The Almighty Paragraph
To find examples of current news Headlines you can rip for your next novel, you may want to follow my magazines on Flipboard:
Part 1 of this series on acquiring new techniques is about how I dared to attempt the writing of a joke using a pun.
Nobody can "teach" you to write. It's a craft. You don't learn it, you train in it. It's an apprenticeship process. The part of your mind that masters all this is the subconscious.
So any methodology that you've developed over your lifetime that works to train yourself in a new process will work just fine for most writing craft skills.
And this one - the structure of the paragraph - is no exception.
Teaching yourself to write and self-edit, to rewrite and improve each draft is not a random undertaking.
There is a system to teaching yourself, and to training yourself. Your system may differ, but the essential elements will be the same.
Once you've figured out exactly what market you want to sell into, here's a system for studying that market and getting the hang of producing your own, personalized and quirky, stories to be gobbled up by that market.
I wrote the following in response to a question that someone asked on Google+ --
Are there any good tools that could help me edit? My paragraphs feel choppy...
And here's what I answered.
For the rule of thumb you need, find some books from the publishing company you are aiming at, in the genre you are writing in, and preferably edited by the editor you want to sell to (sometimes an author includes a thank you to their editor or agent which gives you this clue). FIND TWO OF THOSE BOOKS. Read them BACKWARDS (so you aren't influenced by story or content). LOG (on a piece of paper or some people love spreadsheets) the length of paragraphs in lines, in words, and in sentences.
Analyze those paragraphs for structure. Look at subordinate clauses, at dialogue included, at the shift within a sentence from description, narrative, dialogue, exposition (in Kindle you can highlight with different colors each of these 4 essential components).
Now that you have the PATTERN you need to master in your head, sit down with a book you REALLY LOVE and can't stop re-reading (hopefully from the genre and editor you want to sell to) and COPY-TYPE THE ENTIRE NOVEL. (It's not stealing. You just discard the copy you make.)
This will train your mind on a level no amount of mere thinking can ever reach. It is training, not learning. Turn your mind off and just let your fingers TYPE. Don't worry about this ruining your 'style' or 'voice' -- it actually sharpens and focuses your personal art.
Now go back to your manuscript and RETYPE IT FROM SCRATCH -- copy type it making a new copy, but letting your new rhythm make changes in the words, parts of speech, dialogue, and especially transitions from exposition to narrative to dialogue to description. Be sure to include all 4 components in each sentence, mostly by deleting words that don't say anything and finding words that convey exactly what you mean.
Given that "the paragraph" is a quirky thing in itself, that differs from genre to genre, there's almost no way to teach it.
If you took Literature in college, you read a lot of books with paragraphs as long as a page.
If you paid attention in High School, you learned that a paragraph is a complete thought, but of course nobody ever defined what that is.
The world of commercial fiction writing is totally different from Academe.
In publishing, a paragraph and a page is a visual, artistic LAYOUT problem, not a grammatical one.
So your aim is to keep your reader glued to the page using every bit of artistic LAYOUT talent, skill, ability, and Rules that you can grab.
The best way to internalize such rules is just what I said above, learn by analyzing with the mind, then DOING by copying.
Since we focus on this blog on Science Fiction Romance and Fantasy Romance, Paranormal Romance, and Action Romance, the rules for ROMANCE (longer paragraphs, wandering internal ruminations, speculation about what the other characters think or feel, self-criticism about emotional responses) have to blend into and modify the rules for Science Fiction or Action-Adventure.
And then that resulting blend has to be reconfigured for today's impatient readership that skims or page-flips. This is the era of lack of concentration, so page layout tricks have to carry the impatient reader through the necessary story development.
Here's a place to start as you rewrite your manuscript. Remember, you can change what you drafted into this pattern, then go over it again and change it to something else. It is a multi-step process, not something you just do -- at least until you've practiced this a lot.
Set your page layout for a 60-character line, 25 lines per page.
Break up every paragraph that runs more than 7 lines (even if there's a one-word fragment on line 8, put a paragraph break in the middle.)
Read it over and see what you need to change to make it a literary paragraph (complete thought) rather than a graphic paragraph (something a reader might actually finish before answering the phone.)
Check the page for paragraphs that are more than 3 sentences long.
Any important (critical to understanding the plot) information must go in LINE 1 of a paragraph, or in the last line.
Skim readers are taught to SKIP THE MIDDLE SENTENCE OF A PARAGRAPH.
So if you're working up a sneaky mystery plot, a suspense line, or foreshadowing a twist due later, bury that in the middle-sentence of a 3 sentence paragraph.
You want to use graphic layout to control the eye-movements of the reader, just as an artist drawing a picture does.
Now look over the page you've rewritten to break up paragraphs. No three paragraphs in a row can be three sentences long.
In between the long, 3 sentence, 7-line paragraphs, you intersperse with 1 line dialogue. (not 7 line dialogue speeches).
Last week in Dialogue Part 7 we did a bit of dialogue rewriting on some excellent published dialogue. Re-read that and do some of that kind of rewriting.
