At Writer UnBoxed: 5 Ways Paragraphing Supports Story

What readers want most of story is to be moved, quite literally—transported, from one place to another. Paragraph structure can boost that sense of story movement. These tips should help.

Okay, that’s interesting. What tips do we have here? Let’s take a look …

1. A paragraph should develop only one idea

2. A paragraph should help the reader remember important information.

3. Order paragraphs so that each sentence builds upon the last. 

Journalists learn the inverted triangle method of structuring a story, which places the most newsworthy information at the top, where those who only read the first paragraph will gain some sense of the news. Paragraphs are built this way too, so that skimmers who read only the first sentence of each paragraph will have gained some sense of the story’s most important information, if not all of its supporting detail.

Fiction writers should not encourage skimming.

Draw in your reader so she can’t help but feast on each subsequent line. Replace the idea of “delivery of information” with “invitation to story.” Your first sentence will set the topic, while each subsequent sentence will pull your reader deeper into relevant thoughts or actions. 

I pulled out the quote above because I like the idea of a paragraph that invites the reader further into the story. On the other hand, I must admit, I sometimes find myself skimming.

Right now I’m rereading the Foreigner series and I’m doing quite a bit of skimming. That may not be a fair comment because I’ve read it multiple times. It’s true that when I appreciate something about the sentences — artistry, lyricism, impact — I don’t skim. Alice Degan’s From All False Doctrine has artistic sentences. Everything by Patricia McKillip has lyrical sentences. Everything well-written scatters particular sentences into the story for impact, particularly sentences which (relevant to the topic at hand) stand alone as their own paragraph.

Moving on …

4. Move your most important point into the power position.

By which the post means, the last sentence of the paragraph. I’ll stop with this 4th point, as the fifth is not really a matter of craft and thus departs from the topic to some extent.

The post provides various examples of paragraphs to illustrate the above four points. One of the novels chosen as an illustration is Mary Doria Russell’s Children of God! Wow, I haven’t read that in a long time. That duology contains possibly the single worst series of events I have ever encountered in fiction. Not sure I will ever have the nerve to re-read it.

Sweating and nauseated, Father Emilio Sandoz sat on the edge of his bed with his head in what was left of his hands.

Many things had turned out to be more difficult than he’d expected. Losing his mind, for example. Or dying. How can I still be alive? he wondered, not so much with philosophical curiosity as with profound irritation at the physical stamina and sheer bad luck that had conspired to keep him breathing, when all he’d wanted was death. “Something’s got to go,” he whispered, alone in the night. “My sanity or my soul…”

I definitely agree, these are powerful sentences and paragraphs. I note that the first sentence here does in fact stand in a paragraph all by itself. I do that a lot. I realized not too long ago that the majority of all my books start with a single sentence that stands alone as a paragraph. For example, here’s the beginning of TUYO:

Beside the coals of the dying fire, within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp, surrounded by the great forest of the winter country, I waited for a terrible death.

I had been waiting since midday. Before long, dusk would fold itself across the land. The Lau must surely come soon. I faced south, so that my death would not ride up behind me on his tall horse and see my back and think that I was afraid to face him. Also, I did not want to look north because I did not want to see that trodden snow and remember my brother leaving me behind. That might have been a different kind of cowardice. But I could only face one direction. So I faced south.

The fire burned low. My brother had built it up with his own hands before he led our defeated warriors away. Now it was only embers, and the cold pressed against my back. I wished I could build the fire up again. Mostly that was what I thought about. That was as close to thinking about nothing as I could come. It was better than thinking about the Lau. I hoped they came before the fire burned out, or I might freeze to death before they found me. Even an Ugaro will die of the cold eventually, without fire or shelter.

I tried not to hope that I would die before they found me.

Two paragraphs that set up the situation, bracketed by one-sentence paragraphs that slam the reader with tension. Not that I planned that out, exactly. I would like to meet someone who writes every sentence and paragraph with conscious intent. It can’t be easy.

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1 thought on “Paragraphing”

  1. A week or so back when we were discussing first paragraphs I posted one that bugged me. It certainly flunks on all these counts.

    Coincidentally, last night the Teen wrote a short essay on basically the same subject although the target was what our family terms “the formalities” because for a long while now, we’ve been poking at why some work and others don’t : “For some time now, I have codified the exchanges of titles , taunts, and threats that precede the actual battles under this description: the formalities. Herein I examine some that work, and some that do not, and why this is so. ”

    (I’m quite fond of the line ‘your heart is second hand’ in one of examples.)

    It’s the same things the Paragraphing writer is pointing out: build, focus, work for impact. Rhythmn plays a role too, and not just in Tolkien’s poetic example.

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