Domesticating the Paragraph

I have a confession to make. In writing my novels, I tend to take an intuitive approach to paragraphing, except there are two rules I follow religiously: 1) a shift in speakers, time, or place  requires a new paragraph, and 2) the end of the paragraph is the power position and to add anything beyond dilutes the power.

 

What’s Wrong With This Paragraphb

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?” “I’m on it,” Dan said. Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and went to the guest bathroom. She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.” That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”  “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

I don’t think I can count the number of problems with that paragraph.  Now read this version:

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?”

“I’m on it,” Dan said.

Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and headed for the guest bathroom.

(location shift) She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.”

(speaker shift) That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”

(speaker shift) “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

To add clout to the topic of paragraphs, I consulted my friend and fellow writer Gaylon Greer. I asked him specifically about handling stimulation and response, and he provided insight on how paragraphs control a novel’s pacing, and, hence, influence the reader’s experience. Here’s what he said:

Short, snappy paragraphs generally pick up the story pace; long, winding paragraphs slow things down. For that reason, action scenes rely heavily on short paragraphs, with stimulus and response boxed separately. Whether the action scene is dialogue or physical action, the short paragraphs give it snap and momentum. When you want to create a more relaxed mood, to give your readers a breather, perhaps, you will want to use longer paragraphs, perhaps combining stimulus and response in the same paragraph. Consider this example:

“Stop it,” Carla screamed.

 Beatrice, too terrified to hear her, clung to Carla’s back, her arms clasped tightly around her neck.

Carla fought to free herself, but Beatrice’s panicked grip was too strong to break. It was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.

 

 

If the writer wanted less tension or a slower pace, she might write:

Carla screamed for her to stop, but Beatrice was too terrified to hear. She pasted herself against Carla’s back, her arms clasping tightly around her neck. Carla fought to free herself, but it was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.

Both snippets communicate the same facts, but the first does so, it seems to me, in a manner that is more fraught with tension. The rational is that the initial stimulus creates tension because the reader wanders what the other character will do in response. The paragraph breaks in the action version of the scene serves two purposes:

  1. It emphasizes what has gone before by isolating it. In the first example, Carla’s scream is stark—it stands out. In the second example, the scream is buried, made secondary to Beatrice’s action.
  2. The end of a paragraph is a signal for the reader to pause briefly. In this case the pause permits her to savor the building tension. Using separate paragraphs keeps the tension building.

 

For another example, consider a tennis game. One player hits the ball; that is a stimulus for the other player, who must react. The reaction becomes a stimulus for the first player, and so on. If the stimulus and reaction are in separate paragraphs, each described in enough detail for the reader to picture the action, it becomes more dramatic. If the back-and-forth action is presented in a single paragraph, the tension is dissipated.

 

The issue is the same as for dialogue. There is no grammatical reason for two characters’ dialogue strings to be in separate paragraphs; the purpose is to emphasize each characters’ comments.

 

In an article for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop (Writing Fiction, New York, Bloomsbury, 2003) Hardy Griffin makes the point by contrasting a work by Joyce Carol Oates (“The Fine Mist of Winter”) with one by Arundhati Roy (“The God of Small Things”). Throughout her story, Oates employs long, winding paragraphs that combine stimulus and response in the same paragraph. But Roy achieves fast-paced drama by employing short paragraphs that separate stimulus and response.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

–Jodi Picoult

 

 

 

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