Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Self-Contained Paragraph

I probably shouldn't admit this. I should probably try to show more dignity. But you may have already guessed the truth, and what the heck, it's not like anyone suspects me of an overabundance of dignity, anyway.

Last night, I had a little moment of panic over the auction today. My worst childhood fear was being picked last in gym class, and wouldn't you know that this auction triggered that. Silly. Especially because I never actually was picked last in gym class. And because the auction is for a good cause, and that's what really matters. Not some flashback on a childhood insecurity.

Anyway, I figure the solution today is for me to pretend it's not happening. La-la, la-la, I can't see you!

So let's look at some paragraphs. I'm going to be hunting for good examples and posting them as the day goes on. That ought to fix me right up.

The Great Graphy

A butler (one of the three in Minneapolis) swung open the door. Amory stepped inside and divested himself of cap and coat. He was mildly surprised not to hear the shrill squawk of conversation from the next room, and he decided it must be quite formal. He approved of that--as he approved of the butler.
~F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise.

This paragraph begins and ends on the same noun, butler. That's not an accident, of course. Fitzgerald was far too controlled a writer to do something like this without intent. So why would he do it, then? The first and last slots in a paragraph have the most "weight" in a paragraph -- why would Fitzgerald fill those positions with a generic noun for a character unworthy of a proper name?

Look at what happens between the two butlers. Those of you who have read Joseph Campbell will grasp the significance of this right away. There's a door. There's a guardian at the door, and that guardian is a rare creature. The guardian gives our hero admittance, and our hero enters. Once inside, Amory notes immediately that things are slightly different than anticipated.

Crossing the threshold, right? In this case, quite literally. The echoed word, butler, in the front and back of the paragraph brackets the moment of crossing. It's nicely done.

The danger in this technique is that we don't generally want to create the impression that ideas are closed until the very end of the story. Normally, we set up our paragraphs so that one leads into the next into the next, in a long chain of small moments that build into something bigger. Closing ideas creates an illusion that we're at a stopping point.

Fitzgerald uses this technique in a moment of change and transition, so we don't get that feeling that it's okay to draw breath, to put the book down, to step out of the story. If anything, we get the feeling that what is about to happen, the changes in the new environment, are even more important because of the way they've been highlighted by the bracketing butler.


writtenwyrdd said...

I love that fitzgerald example. Very educational discussion again.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Don't stress over the auction. I'd love for you guys to read Trevor in depth, but when I checked the price this morning, it was too rich for my blood. Given that, I didn't consult with the wallet.

Gail Dayton said...

Being one of those persons who WAS picked last --frequently-- in gym class, I totally sympathize with your moment. However, it seems you have nothing to fear, since the auction has quickly become too rich for many wallets. :) And, you know, when you get picked last, you sorta get used to it. It's not so bad, actually. Especially when one has no eye-hand coordination, because one has no depth perception due to eyes refusing to work in unison--it's safer to be picked last and get stuck in the outfield where one is less likely to get hit in the head with the ball... ;)

Edittorrent said...

Poor Gail! Bet you never got picked last in storytelling class!

I'm okay, really, just had that weird moment of panic last night. (sigh) We never completely outgrow our childhoods, do we?