Return Key of the Jedi (or how to do paragraphs)

I picked up a book recently without checking the sample (it was a freebie on a promotion to push the series, and I am a sucker for that). This is what I posted on Facebook shortly thereafter.

I started this book.

It basically has one-sentence paragraphs.

All the way through.

Some of them are pretty long sentences and maybe have dialogue in them so it looks like a normal paragraph but after a while without taking a breath you realise it’s still indeed just one big old sentence.

Others are short.

I’m not sure if the author’s return key is malfunctioning or if he has a fundamental misunderstanding about how paragraphs work or indeed what the editor was doing.

I mean, I use one-sentence paras myself (sparingly) and they are very effective as a dramatic thump.

But when each sentence is a paragraph, it’s more of a plod than a thump.

I’m on page 10 and I’m already planning how to hide the author’s body.

It’s 300 pages long.

Oh boy.

I hurled that particular book across the room (metaphorically, ereaders are expensive) but it’s far from alone; it’s just one of the more egregious examples of an increasingly common stylistic quirk which I should like to invite you to kill with a hammer right now. I’m not sure where this trend has come from although I am mildly inclined to blame the internet—even a three-sentence para can easily look like a wall of text on a mobile phone screen. I do, however, have a strong idea where it can go.

Okay, let’s start with definitions. A paragraph, according to Cambridge, is

a short part of a text, consisting of at least one sentence and beginning on a new line. It usually deals with a single event, description, idea, etc.

Bear in mind here that a sentence can be one word (eg “Help!” or “Wolves!”).

And that’s it. That’s all you need. Anyone who gives you extra rules about What Paragraphs Must Be is shining you on, whether they claim a paragraph must consist of a compulsory number of sentences, or insist that you need a new line for every single sentence. People really do say the most nonsensical stuff–my daughter once came home from school with a worksheet claiming that a paragraph is always 3 to 7 sentences, no exceptions. I would love to get my hands on the know-nothing prescriptivist random rule-clown who made that nonsense up.

Paragraphing, like absolutely everything else in writing, is a tool, and you need to use it consciously. I’m going to use a chunk of my latest book, 1920s paranormal romance Spectred Isle (available from all good retailers hint hint), to demonstrate what I mean. This is going to be longish, because you can’t really demonstrate paragraphing without, er, paragraphs of text, but think yourself lucky; I was going to use the first chapter of Bleak House. (Which let it be said, is a masterclass in both paragraphing and sentence length, not to mention gleeful ignoring of prescriptivist writing rules: try it here.)

In this sequence Saul, an archaeologist who doesn’t yet know he’s starring in a paranormal, is visiting Camlet Moat, the ancient location of a moated manor house in a north London park. Camlet Moat is kind of weird. For a start, it’s hard to find…

Saul would have liked to keep to the water edge, but he didn’t want to cause irreparable damage to his shoes or trousers; he couldn’t afford to be wasteful. He went back to the path and followed it. It appeared to head only away from the Moat, and he had to double back on himself twice and walk what seemed like a very long and circuitous route before he finally spotted the dark, rough wooden planks sitting low in the algae-coated water that apparently constituted a bridge. Saul had a momentary qualm, wondering how deep the moat was and picturing himself sodden and covered in green slime, before he set a tentative foot on it.

It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot.

He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—

There was no birdsong.

The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.

Got it? Bought the book? Good, now let’s have a closer look.

First para: quite long. It’s all on the same theme, telling us about the irritating difficulty Saul has in finding Camlet Moat (he can’t follow the water’s edge, the path doesn’t seem to go there, the bridge is uninviting). It’s long and cumulative because Saul’s journey is long and the factors are cumulative, it’s very much one damn thing after another.

Second para: shorter, giving us a breather, and separating/marking the pivotal moment when he crosses the bridge, because that will turn out to be important in the story. Note that the last word is “Camelot” (PLOT KLAXON). You can nudge something into the reader’s attention in a quiet yet effective way by making it the last word.

Third para: again all on a theme, this time Camlet Moat’s atmosphere of spring and growth and life and renewal. Another long one, to really build up the mood of life and growth and nature, before—

Fourth para: Bam. One sentence, four words, and thus a sufficiently dramatic contrast to the preceding text to grab the reader’s attention. It serves as a record scratch effect, saying: Hang on a second, this is important. The reader might not yet see why that’s a big deal, but the paragraphing makes it clear that it is.

Fifth para: Building up length again and atmosphere too, and once again we end the para on a key word, this time “afraid”. He should be.

You see? Now let’s faff around with that a bit and see how quickly we can ruin it.

The one-sentence paragraph throughout.

He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—

There was no birdsong.

The thought stopped him in his tracks.

He stood, listening, but heard nothing.

Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still.

Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears.

He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid.

It’s excruciating, isn’t it? Like an early-reader primer, My First Supernatural British Island. Saul sees the terrifying wood demon. Run, Saul, run!

Obviously, this style gives the text all the rhythmic subtlety of a jackhammer; it also means the lack of birdsong has virtually no impact, because the line is no longer in any way differentiated from those around it. But also, note how the sentences that aren’t simple and declarative start to look just weird and bad. Those doubled-over looping structures without the ‘to be’ verbs  (starting ‘Not a chirrup’ and ‘Still and silent’) don’t work any more: they need to be part of an ongoing stream of thought to mark the weird atmosphere.

