Tag Archives: paragraph structure

How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

28 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in-depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

The goal is to move beyond what happened and moving characters around to doing the real, essential work of building a prose style and narrative sensibility.

Have fun.

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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.

How to Frame Chronology

25 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

When we sit down to write about our real lives, it’s easy to fall into the chronology trap. We write, “This happened and then this and then this.” The essay or memoir becomes, simply, one thing after another. This structure might sound logical; after all, isn’t that how our lives happen, one thing after another? Not really. At any moment, the complicated machines that are our worlds contain many moving pieces, some we see and some we don’t. But we only think about a few of them at a time, and it’s not always the pieces right in front of our faces. We tell stories to ourselves about our lives and histories, and those stories help structure our sense of what is happening to us and around us. When writing these stories down, chronology can actually be the enemy of good writing. What we need is a way to frame it, just as we do in real life.

An example of a memoir that frame chronology really well is Will Boast’s Epilogue. An excerpt was published at VQR Online, and you can read it now.

How the Memoir Works

The begins with the death of Boast’s father. His mother and only brother have recently died as well. These deaths create a natural occasion for thinking about the past—what else is a eulogy but a summing up of the chronology of a life? So, Boast begins with summary: “On the morning of the day he died…” and tells us how his father died. What makes the passage interesting from a craft point-of-view is that it’s not simply a list of his father’s actions and whereabouts. Instead, those actions are filtered through a lens: “My father was never one to complain.” Then, in the passage that follows, the moments of his father’s last day are connected to that statement about his personality and character:

On the morning of the day he died, an ulcer he’d suffered from for years, and left untreated, ruptured and began to bleed. Two days later I met with the town coroner. He told me the end had been painless, that, as his life leached away, my father would only have felt increasingly weak and light-​headed. The coroner, trying to make me feel better, was lying. By any other account, when an ulcer perforates and blood, bile, bacteria, and partially digested food begin to spill into the abdominal cavity, you feel as if a knife has just been buried in your guts. You might faint. You might vomit blood or something that looks like coffee grounds—​blood oxidized black by stomach acid. Or your body shuts down completely, total collapse its only remaining response to the shock and agony.

But my father, on the day he died, carried his burning, pleading stomach with him on his morning commute and worked his usual day at the plant, seven in the morning till seven at night.

As a result, a coroner’s report tells us about not just the cause of death but also something about the man who died. The chronology is given a purpose: tell what happened and pose a question. What kind of man doesn’t complain, even when in physical agony? Questions like that are the basis for story.

Boast fills the memoir with paragraphs that begin with thesis-like sentences. Here’s another: “Growing up, I thought he was unbreakable.” What follows is a paragraph containing details that convey unbreakability:

“On the coldest Wisconsin winter days, he went out gloveless and hatless, his face and fingers gone angry red in the frigid, prickling wind. Never bothered him. Freeze him, burn him, cut him, kiss him—​he wouldn’t even flinch.”

But the statement also sets the stage for a fairly straightforward chronology of his father’s childhood through his teen year—a necessity for any kind of accounting of a life. Most accountings, however, lead only to one thing: adulthood and, finally, death. But in Boast’s telling, the account of his father’s life leads to a point:

“The point of the story, I understood, was not that winners could suffer through and losers could not. The point was that showing your pain was a choice, and the choice not to show it required only an exercise of will. How joyous to laugh and play on in the face of pain!

By making a point, rather than just telling what happened, the prose is freed from the chronology trap. It gains the freedom to slow down, to stay in a moment and show it in great detail—creating pockets of chronology within the larger story. It can also skip over details that might seem important to a basic timeline but that don’t meaningfully contribute to the point. The writing can move back and forth in time because each paragraph or passage suggests the story (the point) of what we’re reading. The result is a memoir that is so much richer than the chronology behind it—even when those events are, as with Epilogue, stunning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s give meaning to chronology using Epilogue by Will Boast as a model:

  1. Decide what thing you want to tell. Regardless of whether the writing is fiction or nonfiction, we often approach scenes or passages with one detail in mind, a fact or anecdote or description that shines brightly in our imaginations. Of course, to get it onto the page, we need some reason. It can’t sit there all alone. So we create a home for it, which usually involves chronology of some sort. For now, though, set that chronology or story aside. What’s the detail?
  2. Consider why the detail stands out? Some details are so weird or wild that they justify their own presence, though this is rarer than you might think. (Jim Varney, he of Ernest P. Worrell fame, made a movie about a man with a hand that stuck off the top his head. You’d think that’d be weird enough to sustain an audience’s interest. But you’d be wrong, as Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam makes amply clear.) Instead of relying on shock, think about meaning. Why does the detail remain with you? What does it say about the people involved? Did they react to or treat the detail the same as everyone would? Did they think about it in a way that was particular to their community or group or individual personalities? This is where meaning is found.
  3. Write a sentence that suggests or directly states this meaning. It doesn’t need to be grand or philosophical. It can be simple and straightforward: “My father was never one to complain.” That sentence tell us how to think about the details that follow. For your sentence, pick one that tells the reader how to think about the details or chronology that you’re about to write.
  4. Write the chronology toward a point. What happened? What is the sequence of events around this detail? As you write it, think about where you’re headed. Not every passage will end with a sentence that begins “The point of this story is…” but every passage generally ought to end with such clarity. If the point is confusion (I didn’t know what to think), then that confusion should be clear. It’s this sense of direction that makes chronology a story and not just a list of events.

Good luck.

Why Paragraphs Matter in a Story

25 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

Good luck.

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