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.
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
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!
Platitudes in Christian Fiction?
Sometimes when reading Scripture, I come across words that make me curious about their origin, and then, once I find their initial meaning, I try to understand how I can relate it to life and writing. Take “platitude,” for example. A platitude is some kind of statement that usually has a moral or religious intent, but it’s been used so often it’s become boring or trite.
I didn’t dig too deep this time (wrapping up soccer!), but Google’s dictionary told me it originated in France, from the word plat, meaning flat, and it’s usage peaked somewhere around the mid 1920’s. In today’s society where people get paid to babble about whatever they choose on blogs and national TV, maybe it should make a comeback.
I came across the word in Job 13, where Job is talking to his critics. After questioning them and asking them if it will be well for them when God searches them out, he says this:
Your proverbs are platitudes of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay.
Trite, flat, boring, and overused. Hollow, empty words.
To the modern world, many Biblical themes might be considered platitudes. Though we, as Christians, all know that God’s message is timeless and those moral statements are treasures, those outside of the faith might consider them old-fashioned and trite.
Still, I believe wholeheartedly that God’s moral wisdom belongs in our stories, and his themes should be resounded over and over. At the same time, there are certain themes that become our pet issues and we often beat them into the ground to the point that they become rote. How can we continue relaying the same simple truths time and time again without making them seem like platitudes to the secular world?
I think the answer, both in writing and in life, lies within relationships and attitudes. All the time, I hear people complain that they try to talk to someone about their faith and “they just won’t listen.” This just makes me wonder how the message is being given.
I’m not saying I think we need to sugar coat God’s truth, but I do think the delivery needs to come from compelling characters that people want to read or be around. In life, are we that person, serving others and forging friendships to open doors for conversations about faith? Or, are we that pushy, “my way or the highway” person, who forces the conversation whenever possible, as if it’s the only reason we have to talk to a particular person. In writing, do we interject our message to the point that it feels contrived, rather than the natural flow of the story? Do we throw a Christian message into the plot just to call it inspirational fiction?
I’ve learned this from teaching–the same general fact can be delivered to a class of students. From one perspective/attitude, they dismiss it. From another, they embrace it. And the perspective they embrace ends up being the one that requires the most effort, the one that makes it the most meaningful to them.
So, there you have it. We’ve come back to grit, which seems to be my favorite theme these days. It takes a little more effort to be that person who cultivates relationships so Biblical truths will be more palatable, as they are coming from a friend. It takes more effort to write characters who show their faith rather than just dropping it into a dialogue.
And for an extra bang for your buck, especially if you are interested in melodic trances, meet “Platitude,” mixed by Onova (otherwise known as Christian Lejon), released back in 2007.
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