Long as dogs

It shifted very slightly under his weight, but didn’t tip him into the slimy sea. Saul crossed as quickly as was compatible with care, and found himself on solid ground inside Camlet Moat, Major Peabody’s highly dubious Camelot. He took a deep breath, and felt the air expand in his lungs. It was fresh and clean here, and it made his heart lift in a way he hadn’t experienced in too long. He came from a small country town, and this woodland spring reminded him of his boyhood, before he’d left for the stink of cities or the unforgiving glare of Mesopotamian sun. He could feel the old remembered hope and exuberance as though it were welling up inside him with every breath, so that he almost laughed aloud, filled with the green joy that pulsed from the ground through his feet, just as it rose through roots out into a flourish of foliage and life. He walked without thinking, ferns brushing against his legs, not looking for anything, enjoying the solitude and the movement and the stillness—

There was no birdsong. The thought stopped him in his tracks. He stood, listening, but heard nothing. Not a chirrup or a warble, not a rustle of wings, barely a rustle of leaves, because the breeze seemed to have dropped and the air was cool but very still. Still, and absolutely silent except for his own pulse, which seemed somehow to be very loud indeed in his ears. He stood, and the wood stood around him, and quite suddenly he was afraid. But that was absurd. There was no living creature but himself on this tiny island, and nothing to do him harm. He wasn’t lost in a vast and pathless ancient forest; he was in a Cockfosters park, with work to do, and if the birds weren’t singing, well, that was merely…something ornithological, not his field. He made himself walk forward, and not turn and look, because it was ridiculous to feel as though there was a presence around him, watching.

While not being nearly as bad, it’s still not great. We lose a lot of impact when the important points aren’t marked out—we could miss the importance of crossing the bridge; the new different atmosphere of Camlet Moat doesn’t stand out; the lack of living creatures doesn’t sound like a big deal if it’s just one sentence among many; we no longer have his fear standing starkly before he dismisses it in the next para that I merged in.

Long paras like this are also harder to follow. There’s nowhere to take a breath, plus they are very likely to be merging separate sequences of thought/action into one. Look for a break point and use it.

Paragraphing Rules (more of a guideline really)

  • Paragraph mindfully. This is a tool to be used. If your paragraphing is simplistic, your writing will be simplistic.
  • A sequence of paragraphs all the same length will begin to seem monotonous, whether they’re one sentence or the prescribed 3-5 or all half a page.
  • If you’ve got a new or separate concept/thing to cover, give it a new para to flag that to the reader.
  • If you want the reader to notice something (a pivot point, a thought) consider setting it apart with its own para. Conversely, if you want to drop in a clue without drawing the reader’s attention, the middle of a para is a good place to hide it.
  • A one-liner is great as a “Bam!” effect, but like all stylistic effects, use very sparingly because they become obtrusive quickly.
  • In multi paragraph speech the convention is to give each para a new set of opening quotes, but no closing quotes till the speech is finished.

“It was fresh and clean there, and it made my heart lift in a way I haven’t experienced in too long. I come from a small country town, and the place reminded me of my boyhood. So I walked without thinking for a while, and then I realised.

“There was no birdsong. I mean, seriously, there was none. At all. Have you ever been in a wood without birds? Or, like, buzzing things? Or anything? Dude, it was freaky.”

There is something to be said for breaking up long speeches with actions or interjections to avoid this, if you can do it in a non-obvious way.

___________________________________

KJ is a writer and editor. Spectred Isle, book 1 of the Green Men series, is out now. An Unsuitable Heir, which concludes the Sins of the Cities trilogy, comes out 3 October. They both have lots of lovely paragraphs.

6 replies
  1. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    I’ve seen that before – on fanfic sites. It certainly shouldn’t be happening in a published book.

    There is a certain high up person at the place I work who sends out a weekly email and this is exactly what it’s like. Every sentence its own paragraph. It needs paragraphs, sub-headings, bulleted lists, anything to make it more readable. But no. It makes me want to weep, especially as this person supposedly wrote a non-fiction book. I feel terrible for the editor or ghost-writer who had to get that into shape.

    I showed your Facebook post to a colleague and they agreed right away that is exactly what high-up person does. Why they don’t have an assistant turn it into something that looks better and is easy to read, I don’t know.

    Reply
  2. Maria Lima
    Maria Lima says:

    Great post! I often tend to want to throw my reader across the room – especially when I run across things like this. I am to the point now where I’m deeply considering offering a basic proofreading service to self-pubbed writers. There’s so much good fiction out there that could use a bit of TLC and a good edit. 🙂

    Reply
  3. TanwenCooper
    TanwenCooper says:

    One sentence paras are rising as they work better in online news. Go to the BBC website, pick a news story, they’re all one sentence long. It’s something to do with how people read online news and it being mostly on phones. It makes stories a lot more readable.

    A lot of people are getting the advice to use on sentence paras in that one specific case and applying it to all writing, which is never a good idea. You wouldn’t write a novel according to the reverse news pyramid would you? That would be terrible.

    Reply
  4. LJBG
    LJBG says:

    Speaking of Green Men paragraphs, any word on a release date for book 2? I only recently discovered you (and purchased every single one of your books) so am not up on your release schedule. Although I am looking forward to Oct 3!

    Reply

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