the lot to her apartment.
A battered cardboard box leaned at a precarious angle on her stoop. She hooked a heeled sandal underneath and slid it to the ground.
Her keys. Where were her keys? She cast a glance over her shoulder at Nellie, her beat up Nissan, and groaned. Still in the ignition. A strip of duct tape waved like a flag from the driver’s side handle.
“Great.” As she lowered her latte to the tiny concrete porch, the letters fell to her feet. She slid the envelopes underneath the lip of the box, protecting them from the droplets, and hurried back to Nellie.
Rain pelted her as she fumbled with the handle, tugging and jerking until the stubborn metal yielded. She spotted her keys on the floorboard, snatched them, and slammed the door so hard the handle pulled free and dropped to the asphalt.
Sighing, she tossed it inside the car. Wouldn’t do any good to tape it up in the rain. She dashed to her apartment and unlocked it.
The dampened envelopes clung together. She balanced them on the box then laid them out on the counter to dry.
By the time she returned for her latte, rain had collected in the lid. Fantastic. She dumped the water in the small rectangle of grass before her apartment window and wiped the mouth with her sleeve.
A tiny sip of caramel macchiato sent warmth down her throat and through her soul. She secured the deadbolt and the chain, and grabbed the package.
Her adoptive mother’s scrawl covered the bright yellow label. Savannah eyed her calendar, which hung lopsided on the refrigerator by two weak magnets. Rose had sent a birthday present, no doubt.
Savannah sliced the tape with her apartment key and opened the damp lid. A shiny teal ribbon looped around a white dress box. Underneath, the Dreyfus High 2005 senior class cheered at her from a shiny yearbook.
She tossed the dress box into a crate of textbooks next to her wall-mounted mattress. Why would Rose send her a yearbook when she didn’t graduate from Dreyfus High?
A trickle of water dripped from her kitchen counter to the floor. She grabbed a handful of paper towels and mopped up the puddle left from the envelopes then blotted them with another wad of towels.
Perfect calligraphy smudged over the fancy white envelope, leaving dark splotches surrounding the embossed teal print. Savannah tore through the wet paper and spread out the letter. Not a letter. An invite.
They wanted her to come to the high school reunion? Why?
Savannah’s chest constricted. No way could she go back. Not ever.
Fourteen years fell away, and she saw her chunky middle-school face in the lipstick-smeared bathroom mirror. She’d adjusted her dress, smoothed her hair, and blown herself a kiss before walking into the gymnasium to join the other students.
Geoff Spencer grinned as he took her hand and led her across the dance floor to the opposite corner. “Let’s get our pictures made.”
The photo backdrop sheet reflected the dance’s jungle theme, complete with bright parrots, monkeys, and snakes. A sturdy fence surrounded the area, and a walkway led to a small stage where couples could pose.
Her friend Megan waved from the front of the line. “Let’s pose together.”
Savannah joined her, barely squeezing through the opening. She made her way to the stage and draped an arm over Megan’s shoulders.
“Say ‘Friends forever.” The photographer snapped the picture. Then Megan and Savannah exited the space.
“My turn.” Geoff dragged her back to the end of the line, and the photographer turned his attention to the other couples. Finally, the line dwindled to the two of them.
“Last ones?” The photographer yawned.
“Yep.” Savannah grinned. She stepped through the fence, and Geoff bumped the decorative gate shut behind her—only it wasn’t decorative. It locked, trapping her.
Behind the backdrop, giggling girls removed the sheet to reveal another depicting a mountain and deep blue clouds. In the forefront, bamboo trees hosted a mother and baby panda.
Her heart stopped. As Geoff leered from the other side, the crowd of students waved their fists. “Panda! Panda! Panda!”
The photographer struggled with the gate. It didn’t budge.
She should have known. Why else would Geoff have paid her sudden attention?
The chants stopped, and something creaked overhead. A bucket swung then teetered, dumping stalks of celery in her lap.
“Panda! Panda! Panda!” Amidst cheers and claps, the chants resumed.
While the principal sent the shop teacher out for tools to free her, she tugged the sheet, ripped it from the ropes holding it up, and cowered beneath it.
