Monday, June 28, 2010

Paragraphing as meaning

I'm still interested in paragraphing, and I'm wondering how you all decide what constitutes a paragraph in your stories. I know, I know, case-by-case. But some guidelines I'm working on:

1) Dialogue creates paragraphs-- start a new paragraph every time I switch speakers. Now a question is-- do you put the action and dialogue (same character) in the same paragraph? I almost always do:

"It was a terrible storm."
She applied a chain saw to the wind-felled tree.

If "she" said that, I say same paragraph. I think breaking the action from the dialogue will confuse the reader-- so who said that? In most cases, that is.

2) Paragraphs should be unified around something-- like this is all about his suspicions that the high school principal is an alien. If he contemplates the girl he's interested in and wonders what she thinks, usually I think that belongs in another paragraph.

3) A conclusion, a realization, a decision-- this might well deserve a new paragraph for emphasis. The line break and indentation tells the reader to pay attention.

4) Paragraphs are shorter now, but one-sentence paragraphs should be rare in fiction (except with dialogue). Too many one-sentence paragraphs make your prose sound juvenile, and doesn't allow for any development of an idea-- everything becomes a Twitter-style assertion-- no evidence, no analysis, no nuance.

5) I can use paragraphing to tell the reader what goes with what, what connects, what is important.

What else? Do you paragraph by instinct or by craft? How do you decide if a sentence or thought doesn't go in that paragraph?


suzanne said...

What about when there is one beat of action, then the dialogue. Does the dialoge come on the same line, or is it a new paragraph?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Maybe this won't work out of context, but I'll put more than a dialogue tag in a paragraph that's mostly speech:

[It made him feel both elated and empty as hell. "When's the wedding?" he yelled.]

For me, a paragraph ends when something -- usually a thought or concept -- ends. New idea? New paragraph.

C.L. Gray said...

Perhaps a teaching on how to avoid "had" in events that happened two or three days in the past.

Thank you for this wonderful blog.

Edittorrent said...

Suz, see foreblogged post. Ditto CL, but that'll probably take me longer to craft, as I have to think it through.

Susan, really interesting idea about tagging. Could you elaborate? This feels like something I do instinctively (the sort of doubling of attribution) but I'm not sure why or when. More thoughts on that?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Erm, I can try...

Okay, here's another totally out-of-context paragraph, taken right off the page I'm formatting:

She didn't lift her head and look at him, she was so sucked into what she was doing. Trevor's radar went off; she never got this into drawing. "I know you're drawing," he said. "I've got eyes, you know."

See? It's all one thought. Trevor knows she's up to something and is putting him off. So he calls her on it.

Maybe not a thought as much as an instance, a second, a... capsule. It all goes together; it's all linked. A little mini-scene.

Although, I do see how you could break it after her action and before Trev's (perpetual) BS detector goes off. That would leave you with a one-line paragraph, though, all about her.

Does that help at all?

Edittorrent said...

But with two paragraphs, then you wouldn't get the flow from what he saw to how he reacted. And the way you've done it, it's squarely in his POV, so to me, it's all "him" even if the action is hers. Makes sense to me, and the quote tag just makes it clearer just in case, but also it gives that extra bump of rhythm that makes it more important as a sentence.

Kathleen MacIver said...

I do it by instinct...and then realized that I'm actually following rules that a lot of other authors use, too. The most important of those that you didn't mention is...

CAUSE AND EFFECT. ie: Scene and Sequel. If something is the effect of something that happened a few sentences earlier, then it needs its own paragraph. So if your character overhears something, and then reacts to it with thoughts or action, put them in separate paragraphs. ie: if Jim is huddling in the shadows spying on his enemies:

Their voices lowered to a soft whisper. He caught a word here and there, but nothing to make sense of. Until they started talking about Jane being dangerous.

He choked back a laugh.

That's cause and effect.

Another one is CHANGE OF TOPIC/SUBJECT/ACTION. If we're in someone's head and they're considering the pros and cons, then every time you switch from pro to con, or switch to a new one; new paragraph. If you switch, then, to action outside (not described through deep POV) then you start a new paragraph. ie:

What could he do? That had even a slim chance of success, that is. If he rushed them, they'd probably overpower him in 10 seconds flat. And if he waited 'till they left, then it would be way too late by the time he got back to headquarters with the warning.

But then he thought of another option.

He took a deep breath, wiped his sweaty palms on his pant legs, and rose.

There's the switch from one set of thoughts, to an opposing though, and then another switch to action.

Kathleen MacIver said...

Uh.... opposing *thought.

Edittorrent said...

Kathleen, of course, I think we absorb a lot of this from reading. We're all readers!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...


Thanks, Alicia. Always nice to see I *do* have a clue what I'm doing, even if it's mostly instinctive.

Kathleen MacIver said...

Yeah, that's probably where I learned it without realizing it!

Jordan said...

Love your comments on this, Katie! I do the cause/effect thing, too. I think that often works because the cause is external and the effect is more internal or coming from within the character.

And then I had a writing instructor tell me I was doing it (paragraphing) wrong because the effect wasn't significant enough to merit its own paragraph. I still disagree. (And this was, incidentally, the same instructor who was so woefully misguided on passive voice, so I wasn't overly inclined to listen.)

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, hell, I'm late to the party, but I'm asking anyway. :D

When you're describing another character's actions in someone else's dialogue do you have to put the non-dialogue character's actions in a subordinate clause?

Murphy - an inquiring mind that wants to know if this sucker is written in stone? :D

green_knight said...

Murphy, I'm struggling with the same thing. I have, for instance:

Maybe I was wrong."
"Maybe you were not." He tilted his head and looked at her intensely, causing Venna to smile wrily. "Tal warned us about littering in Faerie."

I often have paragraphs where the speaker is interrupted by observations of their environment - and my instinct is to keep the speech together, rather than

Maybe I was wrong."
"Maybe you were not."
He tilted his head and looked at her intensely.
Venna smiled wrily. "Tal warned us about littering in Faerie."

You'll notice that if I kept the original sentence, it would make it totally ambiguous who was speaking the next paragraph.

I think it's clear enough for the reader; what are your opinions?