Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Paragraph and You

Sometimes the most basic and fundamental things can trip up a writer.  The truth is, until you can master the written language and proper speech, you cannot be an author.  It doesn't matter how great your ideas are or how wonderful you are at description, all the talent in the world will fail you if you cannot properly communicate.

Consider this verbatim paragraph from an actual published book which I will not name:
The night sounds were getting louder as the night world was waking to the early evening.Something was not right and I felt a warning in me, one of my new senses that I got from my awakening. "I'm feeling something." I said with an uneasy tone and W--- looked concerned. "
Children of the night, shut up!
Being unable to properly write makes your story break down and distracts readers from what you are writing.  You lose "immersion" - that almost magical effect where the reader loses awareness that they are reading and simply take in the story, almost becoming a part of it.

Further, it can confuse readers so that they are unable to understand what you are saying, where the story is going, who is saying what, and what is going on.  In other words: you aren't telling your story, you aren't doing it justice.  So you have to learn the very basics to get the job done right.  This isn't some cruel imposition or tyrannical imprisonment of your talent.  Its communication basics.  If you cannot communicate, you cannot tell a story.

WHAT THEY DO
Paragraphs are more than simply breaks in your text, they are how you as an author control the pacing and feeling in your readers.  Long, complex sentences with many concepts and related themes chained together using various rhetorical devices such as colons, semi colons, and commas, can slow your reader's momentum and cause them to pay closer attention.  Short, powerful ones read fast, they pop!   Similarly, long paragraphs denote an extended period of time, while short ones move the book along rapidly and rush the reader down the page.

Open any book.  Pick a page with descriptive and narrative paragraphs that take up a page.  Compare it to a page of dialog.  See how fast that dialog rips along?  The page takes no time to read.  But that narrative, that takes time, slows the reader, and makes them think.  This is the difference between Robert B. Parker's Spenser books and the ones by Ace Atkins.

This allows you to control the pace of your book in a way almost nothing else will, and as a result can control the emotions and sense of the story in the way movies can with frenetic action vs quiet scenes, or music can with clashing thunderous explosions of tones and soothing slow, melodic ones.

GOOD PARAGRAPHING
Pooh and his smackerel
The easiest form of good "paragraphing" is with dialog.  Each character should have their own paragraph when they speak.  This device clearly separates each character and makes it clearer who is speaking.  For example, from The House at Pooh Corner:
"Hallo, Piglet," he said. "I thought you were out." "No," said Piglet, "it's you who were out, Pooh."  "So it was," said Pooh. "I knew one of us was."  He looked up at his clock, which had stopped at five minutes to eleven some weeks ago.  "Nearly eleven o'clock," said Pooh happily. "You're just in time for a little smackerel of something," and he put his head into the cupboard. "And then we'll go out, Piglet, and sing my song to Eeyore." "Which song, Pooh?" "The one we're going to sing to Eeyore," explained Pooh. 
That's all in one block of text and its a bit difficult to understand when one character's dialog stops and another begins.  In addition, its difficult to read and readers will tend to skim things that are too challenging to read.
Properly, this paragraph reads:
      "Hallo, Piglet," he said. "I thought you were out."
      "No," said Piglet, "it's you who were out, Pooh."
      "So it was," said Pooh. "I knew one of us was."
      He looked up at his clock, which had stopped at five minutes to eleven some weeks ago.
      "Nearly eleven o'clock," said Pooh happily. "You're just in time for a little smackerel of something," and he put his head into the cupboard. "And then we'll go out, Piglet, and sing my song to Eeyore."
      "Which song, Pooh?"
      "The one we're going to sing to Eeyore," explained Pooh.
Now its not only clean and easy to read, but its clear who is speaking and when.  This use of paragraphs is a quick simple way of demonstrating the power of the device and how it can make your writing work for you.

