In composition writing classes, we’re usually taught (or we teach students) not to write one-sentence paragraphs. But, in fiction and nonfiction alike, these short paragraphs can pack a tremendous punch if done well.
Adrian Van Young demonstrates this punch in his story, “The Skin Thing,” which will appear in the forthcoming science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds. You can read it now at Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog.
How the Story Works
Most writers will, at some point, use a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize some point or moment. Van Young’s story is interesting, then, because he uses so many of these constructions, sometimes to conclude a longer paragraph and sometimes as a series of short paragraphs. The sentences can be long, short, and even fragments.
They tend to be used in one of three ways:
Accentuate a change in tone:
This short paragraph concludes a description of the monster’s actions. In terms of subject and style, it’s really part of the paragraph that precedes it, but it’s given its own line because its tone is different (funnier, sort of):
Just one of us, McSorls, held ground. He was seeking, we think, to protect his allotments. It plucked him up inside its mouth, like the mouth of a puppet, and gobbled him down. Or gummed him down. It had no teeth. The leg of his pants dangled out, disappearing.
The Skin Thing ate his onions, too.
Summarize time and events:
These fragments deliver an accounting of the colonists’ battle with the monster:
McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…
Colonists total: two-hundred and forty.
Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six.
Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.
Illuminate important images
This paragraph is actually a series of short, connected sentences that focus on a different part of the monster’s body:
It was the height of foursome men, and its body behind was a languishing tube, and its head, although eyeless, was snouted, with nostrils that sucked and blew as it grew near.
Here, the sentences adopt a style of repetition common to speeches. The fragments illuminate a character in a moment of time:
McGondric in the mess, picking over his onions in no special hurry, a relaxed, dewy look to his under-eye skin.
McGondric going through the camp with his harvest of onions arrayed under cheesecloth, and heavens, his basket, the way that he bore it: offertory, slimly poised.
McGondric alongside his daughter, McGale, as they raked up the sands that comprised their allotment, the pink and the clean-muscled arms of them pushing, and pulling back toward them, and pushing once more.
Instead of moments from a long period of time, though, these two paragraphs break a very short amount of time into even shorter flashes of perception:
And there, behind the sandy glass, we saw a crown of human head.
And under it: a hand. A knee.
All of these one-sentence paragraphs are designed to manipulate the reader’s perception of the events and characters in the story. They speed up or slow down time and direct the reader’s eye.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s write some one-sentence paragraphs, using the passages from Adrian Van Young’s “The Skin Thing” as a model:
- Write a sentence that accentuates a change in tone. One way to do this is to create a series: actions, personality traits, qualities, requirements, events, or whatever appears in your story multiple times or has its differences parsed out. The problem with lists is that they can be boring—just a bunch of stuff. In workshops, the writer Tim O’Brien discourages lists for this reason, but of course his famous story, “The Things They Carried,” contains lists in almost every paragraph. So, after a list of ____, he writes, ______. Van Young uses a shift in tone in his story as well, but rather than interpreting the list, the tonal shift adds to the list: literally, one more thing the monster did, but this thing tells us something about the monster’s intentions that the other things did not. So, in your series, search for entries that sound different. Ask yourself, “What does that difference indicate?” Does it make you uncomfortable? Does it seem to cast the other items in a different light? Try putting it at the end and in a separate paragraph.
- Write a sentence that summarizes time and events. People who write press releases do this all the time. They use fragments to highlight the impact or actions of a group over time: X number of units sold, X number of services rendered. Fiction writers can do this as well, as Van Young illustrates. In truth, many of us do this naturally, especially when pressed into an argument. We tally up our actions over time: X meals cooked, X hours worked, X kindness delivered or sacrifices made. To do this in a story, figure out what actions your character takes pride in; then, challenge it. How would the character defend him/herself? Try listing the tally in separate lines.
- Write a sentence that illuminates important images. There are a few ways to do this. 1) In a static description of a person, thing, or place, instead of using commas to set off attributes (tall, dark, and handsome), develop each adjective into a sentence or phrase of its own (so handsome that I had to look away). Then, connect the sentences with commas or semicolons. 2) In a description of a person, thing, or place in motion, break the motion down into snapshots (as opposed to a running strip of film). What is happening in each snapshot? 3) In a description of an act of perception (I saw…), do not show the entire thing being perceived. Instead, reveal one part at a time. In each of these three methods, you’re focusing on images that writers and readers alike often zoom past. Devoting an entire sentence or phrase to the image can slow readers down, and then you can slow them down further by placing each sentence into a paragraph of its own.