Taking a deep breath, Savannah blinked back to the present. She eyed the blurred numbers for the RSVP. Fate herself decided she couldn’t go. She shredded the invite into tiny wet pieces and dropped them into a bag of leftover takeout Chinese.
She settled on her worn linen couch, a spring poking her leg as she eyed the yearbook. Would her fingers burn from touching it? Curiosity battled resentment, and she took it in her hands.
Flipping pages to the senior spotlights, she traced the colored pictures. Megan Carter, her former best friend and partner in crime, glared through glazed eyes beneath jagged jet-black bangs.
A pang struck Savannah’s chest. Megan, who’d wanted to be a pediatrician from the second grade, listed her ambition as moving to California to be a beach bum.
On the next page she found Athena Lewis, another good friend, listed as Athena Clark instead. Athena, who’d sat next to her every week in church and spouted off scripture at every given opportunity? Married with a child in high school?
Below Athena, Anabelle Cooper’s frown punctuated her airbrushed face. The caption reflected her desire for happiness.
Tears wet Savannah’s cheek. They’d all been so close. But these girls were strangers. All her fault.
A couple more pages past, her heart flip-flopped when her gaze landed on Geoff Spencer’s sun-kissed face. A wave of nausea rendered her clammy.
She knocked herself in the forehead with the heel of her hand. “Shouldn’t have looked.”
His smile seemed genuine, less of the playful smirk she remembered. She eyed the caption. Born again Christian? No way. His life goals were to attend college, to find a good wife, and to have several children? Not the Geoff Spencer she knew.
She snapped the book shut and forced several deep, calming exhales. If Geoff Spencer was a Christian, then she was a deep-sea diver. No way. She’d take the stupid yearbook straight to the dumpster as soon as the storm ended.
Thunder cracked, as if in response. The book slipped from her grasp and landed on the carpet. A shiny piece of paper poked out of the pages.
First a glance, next a stare. Finally, she grabbed the book and peered at the marked page. Her breath caught when she saw the heading. The Ones We Miss. There, in the center, her brace-faced eighth grade picture overlaid a pale pink heart. Her picture, before Lynn Thomas, who died in a house fire. Before Keith Wells, who lost his battle to cancer.
And worse—apologetic messages from the horrid people who ridiculed her and drove her out of town, dedicated to Pandora, the dreadful name she legally changed years ago.
Six words, etched by a scratchy pen, sent a jolt through her. With all my heart, I’m sorry. And the signature beneath it… Love, Geoff Spencer.
She closed the yearbook and tucked it in the crate beneath her birthday box. As she settled on her couch, she raised her cooled latte and toasted the air. “Here’s to twenty-eight. May it be drastically better than fourteen.”
Slowing Time in Fiction
Love, love, love this TED talk from Aaron Sitze
A Character’s Reflex and Senses
We did the Active Shooter Response Training this week at school. Big shoutout to the KSP--it was fantastic. I learned so many things I’d never thought about before, and for the first time in my career, I don’t feel like a sitting duck.
One thing the speaker said resonated with me as a writer. He talked about how in a scenario like a school shooting, the body tends to focus on a single sense, like tunnel vision. The person in danger could literally see everything in the room and hear nothing. I heard what he said, but it wasn’t until we started doing drills that I really understood. We get so carried away with trying to throw in all those sensory details that sometimes we forget to check reality.
In some of the drills, we had to flee. I’ve never ran so fast in my life, and surprisingly, I wasn’t breathless. Here I’ve been making excuses about not running 5K’s and who knew I could jet across a parking lot in ten seconds, ha ha. But the crazy thing is, I remember all of the cars in the parking lot beside where I was standing. I remember details of the back of our school that I’ve never noticed before even though I’ve been out that same door several times. Everything I saw the second the drill was over is blazed in my mind.
Then it hit me (duh) that I’ve taught anatomy, and human reflexes are pretty well-researched phenomena.
Here, for example, is one of the sites I like to use: Our Body’s Rapid Defense Mechanism. It explains involuntary movement and what almost always happens when we get injured.
