Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Paragraphing, Voice, and Topical Paragraphing

Every so often in the course of this decades-long conversation about writing, either Alicia or I will raise a question that will draw a lengthy silence in response. The silence isn’t because it’s a bad question -- in fact, usually it’s a question that needs a lot of thought before an answer can be formulated. Maybe it’s a new topic. Maybe it’s a complex topic. And maybe it’s a topic that’s very, very hard to pin down.

Or maybe it’s all three. Such was the case with a question Alicia asked me a month or so ago. “So…what do we think about paragraphing?”

What do we think about paragraphing, indeed.

I probably gave her my best impression of a gog-eyed corpse for about two solid minutes as my mind whirled with the ramifications of her question. Are there general rules for paragraphing in fiction? If so, how do we state them succinctly? Or are we talking about something other than plain rules, something like techniques that can be implemented for particular effects?

Finally, I asked her, “I don’t know. What do we think about paragraphing?”

So we sat there, staring at each other -- this was one of those happy occasions where we were in the same place, hashing it out in person, with a bottle of red on the table between us and the clock ticking into the small hours -- and made a few stabs at pinning our ideas into shape. There were a few ideas that we agreed on right away, such as, for example, changing speakers means changing paragraphs.

But for the most part, this topic felt too slippery to sum up in neat little rules.

I’ve been thinking a lot about paragraphing ever since that night, and I’m not sure we’re any closer to any brilliant set of paragraphing principles. We can take a look at some of the ways paragraphs can be made, and look at the effects of each, but rules? Not so much.

That’s because paragraphing is one of the most essential aspects of voice. How you cluster your ideas, where you place your breaks, what you do with conclusions, how you create transitions -- these are all paragraphing issues, and they are all personal to you.

We’re going to look at some different paragraph types and tricks in upcoming posts, but for right now, let's look at what you were taught in high school about paragraphing as applied to fiction.

What You Were Probably Taught

I've dipped into my collection of grammar and style guides to check their sections on paragraphing, and most of them contain some variation on this idea:

Paragraphs start with a topic sentence which states the theme of the paragraph. After the topic sentence, the paragraph will contain three sentences which explain the topic sentence in more detail. End with a sentence which contains a transition into the topic sentence for the next paragraph.

Well, if you're writing a theme for your high school history class, that might be a good pattern to follow. Does it work for fiction? Hmm.

The first thing I noticed about this -- let's call it topical paragraphing, for want of a better term -- is the number three. Three comes up over and over again in writing. Someday I'm going to really understand the mystical, metaphysical reasons for that, but for now, every time I cross the number three in a rule book, it jumps out at me.

What else do we know about threes? Well, we know that three brushstrokes will set a scene. So what happens when we apply topical paragraphing to a setting description:

The house brooded over us from a high hilltop. (This is a topic sentence. It sets up the theme for everything that follows.) Its colors had been made dull and uncertain by time and weather and the deep shade of the thicket of oaks edging the porches. (Stroke one - gloomy, dull colors.) Those porches were barren of swings and rockers. (Stroke two - uninviting porches.) Its eaves and gables were so deep that the windows appeared to have retreated under them, like eyes under an old man's unkempt eyebrows. (Stroke three - sunken windows.) I gripped Peter's hand as we searched the shadows for the front door. (Transition -- we're shifting out of description and into action, setting up for the next paragraph, which will probably have something to do with approaching that front door. Also, one of the action, hand-holding, caps the theme of uninviting broodiness by showing the narrator's response to it.)

So, description paragraphs are one place that the old standard approach for high school theme-writing might apply. How else could we use topical paragraphs in fiction?



green_knight said...

I'm pretty confident that the 'topic sentence' is an American invention. I never heard of it in school, I never heard of it at university, I wrote a whole master's thesis without even knowing such beast existed, and I've been somewhat alarmed at the idea that it is the be-all and end-all of writing.

I like your example, and I find that this is often useful - make a bold statement, create interest, and then fill in the gaps.

I think the important thing about paragraphs is that they have _some_ internal dynamic, not necessarily a particular shape. The zooming in your example does - from the house on a hiltop to taking somebody's hand - is one way of doing it, but you can equally have a zooming out (particularly when you have closure at the end of a scene, for instance). But a technique where a paragraph (like a scene, or the book itself) comes around to itself by picking up a word, an image, a scene from the first sentence in the last one can be equally effective. It's quite a subtle effect, but I like it.

jwhit said...

Might be American [I am one], but it also parallels reasonable rhetoric: intro, expand, conclude. Beginning, middle, end. Easy peasy.

I like this topic because I struggle with it in fiction. I can't answer your question. But I think there is an overlap with your italics article, and I could use some help:

Can you/should you mix all of these in one para:
quoted dialog,
narrative of any type including action and description, and
italicised internal dialog in one paragraph? Is that single character 'perspective hopping'? Is it 'good' or 'bad' or 'just effect'?

Please keep talking about different strategies for using para breaks, even if it takes a few more bottles of red. [grin]

Edittorrent said...

Green Knight, I love those sentence-level echoes, too. They don't quite rise to the level of frames, but they create a lovely resonance.

Jan, yes, you can mix all of those elements and more. Dialogue paragraphs are a little trickier than other kinds of paragraphs, but we'll be looking at other paragraphing techniques. Today was just the first one.


Gail Dayton said...

I believe whole-heartedly in the power of paragraphing. I've done a workshop on it. (Well, not paragraphing exclusively, but it was a good third of the workshop.) This is because paragraphing is the hands-down easiest way to emphasize something.

I just did it. That last sentence in that paragraph gains an extra emphasis by putting it at the end and then creating white space after it. The first paragraph in the next paragraph gets the next most emphasis. So the placement of your paragraph breaks will allow you to draw the reader's attention to the important things in your narrative.

I'm not real good at theorizing or analyzing the reasons why things work, but the power inherent in paragraph breaks is a tool every writer needs to know how to use.