Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Paragraphing: Ending With Emotion

One very common pattern in fiction paragraphs is to set up some action or situation and then end the paragraph with an emotional response.

So when the prisoners were sent back to England the dead Neopolitans remained with the Army. All that summer they travelled in a bullock cart and on Lord Wellington's orders they were shackled. The shackles were intended to restrict their movements and keep them in one place, but the dead Neopolitans were not afraid of pain -- indeed they did not seem to feel it -- so it was very little trouble to them to extricate themselves from their shackles, sometimes leaving little pieces of themselves behind. As soon as they were free they would go in search of Strange and begin pleading with him in the most pitiful manner imaginable to restore them to the fullness of life. They had seen Hell and were not anxious to return there.
~ Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

For those of you unfamiliar with this book, Strange has gone to war with Wellington and performs all sorts of magic tricks to aid the British army. But there are usually unintended consequences of the magic. In this case, after reanimating a group of Neopolitan soldiers, Strange is unable to restore them to death despite trying many spells. Nobody likes the dead Neopolitans, and nobody really knows what to do with them.

This paragraph comes near the end of the section of the book dealing with the Neopolitans. We already know that Wellington scorns them and Strange is befuddled by them. We already know that the other prisoners have protested at being kept confined with them. ("And really," observed Lord Wellington as he eyed the corpses with distaste, "one cannot blame them.")

What we don't know, until the very end of this paragraph, is that the dead Neopolitans themselves are having emotional reactions to their reanimation. They aren't zombies.

At the beginning of the paragraph, we are told how the army is dealing with the dead Neopolitans in broad brushstrokes covering a fairly large span of time. We get clues that they're little more than animals -- they ride in a bullock cart, they're chained like dogs to keep them from straying, they don't feel pain or even fear of pain. They're being treated dismissively, almost with contempt.

And then we get hit with the emotions. There are two emotion words -- pitiful and anxious -- at the end of the longish paragraph, and both cast a new shade over the situation. Not all paragraphs ending with emotion will change our perceptions of the events, as this one might. But in general, because we're so acclimated to this common form of paragraph (event --> emotion), the reader will adjust to this shift in perception very easily. We're used to receiving some kind of insight into emotions at the end of a paragraph. We've been trained. And Clarke is using that training to lead us in a new direction.


1 comment:

Natalie Hatch said...

To be able to do this succesfully in a novel would be a great skill. What would you say to newbie writers trying to hone their voice in regards to going this direction?