Thinking about Paragraphs

A post by Molly Templeton at Do You Ever Stop and Think About Paragraphs?

Yes, frequently! Not sure whether that is a writer thing or a reader thing or both, but I always think about sentences, chapter breaks, transitions, word choices, and all the other elements of writing prose, including paragraphs.

Molly Templeton’s posts are always worth reading. What does she have to say abut this topic?

The first sentence of Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial is more than 200 words long. Two hundred and seventeen, if my hasty count is correct. I’ve had writing assignments meant to cover entire movies or concerts that were shorter than that. And there is more to that single paragraph—in the edition translated by Ursula K. Le Guin—before the writer moves on to the next thought, the next indent.

I think about this paragraph, with its one epic sentence, a lot. And I’ve been thinking about it more since an online event a few months ago during which the interviewer asked Kelly Link if there were any questions she wished people would ask her. Link said, after thinking for a moment, that she would like to talk about paragraphs. That she had questions about paragraphs.

Oh, that’s a great beginning to this post! I’m really interested now. I’m also mad, because you know what was going on last week? I was getting emails from upcoming conventions asking for suggestions about panel topics. And you know what I did not think of? Correct: it did not occur to me to say, “Hey, how about a panel on paragraphs?” I would actually have suggested sentences and paragraphs. But I think this is a great topic, far more interesting than it might seem at first glance.

I went looking for that first sentence/paragraph of Kalpa Imperial because who wouldn’t want to take a look at it after that introduction, right? And what did I find but another post at, this one by Sofia Samatar, whose book A Stranger in Olondria I still have not read, but still want to.

The prose of Stranger is supposed to be particularly beautiful, so when Samatar writes a post about the first sentence of Kalpa Imperial, that’s especially interesting.

Here is the first sentence in question; translated, by the way, from the original Spanish by Ursula Le Guin, who is, of course, also noteworthy for beautiful sentences. I bet she did a good job with the translation. Here it is: Kalpa Imperial:

The storyteller said: Now that the good winds are blowing, now that we’re done with days of anxiety and nights of terror, now that there are no more denunciations, persecutions, secret executions, and whim and madness have departed from the heart of the Empire, and we and our children aren’t playthings of blind power; now that a just man sits on the Golden Throne and people look peacefully out of their doors to see if the weather’s fine and plan their vacations and kids go to school and actors put their heart into their lines and girls fall in love and old men die in their beds and poets sing and jewelers weigh gold behind their little windows and gardeners rake the parks and young people argue and innkeepers water the wine and teachers teach what they know and we storytellers tell old stories and archivists archive and fishermen fish and all of us can decide according to our talents and lack of talents what to do with our life—now anybody can enter the emperor’s palace, out of need or curiosity; anybody can visit that great house which was for so many years forbidden, prohibited, defended by armed guards, locked, and as dark as the souls of the Warrior Emperors of the Dynasty of the Ellydróvides.

Well, that’s really something. I mean, I’m not in the mood to read this right now, but that’s a splendid sentence. It’s a lot like the introductory sentence of A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Not quite as long, but definitely long. Obviously the element that catches the ear is the repetition. Gorodischer’s sentence goes now that … now that … now that while Dicken’s goes it was … it was … it was, but obviously the element of repetition is the same. So poetic and compelling!

Here is what Samatar says about the first sentence of Kalpa Imperial:

I quote it in full because what was I going to do? Cutting this sentence would do at least three terrible things:

–It would break that breathless, intoxicating rhythm

–If I cut the end, it would strip the sentence of meaning—the conclusion demanded by the insistent now that… now that… now that…

–If I chopped out a piece of the middle, the sentence would lose the repetitions that create a sense of temporal entanglement.

By “temporal entanglement” I mean that Gorodischer’s sentence tells us there is nothing we do that does not have a history. Teaching and archiving, sure, but also arguing, singing, fishing—each has a past. Every now is a now that.

You should certainly click through and read Samatar’s post, which is brief and poetic. But let’s go back to the other post, the one about paragraphs.

It is difficult, when one assigns oneself the task of writing about paragraphs, not to become self-conscious about one’s own paragraphs. (One may even feel compelled to offer the caveat that one is not an expert or English teacher or copyeditor and is not at all here for semantic nitpicking.) But as both a reader and a writer, I have a comfort zone, like so many do. I love a long paragraph when I need to stay caught up in a thought, a short one when someone wants to make a point, or hit home an emotional moment. I like variety, though I don’t always remember to have it, or rely too much on one short paragraph, one single question, amid the longer bits.

Oh, this is a really solid post. The feel of long paragraphs, the feel of short paragraphs, the feel that the author is trying too hard to evoke an emotional reaction … Yes. I notice all that. And obviously I spend a certain amount of time thinking, “Should I break this sentence out of the preceding paragraph? How about this sentence? Can I do these three sentences each in its own paragraph, or is that too overt? (That’s the same question as: Am I trying too hard?)

Sentences and paragraphs are important. I pay attention to them pretty much all the time, even if I’ve been thoroughly drawn into the story as a reader, or even if I’m thoroughly in flow as a writer. This is definitely a fine topic for a panel or a workshop, for anything devoted to the craft of writing.

By the way, I sometimes paragraph as I go, but at least as often, I notice that a paragraph is getting overly long and spend half a second thinking about where to break it, then go on. I rarely re-paragraph any section, but in passages that are carrying a lot of emotional freight, I often do. This is where I might try breaking out three sentences in a row, each in its own paragraph; and then try putting one back in the preceding paragraph; then two, then break them both out again and read through the section once more. Paragraphing is always important, but it’s at least a hundred times more important when a scene is intense.

That’s what I think about paragraphs.

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5 thoughts on “Thinking about Paragraphs”

  1. You could still mail them the suggestion, it probably takes a while to work out a whole program.

  2. An interesting post. It’s so difficult to say what makes a great book: is it a great plotting, great prose, the emotions evoked- and how does paragraph structure emphasize each of these? You can have the most stilted writing in the world but it the author is able to evoke emotion it can still be a great book, and beautiful prose can be simply dull. I don’t know how you writers do it.

  3. I loved A Stranger in Olondria and Kalpa Imperial, but you do have to be in a particular mood for both of them.

    With A Stranger in Olondria, I spent most of the book thinking “This is good, but I’m not sure I get why the little recommendation note at the bookstore was SO enthusiastic…” and then the ending just blew me away. It’s not really a twist, but the last part of that book is phenomenal and I think it does need the long first part to work the way it does.

  4. Kate, that sounds SO intriguing. I’m picking up a sample now, but also trying to make a firm mental note that the ending is phenomenal.

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