Monday, December 8, 2008
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.
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).