Paragraph Building Blocks, Part 1

Did you enjoy Monday’s Batman v Superman rewrite? Ready for more words on blog action? I hope so because we’re taking Inbox Wednesday and stretching it out over the next few blogposts (also I’m trying for shorter posts, because some of you said that 3k per post was kinda tough to read), because there’s a whole mass of questions all about the same sort of thing. So for the six people who have roughly asked all the same stuff, here are the questions getting answered over the next few posts:

a) What defines a paragraph?
b) How long should a paragraph be?
c) Should some paragraphs automatically be of a certain length because of where they are in the story?
d) How many paragraphs should there be in a chapter?
e) How many beats per paragraph?
f) When writing, should [the writer] be thinking about the bigger picture of story construction (as in I just wrote 4k, so that’s a chapter), or is it more important to get the story out whole then divide into chapters as an after-thought?

Today, we’re doing the first 3, and we’ll do the back 3 on Friday.

i. What defines a paragraph?
This is a construction question. We learn in school that a paragraph is about a single idea and has at least one sentence in it, and while that definition works when we’re talking second graders making first forays into story, it doesn’t cover the idea that a single word as a paragraph can be impactful for the story (like Rosebud in Citizen Kane). This means we need a new definition to suit our needs.

A paragraph is a delivery system for an idea, and the sentence(s) in that paragraph develop pieces of the idea. Now maybe that’s one-word paragraph (Rosebud), maybe it’s multiple sentences describing how Harry lives in a cupboard, maybe that’s a giant block of text as a suicidal Dane figures out what he must do.

This leads us straight to question 2 pretty nicely:

ii. How long should a paragraph be?
It should be as long as it needs to be to develop the idea with whatever details, nuance, connective tissue, facets or shading necessary. Sometimes that’s going to be short, sometimes not. But the length is going to be secondary, and even overlooked, if the details in it are more of a red flag. Too many details, both in number (do you really need some many adjectives to convey that the table is set for dinner?) and digression (do we really need to know so much about the table when the point of the moment is that people are going to sit and talk?) fatten and ultimately bloat a paragraph, reducing its readability and slowing down the reader’s eye – which is not a great idea.

No, this is a not where I say swing that pendulum the other way and write particularly lean and spartan (unless that’s what you like, but you’re not forced to write that way. You’re free to build paragraphs as long as you need, provided they get the idea across.

But what do I mean when I say “idea”? Let’s look at a scene, because a scene is composed of many ideas all cooperating. If we have a dinner scene, we’re going to have some basic ideas – the table, the room, the people sitting, what they’re eating and talking about. Each of those are ideas under the umbrella idea of “dinner scene”, but I wouldn’t expect to see all that information in one paragraph, unless it was less important or just something to get through before you get to the really interesting stuff you want me to focus on.

These constituent pieces warrant their own paragraphs, because if you’re laying a foundation, if we’re building towards something as part of beat structure, then the details in those paragraphs helps me as a reader to picture things.

iii. Should some paragraphs automatically be of a certain length because of where they are in the story?
Positioning, whether we’re talking about opening chapter or climax or resolution or the ninth paragraph of the seventh chapter, has more to do about the pacing and story momentum than manuscript geography. If the short punchy single sentence paragraph helps convey the idea in chapter 4, awesome. If chapter 9 really calls for slower and more descriptive text, great. Whatever you write has to serve the story, so while you can make a case that an intense fight scene benefits from a lot of short sentences and fragments, that’s not an inflexible maxim.

Remember, the goal is to tell the best story through the breadth of tools and creativity. Paragraph structure is one of those tools, but don’t lock in to too narrow a mindset about them.

See you guys on Friday for more. Happy writing.

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