Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Topical Paragraphing in Action Paragraphs

Yesterday, we looked at the use of a lead-in "topic sentence" in paragraphs of description. This same technique for paragraph shaping also can be used in action sentences.

Mrs. Pontellier was by that time thoroughly awake. She began to cry a little, and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her peignoir. Blowing out the candle, which her husband had left burning, she slipped her bare feet into a pair of satin mules at the foot of the bed and went out on the porch, where she sat down in the wicker chair and began to rock gently to and fro.

The Awakening, Kate Chopin

In fact, if you want to see lots of really great examples of topical paragraphing, read The Awakening. It's loaded with them.

This particular paragraph comes at the end of a series of paragraphs in which Mr. Pontellier has arrived home late at night after his entire family has gone to sleep. He tries to rouse them in succession, but they resist him. It's inconsiderate, selfish behavior, and it culminates in him essentially browbeating his wife into getting up to check on their son.

So the lead-in topical sentence,
Mrs. Pontellier was by that time thoroughly awake.
reads like description but is actually delivering her final reaction to her husband's actions. And what follows in the paragraph is a series of actions she takes that elaborate on the notion of her being "thoroughly awake" -- an active state, in this context.

She began to cry alittle, and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her peignoir. Blowing out the candle, which her husband had left burning, she slipped her bare feet into a pair of satin mules at the foot of the bed and went out on the porch, where she sat down in the wicker chair and began to rock gently to and fro.

We had said yesterday that these types of paragraphs often end with transitions into the next paragraph. I suspect, however, that particular aspect of topical paragraphing doesn't always translate to fiction. If the scene is set and events are unfolding naturally, we don't need as many transitions.

In this particular excerpted paragraph, though, we do have a transition. When Edna goes onto the porch and starts rocking, this is a transition from one series of events (her husband's disruptive behavior, all with the goal of waking her up) to the next sequence (her contemplative crying bout in the rocking chair, which sets the stage for her later affair).

Here's another example from the same text.

The children were sent to bed. Some went submissively; others with shrieks and protests as they were dragged away. They had been permitted to sit up till after the ice-cream, which naturally marked the limit of human indulgence.

That one doesn't conclude with a transition, though look at the next paragraph to see the way she links ideas from one paragraph to the next.

The ice-cream was passed around with cake--gold and silver cake arranged on platters in alternate slices; it had been made and frozen during theafternoon back of the kitchen by two black women, under the supervisionof Victor. It was pronounced a great success--excellent if it had only contained a little less vanilla or a little more sugar, if it had been frozen a degree harder, and if the salt might have been kept out of portions of it. Victor was proud of his achievement, and went about recommending it and urging every one to partake of it to excess.

So the ice cream is the notion that moves us from the children to the cake. Notice, too, how the first independent clause (The ice-cream was passed around with cake) serves as a topical sentence for the paragraph. The remainder of the paragraph is about serving the cake.

There's one pitfall in topical paragraphing for action. Have you noticed anything else about the children and cake paragraphs? I'll give you a hint. Consider the chronology of the actions. Go back and look at the paragraphs again and think it through.

This isn't straightforward action narration. She starts with a topic sentence which reads almost like a bullet point summary of the action that follows. This means that the action following the topic sentence is cast into something closer to exposition than true action. She's summarizing the events rather than narrating the action.

In fact, that's probably the third good way to use topical paragraphing: in exposition, to quickly summarize and compress events which are too relevant to skip and too irrelevant to narrate. That makes three ways to use topical paragraphing, then: for description, for action, and for exposition.

Can anyone think of other ways this might be a handy technique? We're going to look at other paragraphing techniques, too, but I want to finish this idea before we move on.



Anonymous said...

The second one is tricky, but I don't think it's a problem of the topic sentences; you merely have 'the children were sent to bad after the icecream' before a description of the passing around of icecream and what happens at it. And you have a curious mixture of tenses, too - were sent to bed, had been permitted, was passed around, had been made.

I can also see this technique used in internalisation: 'rocking on the porch, she sorted through every detail of their relationship' (followed by a list of memories), or "I'll tell you what happened at the pub last night" followed by an enumeration of who said what.

I'm wondering much less about the classification than the effects you can create with this technique.; when it's appropriate and when it isn't.

Genella deGrey said...

GK – You nailed the ‘curious mixture of tenses’ perfectly. :) In that same vein, a couple of years ago, I read 'Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady' (by Mary Davys – published in 1725) and I’m sure that if Theresa had been Ms. Dayvs editor, it would have been way different. ;) Let's just say that the rules have changed drastically in the last 300 years!

Theresa, you know that every time you pimp a book I have to go out and get it? It’s a bad habit of mine to have a ‘to be read’ pile I could ski down. ;) And after RT—OY! I had to check a separate bag at the airport to get all my new books home!

Aside* I missed seeing the Red Sage gals at RT, but all the 'Secrets' books I grabbed in the goody room will have to ‘satisfy me’ until RWA. (No pun intended, of course!) :)


Edittorrent said...

Kate Chopin has to get funky with her verb tenses because of the way she's structuring her paragraphs. That's always a dead giveaway that we're leaving straight narration and doing something tricksy. The way she does it is beautiful -- she'll have long chained paragraphs where the first sentence of each is a topical statement, and those lead-in sentences act almost like touchstones, one after the other. She covers a whole lot of ground very quickly with this technique, but avoids the feeling of straight exposition. Cool stuff.


Genella, we'll see you in SF? I couldn't make RT this year because of a family do.

Hint for the sake of your mountainous TBR: you can get The Awakening for free at Project Gutenberg. It's a longish novella and won't take you long. And it's worth it -- Chopin is a lovely stylist.


Anonymous said...

Question about ice cream para. Seems to be a lot of passive voice. Was that intentional to not expose who is doing what? I don't know this book.

Edittorrent said...

Yes, Jan, it was intentional, and it's a technique for dealing with compressed group scenes. Using passive voice there allows her to skip over all the character introductions that might otherwise be necessary. And it allows her to present a global overview of the party scene, rather than narrating it -- narrating it effectively would take a lot longer.

She's breaking a lot of our contemporary "rules" in this passage. Of course, the story is about 100 years old now, so her rules were a bit different. But the main thing is to look at how she's breaking them, understanding why it works. We wouldn't normally want that much passive voice in a passage, but in this case, it sets the overall party atmosphere very effectively.