Monday, December 8, 2008

Long paragraphs

I recently read another writer’s request for a critique on a paragraph he had written. Just a paragraph, I thought to myself and began to read. Unfortunately, it was a very, very long paragraph, and just looking at that solid rectangle of text made me feel a bit tired in advance. Has that ever happened to you? I don’t remember if there was dialogue or anything else to break up the relentless march of text, just that that paragraph was at least ten lines long and I didn’t finish reading it, much less critiquing. I had a feeling that once I reached the end, if I reached the end, I would have forgotten what the start of the paragraph was about and might have to begin again, in a never-ending Sisyphean cycle, much like this paragraph, now that I come to think about it.

Thank goodness for white space!

Or sepia space, on the blog, but it’s the same thing. The white space enhances the text, just like the neutrally-colored mat within a frame enhances the picture and makes it easier for the viewer to observe. The contrast makes a difference.

Likewise, readers who flip through a book and see great blocks of text will be less eager to continue reading than readers who do the same but see short paragraphs. The former always looks to me like a wall, but the latter are like the rungs of a ladder, much more accessible.

Shorter sentences and paragraphs are not only easier to read, they build up tension and contribute to action scenes. But that being said, when would solid chunks of text work?

1. Speeches and streams of consciousness

The streams of consciousness are much more common in literary fiction than the genres, but when done well (my favorite example is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea), they work excellently. It draws the reader into a different, often poetic state of mind and keeps the reader moving forward through a progression of thoughts without breaking the spell.

It has to be done well, though. There’s a big difference between a stream of consciousness and rambling repetition like my original paragraph.

The same applies to speeches, especially if they're tense, charged declarations such as a general rousing troops to fight against an enemy which vastly outnumbers them (the "We few, we happy few" type of speech) or a heartbreaking revelation like that in the last chapter of Gone with the Wind. Here, you don't want anything to disrupt the reader's complete immersion in the story, and if the speech is good enough, the reader doesn't want to look away either.

2. Description

Normally, I don’t like long paragraphs of description, and I avoid them in my work. But in some books, they work very well. A homage to Watership Down would probably include lengthy description, and when I read sex-and-shopping novels, I don’t mind the forward motion stopping as clothes, jewelry, meals or people are described (in my order of preference).


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts.

My own work tends to have short to medium paragraphs. It's never been something I consciously think about. I think knowing where to break is something one learns with time.

Jewel Allen said...

Funny, I was just thinking today of that. More on blog posts, though. I saw a high-traffic blog and noted that her posts were short and sweet and to the point. I think in this day and age, that is something to strive for.

As for fiction, yes, I agree that huge blocks of text can sometimes be mind-numbing. Unless the author is really really good at what he/she does.

Uh-oh. Was this too long of a comment?? :-)

Marian Perera said...

"More on blog posts, though. I saw a high-traffic blog and noted that her posts were short and sweet and to the point. I think in this day and age, that is something to strive for."

You're right. I tend to write long paragraphs and often have to consciously think about keeping them succinct. On the blog, they look even longer than they do on the printed page/computer screen.

One way to break up long blog posts is to number points (or use bullet points). Or set some text apart in quotes. I use different colors to indicate this. Including pictures helps as well - that way the post isn't just a wad of text.

Marian Perera said...

"I think knowing where to break is something one learns with time."

I agree that to a certain degree it's instinctive. Sometimes, though, writers consciously use very short paragraphs or (more rarely) very long ones.

Have you noticed that Dean Koontz (in his older novels) sometimes did the latter? He had all the action in a single sentence so that it would seem to the reader as though everything was happening at once.

He referred to that as a "Brobdingnagian sentence".