THE SEPARATION
Paragraphs can also be used to separate characters and actions.  This way, you can easily distinguish between who is doing what with a simple paragraph break.  Take this portion from The Adventure of the Speckled Band:
     I took out my revolver and laid it on the corner of the table.  Holmes had brought up a long thin cane, and this he placed upon the bed beside him.  By it he laid the box of matches and the stump of a candle. Then he turned down the lamp, and we were left in darkness. How shall I ever forget that dreadful vigil?  I could not hear a sound, not even the drawing of a breath,  and yet I knew that my companion sat open-eyed,  within a few feet of me,  in the same state of nervous tension in which I was myself. The shutters cut off the least ray of light, and we waited in absolute darkness. From outside came the occasional cry of a night-bird, and once at our very window a long drawn catlike whine, which told us that the cheetah was indeed at liberty. Far away we could hear the deep tones of the parish clock, which boomed out every quarter of an hour. How long they seemed, those quarters! Twelve struck, and one and two and three, and still we sat waiting silently for whatever might befall.
Holmes tired of Watson's rambling
Again, this huge block of text rambles on and actions are thrown together into a single section of text.  When properly divided, you can see that not only are the actions and behavior of each character more distinct, but the pacing and mood becomes more evident:
     I took out my revolver and laid it on the corner of the table.
     Holmes had brought up a long thin cane, and this he placed upon the bed beside him.   By it he laid the box of matches and the stump of a candle. Then he turned down the lamp, and we were left in darkness.
     How shall I ever forget that dreadful vigil?  I could not hear a sound, not even the drawing of a breath,  and yet I knew that my companion sat open-eyed,  within a few feet of me,  in the same state of nervous tension in which I was myself. The shutters cut off the least ray of light, and we waited in absolute darkness.
     From outside came the occasional cry of a night-bird, and once at our very window a long drawn catlike whine, which told us that the cheetah was indeed at liberty. Far away we could hear the deep tones of the parish clock, which boomed out every quarter of an hour. How long they seemed, those quarters! Twelve struck, and one and two and three, and still we sat waiting silently for whatever might befall.
 Notice here how the separation by these paragraphs not only helps distinguish actions between characters, but it also helps establish pacing and mood.  The first two paragraphs are simple statements of action, short and two the point, with simple description.  Then comes two paragraphs - longer, more detailed and wordy - which build tension and suspense, helping carry the reader along with the sounds and feelings of that wait in the darkness.

Using paragraphs this way steers readers so they know what is going on and helps to shape their impressions and feelings. Note that it isn't necessary to always separate actions with paragraphs, but it is a useful device to consider.

Without getting into technical detail and jargon, look at this paragraph with a mix of different events:
    She shook head. She was a difficult woman to impress, and, up to now, his skill sets in this world hadn’t been of a quality that measured up. But, right now, he couldn’t help feeling she was pleased with him. Even more than that, she seemed to be reaching out to him for something. He eyed her, then spoke before he could give himself time to think. “Your life didn’t exactly turn out the way you thought it would, did it?"
See how this is all one section?  But lots of different things are going on here.  The writer of this article breaks down the paragraph with [bracketed identifiers] to make things more clear:
    She shook head. [Action/Cause]
    She was a difficult woman to impress, and, up to now, his skill sets in this world hadn’t been of a quality that measured up. But, right now, he couldn’t help feeling she was pleased with him. Even more than that, she seemed to be reaching out to him for something. [Thought]
    He eyed her, then spoke before he could give himself time to think. [Action] “Your life didn’t exactly turn out the way you thought it would, did it?” [Speech]
 See how breaking these actions up into separate parts helps make clear the differences?  By dividing each up with paragraph breaks (or quotes) the writer is able to distinguish between the different parts more clearly.

EMPHASIS AND TONE
A final thought is that you can use a paragraph to create emphasis and focus on something that might otherwise be blended into the story.  For example, this from my second novel Old Habits:
    I hung there for a moment.  My feet dangled in the space, which was disconcerting.  I’d expected boxes or shelves or something, but I felt nothing.  The crack above me didn’t show much except dusty, cobwebbed beams and the ceiling in a brief swatch of light.  I let my eyes get used to the darkness, looking down away from the light above.  I was not much taller than a young teen, so I might be just dangling a foot or two above the floor.  But what was on the floor?  And was it a standard room or taller?
    As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I saw shapes.  It looked like there were oblong boxes on the floor, flat and narrow.  The room was not very tall and from what little I could make out, my feet were inches above one of the boxes.  The lid was off the box.  Inside it lay something like sticks or candles.  Or bones.  I looked carefully at the boxes.
    They were coffins.
 Running that final line together with the second paragraph would not make it stand out and have as much impact as it does on its own.  Using a paragraph break judiciously in this manner can have the same effect as an actor pausing before saying the final line.
Of course, you can always overdo this and it becomes a running joke.

FINAL THOUGHTS
You only get one shot from readers.  Unless they are close friends or family - and sometimes even if they are - readers will give up rapidly on a book.  There are millions of books out there.  Hundreds are published every week.  Your book has to compete with all that in terms of attention from readers, and if you annoy, confuse, or disgust them, then readers will put your book down, and worse, not give you another chance.

You need to get it right, and get it right the first time, because chances are you won't get a second time with readers.  And if you get it wrong enough, they'll let the world know in reviews.