Now you've got your page looking "right" -- you have to make one last pass through.
Because you broke paragraphs and rearranged, no doubt changing some words, and weren't reading the page as a whole, errors have crept in that you would never have made on first draft.
So re-impose the rule that no two paragraphs in a row can start with the same word, preferably not with the same LETTER.
Delete any "And" or "But" at the beginning of a sentence, especially at the beginning of a paragraph.
Delete all the adjectives and adverbs. ALL of them. (don't fret; you get to restore some)
Re-read the page -- this is the polish re-read, so check for spelling, homonyms confused, malapropisms not intended, etc. Check for rhythm, for clarity of thought, for organization, for pacing.
On this last re-read, find the VERBS and NOUNS that had modifiers and check to see if they convey what you intended without the modifier. If not, spend some time looking for the exact VERB or NOUN that should be there. If such a word does not exist (actually it does, but you haven't found it), then insert the modifier.
Only use adverbs and adjectives where the word they modify requires it because the word does not mean what you want to say.
That's your PAGE SETUP draft. Do that process with all your pages. Don't worry if it takes a long time to do this editing pass -- on your next first-draft you will have acquired most of these habits on an unconscious level.
NEXT - as you are editing, check the LENGTH OF YOUR SCENES.
No scene should be more than 700 words without a character entering or exiting (the "scene" definition is enter, exit, change location). A scene with entrances and exits within it should run no more than 7 pages (25 line pages as above).
If your scenes are too long, go back to structure and check each scene's structure for how it advances the plot, advances the story, and changes the Situation.
If that gives you a problem, read these two blog entries:
One of the biggest problems I'm seeing in self-published Romance novels these days is SCENE STRUCTURE.
I can't emphasize enough how vital scene structure is in novels.
Here's the scene structure trick that will affect your paragraph structure.
Long, wandering paragraphs seem to pour out of a writer when nothing is happening in the story or plot.
When you see you have produced long paragraphs, consider deleting that entire section.
The error beginning writers fall into is knowing what the characters do, and just following the characters through everything they do. That's not a story, and it is not a plot.
The technique you can look up in writing books is not called Scene Structure. It's called Transitions.
Smooth transitions are a result of tight scene structure -- they happen because the story springboard is properly wound up.
The index to the series on Story Springboards is here:
In brief, cut all the paragraphs that chronicle the movement of characters between scenes, all the journeying, the traveling.
Cut the part where the character wakes up, brushes teeth, gets dressed, gropes for coffee -- and then the phone rings with a shocker.
CUT from the end of the previous scene (before the falling into bed exhausted) directly to the PHONE RINGING -- or even into the middle of that shocker-phone-call.
CUT the stuff BETWEEN SCENES. Every beginner writes thousands of words of what happens or is done between scenes and fails to cut that material before submission, then wonders why they are rejected without even a rejection notice.
LONG PARAGRAPHS of characters moving between scenes are the hallmark of the unprofessional writer who can not take editorial direction.
If your character is TRAVELING (driving, riding the subway, walking through the woods -- when nothing is changing the SITUATION, when the CONFLICT is not advancing toward RESOLUTION --) then CUT ALL THAT.
I can hear you screaming right now, "BUT BUT BUT that's when he thinks of this brilliant idea, or when I tell the reader all about what the character knows."
Aha, that's why I said learn to do this by deleting all your precious adverbs and adjectives. That deleting and restoring of adjectives and adverbs trains your subconscious to trust your judgement so when you do this harder exercise, your subconscious won't balk.
When you delete the material (usually identifiable as it comes in long, chunky paragraphs) between scenes, there will be some vitally important items that get deleted.
Those items have to be moved INTO SCENES.
In fact, you may have to insert a scene to convey that material properly, but the inserted scene has to be well structured.
Scene structure and placement is like the percussion-section of a symphony orchestra, it sets the BEAT, the pacing. A scene is like a 'measure' in music, it has an internal structure set by the "Key" or genre.
So delete all the material between scenes throughout the manuscript, collect the items that must be conveyed to the reader, ponder where in the structure those REVEALS have to be placed, and insert a well-crafted scene to convey just the barest hint of the information as SHOW DON'T TELL.
That's what scenes are for - to SHOW rather than TELL that information that you told the reader in the between-scene segments where the characters are traveling from scene to scene but nothing is happening.
In a scene, SOMETHING has to happen that changes the SITUATION of the main character. The plot must advance -- i.e. someone has to do something. The story has to advance - i.e. someone has to learn something, feel an emotion that causes them to do something.
To figure out what to keep and what to toss, keep going back to your one-line explanation of what this story is. "This is the story of Ralph's downfall."
On your final draft, you'll throw out anything that's left that does not explicate the theme. "Great Fame can crack any character's integrity."
All of these techniques are based on the redefining of "The Paragraph" from a literary thought-block to a graphic attention-grabber.
Master the Paragraph, and you'll master The Scene, as well as pacing and style.