Tying this back to characters, it makes me wonder how well we pace their reflexes. When I heard gunshots in the hallway, I stood frozen for about 5 seconds before I ran, evaluating which direction was safe. Sitting in a room with someone pointing a gun at me completely changed the way I see that kind of scene. They told us in the training to fight the man, and I dove at him before I even knew what I was doing. Let me tell you, in that instance, I wasn’t thinking about what color shirt he was wearing or whether or not he had a certain hair color or style.
What I’m saying is placement of details matters. In that 10-15 seconds that I held the “shooter’s” wrists and the other teachers helped me ambush the poor guy, my only thought was keeping that gun out of my face. Now after he was on the table and the “danger” was over, I noticed everything in the room.
Now I’m pumped, ready to write a good fight scene 🙂
The Anxious Writer
Weather forecasts like the one for today always make me nervous. I want to just cuddle up with my family in a cave somewhere and hide until it’s over. Twice in my life, I’ve driven in tornadic storms, and I don’t think I’ll ever lose that fear. Fear is something I carry with me a lot in my life, and something I need to let go of.
Fear has two meanings–anxiety and respect. It’s healthy to want to take cover in impending weather. But the anxiety… that’s something I really struggle with, both as a person and as a writer.
Joshua 1:9 is constantly on my mind:
Have I not commanded you? Be strong, and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
Part of my struggle with this verse is that fear is such a physical response for me. If I have to speak in front of a crowd, butterflies fill my stomach regardless of how much I pray. If I have to drive home in a bad thunderstorm, I tremble. If I think my children are in danger, my heart pounds. Looking over a high point, my knees knock. But I think perhaps those fears come from the respect for the possibility of a dangerous or unpleasant outcome.
With writing, though, it’s another ball game. Complete and utter anxiety. What if I spend months writing and polishing this book and no one wants to read it? What if it’s not good enough? What if I finish and sell the first book of my trilogy and stall out on book two? What if teens don’t relate to my characters or plot? What if people do read it and they hate it? What if people think I’m weird for writing Christian fiction? What if my characters come across too weak? What if I inadvertently misrepresent God’s truth?
Charles Spurgeon says this of anxiety:
Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.
So true, and such hard advice to follow. And from a writer’s standpoint, our anxiety does not put words on a page, but only distracts us from writing brilliance.
Right now, my proposal is out there, in the hands of a couple of people who may hand me my dream or tell me now is not the time, and I’m anxious. But my brilliant editor gave me a fantastic pep talk this weekend, reminding me that I’m writing for Him, and He’s read the whole thing. Which makes me wonder–why do I not have anxiety over that?
I saw a Facebook meme earlier this week that asked why we worry so much about what others think and not enough what God thinks.
My prayer for today is that my words will please Him and further His truth.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and redeemer.
A Soul’s Journey–Frozen Fractals All Around
I can’t get this line out of my head:
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around.
Not only is it adorable to hear little girls everywhere singing their hearts out about fractals, but I thought it might be a great concept to describe the character arc of a Christian fiction progatonist through a fractal.
Factoring in this thought was something I’d just read in Krista McGee’s Anomaly, which is one of the better books I’ve read lately. In it, the main character is a musician, and she plays out her emotions and thoughts in her songs. If it works for a song, why wouldn’t it work for a mathematical pattern?
This idea isn’t completely original. I’ve tried several different methods to organize plot, including Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. I really like his method, although sometimes it’s a little too linear for me. So today, as I was trying to reorganize the plot of Cocooned, the second book in my trilogy, I did a web search and found the picture at the top of my post. I imagined my four characters, each moving on their own fractal path, with the protagonist and antagonist facing off at the end of the story, just like the two bigger fractals in the picture seem to be facing off. I can see my whole plot in that picture.
I tried to imagine the white and blue spaces as safe moments for the character, that build as the color intensifies. They walk through these situations, in and out of the paths of other characters, spiraling into the climax of their own. There would be some things to draw them away from their main, spiraling path. I loved the symmetry of it, and the pacing/timing seems perfect for the twists and turns I’d like to place in the story. It fit so perfeclty. How cool is that?
If I ever end up publishing Cocooned, I’ll share it someday 🙂
Anyone else have any cool fractal pics?
You must be logged in to post a comment.