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.”
Can Scrivener Cure Writer’s Block?
I’ve been talking to a lot of people lately about Scrivener. Me personally? I love it, and I can’t imagine writing without it.
I guess the most important thing to consider is that it’s not Microsoft Word. If you’re looking for all the bells and whistles in a word processing program, that’s not what Scrivener does, and you might be happier sticking with Word. But if you’re looking for a good organizing system to help you keep character traits and locations straight, and pop between chapters with a click, Scrivener is great.
So, about that writer’s block… As a soccer mom and science teacher who is active in my church, involved with my kids, and (tries) to keep up with maintaining my house, if I’m going to add “successful writer” to that list, I can’t afford writer’s block. To complete a novel in any reasonable time, I need to sit down and write a couple thousand words every single day. My secret is that through Scrivener, I keep things organized that I don’t have to write on the same novel every single time, and even if I’m not progressing on one story, I’m still moving forward.
My favorite feature of Scrivener is how every chapter has its own folder, and each scene is its own page within that folder. Those folders, for me, serve as something of an idea receptacle. When I have a story in my head, I write the synopsis first, then create a file that contains a paragraph describing each chapter until the entire story is outlined. I create the folders, insert each chapter paragraph in its folder, and save it for when I have time to write.
What I have now are several Scivener files for different stories, and if I’m at a stuck point in my work-in-progress, I open one of those files, find a paragraph that seems interesting, and churn out a couple thousand words in that folder. By using this technique, I sometimes build up around 20,000 words in a story before I ever intend to sit down and write it. Also, since I tend to write in series, I can hop around between novels to write scenes that relate to each other, and have better overall flow.
This tactic helps me easily win NaNoWriMo every year, and to not lose track of details when I step away from a story. And I never find myself sitting at the computer with nothing to write.
So, try Scrivener! For $40, in my humble opinion, it’s a steal.
Slowing Time in Fiction
Love, love, love this TED talk from Aaron Sitze
The Power of Writing Fear
Spare time isn’t such a good thing for me. If I have too much of it, worry completely takes over my entire being. I start thinking about everything that can and will go wrong. I say will, because as soon as this thought forms in my head, it’s like it’s already happened.
Is that you? Do you ever find yourself stressing over something small to the point that it consumes you?
We all know what the Bible says about this. Matthew 6:25 tells us not to be anxious about our life, and 6:34 reminds us that today’s trouble is sufficient–we need not worry about tomorrow’s trouble.
Well, confession. This past school year, after three weeks of snow days, I was worried about my students and the ACT. They hadn’t been engaged in focused classroom work. And I feared my really awesome, well-deserving kids would possibly score lower than they would have normally because of this. It was on my mind so much that I had nightmares about it days before the test.
Dream 1: We had to take the test in a raging hot attic. They kept forgetting to bring us things like pencils and such, so a lot of kids ran out of time because they had to share the handful of pencils I had.
Dream 2: My amazing angel students (They really were the best kids) turned into little ACT-shirking demon children. They were talking the whole time, wouldn’t stay in their seats, ran outside between sessions. It was a disaster.
Dream 3: We’re in the middle of the test and a tornado hits
See what I mean? Thing is, intellectually, I already knew what would happen. My well-behaved students would arrive at school early that day, because they’d be nervous, too. They’d be in their seats fidgeting, straightening their pencils, praying they could remember how to do all the math problems. And they’d try really, really hard, because they normally do. And guess what? They did fine!
So, why all the worry?
I read a blog post or heard a sermon once about how Satan is like a thief. It talked about how he stole our faith and placed thoughts of fear, doubt, and disbelief instead. And also, how these thoughts come from his deception. The idea was basically how we need to blame the right person for our worry, and realize that even though it’s a somewhat involuntary, physical reaction, it’s still sin.
If this is the case, then it seems we’d need some way to process our worry and make it easier to see the flaws in our logic. At the beginning of this year, I started a prayer journal. The plan was to physically write my fears every day in a notebook. I stopped, because my children got into the notebook for paper, and it bothered me that they might read my fears and become insecure themselves. So, I took to my computer, and now type them out in a file that I don’t save.
The simple practice of getting my irrationalities on paper has made a lot of difference. Just as I can go through a scene with a character and find holes in the plot, I can also spot holes in my logic about who’s in control.
Then, it becomes a very easy process. Pray about it, wait for God’s outcome, accept it as His will.
What do you do to ease your worries?
A few years ago, I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo, and it was a total debacle. I posted the whole thing on a blog for the world to see (and cringe). It was a great experience. Even though it was rough, horrible writing, a lot of people followed the story and gave me tons of encouragement. And I won NaNo that year with a story that eventually ended up in the ACFW First Impression’s contest and led me to my wonderful editor, Deirdre Lockhart.
I’ve decided to participate again this year, although I will not be posting the story. I’m going to write the first draft of book two of the Cavernous series, Cocooned.
In Cavernous, Callie Noland’s mother disappears, and then she’s snatched from her father and forced to live in the newly formed Alliance of American States. Cocooned continues her journey, taking her from an Alliance prison into a food sweatshop, where she will experience the devastation of the flailing nation firsthand. She’ll have encounters with American military personnel and eventually become the face of the rebellion.
Good luck to all other NaNo 2015 participants! My goal is 75,000 words, so about 2,500 per day. Here goes nothing!
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