Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Paragraphs, the Meatloaf of Writing

About paragraphing, Natalie asks,
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?

First, I would say that paragraphs are like meatloaf. Everyone's recipe is just a little different. And everyone ends up with a slightly different dinner. Does that mean it's not meatloaf anymore? Of course not.

Your paragraphing choices will bear the imprint of your voice. I think the key is to be aware of what you're doing and to be aware of other choices for paragraphing and the effect they might have on your prose.

An Exercise For Everyone

Let's all take out a manuscript that isn't entirely new. You want one you've been working on, one you may have spiffed up so that you feel it's in pretty good shape.

Now scan the pages until you find three paragraphs with at least three sentences each that contain no dialogue. Avoid dialogue paragraphs for now, because dialogue paragraphs are written differently than other paragraphs.

Compare these three paragraphs. What do you open with? Action? Interior monologue? Where is the description? Where is the emotion? What do you close with?

Look at the first line of the next paragraph. Does it link back to the paragraph you're analyzing?

Notice your sentence lengths and structures. Do you tend to end on a short note? Is your middle sentence always compound?

You're looking for patterns. You have patterns, whether you're sensitive to them or not. You may need to look at more than three paragraphs before you start to see your patterns emerge -- and you may find you have multiple patterns. Maybe you gravitate toward paragraphs that open with rhetorical questions when a character is wrestling with a decision. Maybe your action paragraphs all contain a one or two word fragment somewhere in the middle of the paragraph. Maybe you always pair interior monologue and description in a particular way.

Notice anything interesting? Let's hear about it! I'm willing to bet we hear about lots of different patterns!


ps. I'm FLOORED by the results of that auction yesterday. Thank you to everyone who bid! And thank you to the winner -- I'll try my best to live up to your very generous bid!


Liane Gentry Skye said...

Well dang. Just scanned my working draft. I have a habit of starting every third paragraph or so with an "ing" word. Also use wayyyyyyyyyyy too many adjectives. But then you already knew that, didn't you? :)

Congrats on the auction!

Natalie Hatch said...

Um, what if you can't find three paragraphs of description only? I have just scanned my first mss and found a paragraph or two of description here and there; but throughout the whole thing I have dialogue running heavy.... Is this bad? Bugger, I probably should go for Screen writing instead?
I'm glad you got me to do that, I would have never taken notice. So what can I do to fix it? (um, yes I know, put more description in.)
I think that when you first start writing you're given advice such as lay of the description, lay of the dialogue, blah blah blah. So who do you listen to really?
Oh I think I'd better sit down on the couch and get going on this.
Ta muchly.

Edittorrent said...

Liane, your adjectives are fine. :) Those leading present participial phrases, though--call me the participle police! In that form, a few are all you need.

Natalie, there are more narrative elements than dialogue and description. You've also got action, interior monologue, and exposition. Play with them. It's not uncommon for people to write first drafts in all dialogue with just a few stage directions, but you will probably find yourself padding the narrative on revision.


writtenwyrdd said...

This is an interesting excercise. I've picked random paragraphs from three half-finished novels and find that my pattern varies immensely. (I've made a habit for years of deliberately trying to vary my sentence structure and paragraph openings; so perhaps that's helped.)

1. Para openings usually involve either action or the pov character interpreting events, although the structure varies.
2. The opening sentence usually completes or contrasts a thought from the ending of the last paragraph (unless it was dialog).
3. I tend to save the complex sentences for the second sentence or middle of the paragraph.
4. Longer paragraphs have incremental changes to change the situation or thought.
5. The final sentence is generally a conclusion or a transitional event/idea to the next paragraph, if it is either the pov character who speaks or is still narrative.

And this is a lot more insight than I thought I'd gathered when I started this comment!

Edittorrent said...

Writtenwyrdd, I'm not surprised that your patterns vary. I think that's very normal.

The patterns that come up frequently will show you something about your voice. You'll have unique "fallback" paragraph types, rhythms that feel very innate to you. And I think there's some value in understanding that and in learning how to manipulate your unique patterns.


Whirlochre said...

I'm thinking the problem here is deciding which of your writing habits you wish to pursue for the sake of 'style' and which to excise — the ones you never chose to pursue in the first place, if you like.

There is a danger, I think, in 'varying out' undercurrents that make your voice (if you have one) distinctive.

On the flip side, you don't want to write patterned wallpaper.

Useful exercise...

green_knight said...

I'll look at older stuff later, but right now, I need to denounce you as a bad influence. All this talking about topical sentences, and too many examples of paragraphs that have a definite statement to start with which are then expanded have led me to want to write to that pattern in my WIP.

Which is a *very bad idea* since I'm writing in first person, and sentences like 'the evening was not quite disastrous' are ripping apart the narrative - we haven't seen what happens yet, the narrator hasn't lived through it yet, so a judgement of that kind is jarring and entirely unwanted.

Roll on more examples. I need an antidote.

Edittorrent said...

Yikes. I guess my wrist has been duly slapped. LOL!

I'll find some more paragraph types for us. I meant to do it yesterday but got sidetracked by that crazy little thing called my job.

Whirlochre, the best way to prevent undermining your voice is to understand your voice. That's where I hope exercises like these will come in handy.


Dave Shaw said...

3 paragraphs in a row with at least 3 sentences each and no dialogue - hmm...

We may have a pattern here - I can't seem to find any like that in my current wip. Is that a bad thing? [rat hangs head]

Rachelle Ayala said...

very interesting exercise. I seem to start all my non-dialogue paragraphs with actions.

-action, description, emotion
-action, body language
-action, description, visceral
-action, description, internal thought
-action, body language/action, emotion
-action, visceral, visceral, action, body language
-action, action, response, description, reaction
-action, action, body language
visceral, internal thought
-action, action, description, description, action, visceral