How to Defy Readers’ Expectations with Paragraph Structure

9 May

Samuel Peterson’s memoir, Trunky (Transgender Junky) tells the story of the author’s stay in an all-male drug and alcohol rehab facility in the South.

There are probably more personal essays published today than at any other point in history—in part because we’re hungry for authenticity, which we believe we find in “real” stories, as opposed to “reality” programming, but also because it’s easier than ever to publish them. Seneca and Montaigne, the great inventors of the personal essay, didn’t have the luxury of a thousand websites seeking essays or social media opportunities to simply publish whatever you want. It’s difficult to separate the modern personal essay from the medium where we most often find it: online. We read essays the way that we read anything online—with short attention spans and itchy mouse pointers poised over the back button. As always, writers are consciously or unconsciously shaping their essays for their readers, which means that successful essayists are building a kind of constant surprise into their form. Move in any one direction for too long, and readers are likely to get bored. This might seem frustrating (can’t people just pay attention longer?), but there is actually a way to seem to change subjects while also making a larger point.

Samuel Peterson does exactly that in his memoir Trunky (Transgender Junky).

How the Memoir Works

In a personal essay and memoir, there inevitably comes a moment when the writer is called to be smart—to say something wise, spot-on, and on point. You might think that readers would be hooked during these moments, that nothing could distract them. But I think we all understand that’s not true. (How many times have you been talking to someone you love and, while listening, felt your phone n and checked the text or email or notification? Distraction comes naturally to us, even when we ought to, or even want to, be paying attention.)

What’s needed is a way to avoid falling into any kind of rut—of moving in the same direction or making the same point—for too long, leaving readers susceptible to distraction. Of course, good narrative requires that we make larger points and tell longer stories. Something’s got to give, right?

In this passage from later in the book, Samuel Peterson manages to do both. (The book is about his time spent in an all-men’s wing of a drug and alcohol rehab facility. One of the workers is named Jordan.)

The institution was full of remarkable people; he couldn’t imagine himself in any one job maintaining any sort of cool. He had seen Jordan post-cry; if he worked here his eyes would be red all the time too from being a piñata for the men’s suffering, or he would be arrested for actually piñata-ing someone else. the men often were abusive, and it took a special personality (combined with rigorous training, he reflected) to be able to constantly deflect, and then use that moment to condition the men in socially appropriate response.

The masculine ego took poorly to discipline—which made him consider the number of institutions geared towards “breaking a man down to build him up.” He marveled at the way the world treated men, from his father, whose drunken flirtations and general boundary-pushing had been stonily sanctioned, and his brother, who had never been told his endless commentary was less than fascinating. He was both revolted and envious of the kind of clueless and simple confidence men carried because not enough people told them they were assholes and boring.

He understood men would resist this diagnosis, and he appreciated the intense scrutiny masculinity was subjected to, but he knew firsthand that men could never understand what it was like to always be a paler version of yourself because of the assumption of your opinion’s lesser value.

The passage uses topic sentences: “The institution was full of remarkable people…” and “The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…” But only one of the paragraphs actually follows its topic sentence in a straightforward way. “The institution was full of remarkable people” is followed by an example of one of those people—Jordan—and a reflection on his actions. This straightforwardness is important. If writing never moves in a straight line, readers will have a difficult time following it.

The second paragraph breaks this rule. Its first sentence (“The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…the number of institutions geared toward ‘breaking a man down to build him up'”) sets up the expectation that what will follow is examples of one of these points: the ego not responding to discipline or breaking a man down. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the rest of the paragraph gives examples of men’s ego not being disciplined or broken down. It ends with an observation that is both brilliant and obvious (and brilliant because it’s so obvious): “the kind of clueless and simple confidence men carried because not enough people told them they were assholes and boring.”

The paragraph is great because it’s smart but also because it doesn’t give us what we expect. It breaks the logical structure set up by the previous paragraph (point, illustration, explanation—the infamous PIE from college composition classes). As a result, readers are more apt to pay attention. We can’t fall into a lull as we read. We’re jolted into reading more carefully. Peterson’s observation about men’s confidence would is great no matter where it’s placed, but if we read over it without really seeing it, then we’ve missed his point.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s surprise a reader into paying attention, using Trunky (Transgender Junky) by Samuel Peterson as a model:

  1. Find a moment in your essay where you’re talking about something, not what happened. In other words, the narrative of the essay has paused momentarily for you to make a point. You often know this has happened when you start writing sentences that begin, “The thing is…” or “What’s really important…” or “What people don’t realize…”
  2. Give yourself a topic sentence. You might use any of these sentences that start with phrases like “The thing is…” Or you might start with a basic statement, as Peterson does: “The institution was full of remarkable people.” In short, write something that leads to examples.
  3. Give those examples—in a logical way. If you’ve ever written a five-paragraph essay, you know how to do this. If you write, “The food was terrible,” then you’re going to give examples of how terrible it was.
  4. Keep the flow going with another, related topic sentence. I use the word flow grudgingly here. When I taught college composition, my students used it all the time to describe their vague feeling that an essay had gotten off track. “You know,” they’d say, “it just doesn’t flow.” From a craft standpoint, this was not helpful to them. And yet we all know what flow means: a piece of writing continues moving in one direction. So, keep making the same point in the same way. Peterson does this with the sentence that begins “The masculine ego took poorly to discipline…” He just finished talking about people whose job it was to shape men’s responses, so this makes sense. He keeps the flow going.
  5. Break the structure. Instead of giving examples of men’s egos resisting discipline, he instead gives examples of the opposite—of egos unrestrained, subject to no discipline at all. A college comp instructor might advise changing the topic sentence. But that would be boring (and, thus, appropriate for a college comp essay; but this is a personal essay, meant to be interesting). Everything Peterson writes in this paragraph is smart and sharply observed; it just don’t quite flow in the way we expect. The paragraph isn’t completely scattered, though. The word discipline holds together. So, in your paragraph, pick one word from your topic sentence and riff on it in any way that comes to mind. Don’t worry about following logically—about flow. As long as you’re in the ballpark, readers will stay with you. But by moving away from the logical flow, you’ll hold their attention.

The goal is to create and break structure within paragraphs and passages in order to keep readers paying attention.

Good luck.


2 Responses to “How to Defy Readers’ Expectations with Paragraph Structure”

  1. Steven Capps May 9, 2017 at 8:02 p05 #

    Though you discuss memoirs and personal essays, I think most of these points apply to pretty much all writing. I’m a fiction editor and so many writers write the exact same idea over and over. Awesome post!

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