Sunday, January 27, 2008

Paragraph Logic Faults

Theresa says:

I have just a few minutes before the next installment of the Masterpiece series of Jane Austen adaptations. Am I the only one watching these? Am I the only one who still twitches at the thought of that awful Persuasion adaptation? The didn't just blow it. They blew it to hell and gone, destroyed the plot so thoroughly that I feel like I need to sleep with the Ciaran Hinds dvd version under my pillow to cleanse my subconscious of any lingering ill effects.

(Note to self: Must stop obsessing over that atrocious adaptation.)

Anyway, I have this series of short articles I wrote several years ago for a writer's newsletter. It was reprinted in several small channels, so some of you may have seen one or another of these entries. I'm going to post them here over the next few weeks or so, just because I think they might serve as a useful counterpoint to our ongoing discussion of openings and sentence scrutiny.

The series was called Redlines. I'll post them in order because they sort of build off each other.

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We'll lead off with a problem that I have encountered in almost every manuscript I have ever read: faulty paragraph logic. This is a particular issue in romance novels, with their unique need to continually balance action with the internal monologue of the point of view character. Consider the following paragraph:

The phone call spurred Kay into action. She could pay off her credit cards, be completely debt-free. She ran to the closet and grabbed a sweater, clean jeans, things she could pull on quickly. The news had been stunning, to learn that her raffle ticket had been pulled. Just the good news she had been praying for. Her shoelaces knotted and snarled from her haste. With the money from her winnings, she had options now, options that had not existed before she had plunked down two dollars for the ticket. She could fix her car. She ought to wear a raincoat, too, because the sky was gray. She didn't want the check to get wet! It was a new beginning, a chance to start over, and this time, she wasn't going to blow it.

In this example, there are two external plot factors: the phone call about winning a raffle, and getting dressed. As she is dressing, the internal monologue focuses on her plans to spend the money. The way the paragraph above is written, the two plot factors and internal monologue are interwoven – a technique that is often good and necessary, but here results in a choppy, disorganized paragraph.

When you have a paragraph logic problem, the solution is easy.
* First, identify the clusters of related ideas, the external and internal factors.
* Second, identify any causal relationships between them. For example, here we have a phone call that causes the rush to dress.
* Third, group related ideas together. Because the phone call causes her to get dressed, the ideas related to the phone call logically should precede the wardrobe discussion.

We end up with a paragraph like this:

The phone call spurred Kay into action. The news had been stunning, to learn that her raffle ticket had been pulled. Just the good news she had been praying for. She ran to the closet and grabbed a sweater, clean jeans, things she could pull on quickly. Her shoelaces knotted and snarled from her haste. She ought to wear a raincoat, too, because the sky was gray. She didn't want the check to get wet! With the money from her winnings, she had options now, options that had not existed before she had plunked down two dollars for the ticket. She could fix her car. She could pay off her credit cards, be completely debt-free. It was a new beginning, a chance to start over, and this time, she wasn't going to blow it.

Still not perfect -- we might consider, for example, whether this should be broken into two or more paragraphs. But the paragraph is better organized and easier to read. Again, sometimes braiding multiple lines of thought in one paragraph is a useful technique. But a little goes a long way, and too much results in paragraph organization problems.

4 comments:

Christine Lindsay said...

I agree, the Ciarin Hinds version is the best, the best, the best. :) And I think the woman, whatever her name is, was awesome. So plain, but so believable, and so deserving the of the grand passion of her life. Thanks also for the good thoughts on paragraphs.

Alicia said...

Great points, Theresa. I think you're pointing out something I need to think about-- and authors do too. We have to think beyond what makes sense inside our heads, and think about what will make sense to the reader.

I am always amazed at writers who can't bear to edit paragraphs for logic and wording. Revision is an essential part of writing-- it doesn't make your story disappear, but appear. And yet so many writers resist that, I guess because it feels like interfering with their "voice". But voice simply is not what comes out of your brain first. It's what you present in final form to the reader... and that is NOT harmed by revision... it's revealed and refined by revision.

Paragraphs are organizing units. The whole point of paragraphing is to put like things together.
Alicia

JanW said...

Two points:
1. a tag line on my email sig:
Writing Lesson #54:
Learn to love revision. Think of it as polishing the silver for guests. - JW, May, 2007

2. There is a very helpful discussion of logical sequence in Swain's book, Techniques of the $elling Writer. He calls them MR Units - Motivation/Reaction. He also breaks those down further:
- stimulus/event
- character reaction:
feeling
action
- speech
- new stimulus that *may* be the result of what the POV character does or says. Of course, you stick with the POV character, not jump to the head of the other person present.

It's a pretty good structure to at least get things in the right order.

JanW

Edittorrent said...

Jan, I confess, I've never made it through more than a few pages of the Swain book before the "men, men, men, men" chants start to grate. I keep intending to read it, but that doesn't seem to turn the pages.

I don't know how he explains it, but I do know that I use a "stimulus-emotion-response" model rather than a simple "stimulus-response" model. We should talk about that someday.

Christine, did you see last night's Mansfield Park? I was horrified when Gillian Anderson compared Jane Austen to Mary Crawford. I thought, oh crap, we're in for another disaster. But it actually turned out well even if it felt a bit rushed.

Theresa