“All my stories are cinematic…every paragraph is a shot.” — Ray Bradbury
By PJ Parrish
The woman in my workshop had a question. I didn’t have an answer.
“How long should my paragraphs be?” she asked.
In years of teaching writing workshops and doing too many critiques to count, I had never really thought about that. I weaseled my way through the answer, saying that it was a feeling of sorts, that you just had to trust your instincts, find your style. More word gumbo about gotta have rhythm and there were no rules…
It wasn’t until I got home from the conference that I remembered Ray Bradbury. I had lost his book Zen In the Art of Writing years ago, maybe had lent it to someone. But I sorta remembered he mighta maybe said something about paragraphs. So I got a new copy of the book. Here is what he said in his essay “Shooting Haiku in a Barrel.”
“All the paragraphs are shots. By the way the paragraph reads, you know whether it’s a close-up or a long shot…I may be the most cinematic novelist in the country today. All of my short stories can be shot right off the page. Each paragraph is a shot.”
I didn’t realize that his idea that each paragraph of a story was a camera shot had been the basis of my own writing for decades. It was a sub-conscious thing. Or was it? Was hitting the ENTER key actually a conscious choice? I dug deeper and found Joyce Carol Oates:
One of the qualities of writing that is not much stressed is its problem-solving aspect, having to do with the presentation of material: how to structure it, what sort of sentences (direct, elliptical, simple or compound, syntactically elaborate), what tone (in art, “tone” is everything), pacing. Paragraphing is a way of dramatization, as the look of a poem on a page is dramatic; where to break lines, where to end sentences.
Which led me to Ronald Tobias’s “The Elements of Fiction Writing: Theme & Strategy,”
The rhythm of action and character is controlled by the rhythm of your sentences. You can alter mood, increase or decrease tension, and pace the action by the number of words you put in a sentence. And because sentences create patterns, the cumulative effect of your sentences has a larger overall effect on the work itself. Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive. If your writing a tense scene and use long sentences [me here: or long paragraphs], you may be working against yourself.
Then I thought, maybe we should ask a lawyer.
(Pause while I wait for you to stop laughing).
If you’ve ever tried to read a legal brief, you know about bad writing. But here are two pretty decent lawyers on the subject of pacing:
We simply don’t have time to ferret out one bright idea buried in too long a sentence. — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
You want [a brief] to be a little bit of a page turner, to have some sense of drama, some building up to the legal arguments. — Justice John Roberts
Maybe it was all those piano lessons, but when it comes to pacing, I always used to think of writing in musical terms. Composers use punctuation to speed up or slow down pace and musicians use types of “articulation” to enhance whatever mood they are going for — intense? dangerous? romantic? thoughtful?
Sound familar? Good writers have similar tools — punctuation, length of sentences and paragraphs (short and choppy or longer and measured?) to create an emotional response in their readers. The best writers understand this not only creates emotion, it provides variety on each page and over the whole book.
But pacing is also a visual thing. Which brings us back to the humble ¶. Which has, I just found out today, a fancy name — the pilcrow. I don’t think most writers devote enough brain power to the pilcrow. But to my mind (and eye) it is a potent little tool that can really help you pace your story. How many paragraphs you use per page, and how long or short your paragraphs are should be conscious choices you make. Consider this:
Fragments, the length of sentences, punctuation, and how often you paragraph can all work to give a particular pace. If you really think about, you’ll realize that you can use sentence and paragraph structure to create a feeling of speed or slowness, depending on what kind of emotional response you want to induce in your reader.
Or how about this:
Think of it! You can move a reader through a story fast. Their hearts will race!
Or you can slow them down and make them use their heads.
It’s all in how your sentences look on the page.
The same thought but expressed two different ways. The first is measured, more academic in pace, meant to make you slow down and digest the thought. The second is lively and urgent, making you anticipate an important climax-point. Neither is correct. They are just two different styles of pacing, word choice, sentence length and paragraphing to different affect. Here’s another example from a real novel:
There was less than an hour of daylight left, and Louis had the thought that maybe they could set up roadblocks and operate them through the night. But even as that thought moved through Louis’s mind, so did doubt. Maybe they were just chasing air. And if they were, he couldn’t help but worry about his future, and that of his boss, Captain Steele.
Louis heard a sudden rustling in the trees. He drew his Glock, but all he saw was a squirrel scampering across a fall log and leaves skittering in an eddy of wind. But then he heard something else. What was it? A voice? Shut, shut, shut…
What was he hearing? Was it real words or was it just the freakish whistling sound of the wind in the iron train trestle below? The sound came again. Shut up…
He could tell now it wasn’t the wind. It was real words, someone talking. Suddenly, two men bolted from the trees near the entrance to the trestle. One was dressed in camouflage, and the other man was wearing dark pants and a yellow dress shirt. The men ran away, stumbling toward the trestle in a clumsy run, with one man pulling the other man along.
“Captain Steele!” Louis shouted.
Compare that to this version:
They had less than an hour of daylight left. Maybe they could set up roadblocks and operate them through the night. But Louis had his doubts. Maybe they were just chasing air. And if they were, he couldn’t stop thinking about his future. And Steele’s.
A rustle in the trees came to him on the wind.
Louis drew his Glock and turned, scanning the brush. A squirrel scampered away. Leaves skittered across the path.
Then something else…a voice?
Shut, shut, shut…
Words? Or was it just the freakish whistle of wind in the iron train trestles below?
The sound came again.
No wind. Real words. Louis spun.
Two men bolted from the trees. One in camouflage, the other in dark pants and yellow shirt. They stumbled toward the trestle in a clumsy run, one pulling at the other.
“Captain!” Louis shouted.
The second one is from our most recent Louis Kincaid thriller The Damage Done as it actually appears on the page. The first one I rewrote to make it purposely turgid. Why is the second one better? Lots of reasons. First, we’re at the climax, deep into an action scene. We’re deep in Louis’s point of view (where we should be). It’s cold, getting dark, everyone’s on edge. Louis’s adrenaline is pumping. We need you to feel that. So we need you to read fast. We kept every sentence as short as possible to simulate Louis’s nervous thoughts. We have eliminated every descriptive word possible because this isn’t the moment to be “writerly” about wind eddies, squirrels or even the fact the man is wearing a dress shirt (it registers to Louis only as a flash of yellow.) We don’t even need to repeat the captain’s name in the last line because in this frantic action, Louis would just yell out “Captain!” And we kept the paragraphs as short and punchy as possible.
Now, notice how each scene looks on the “page.” As I said, writing is aural, but it’s also visual. Why?
- Too many long paragraphs per page are hard on the eye. It can read “old-fashioned” or worse, “textbook.” Long graphs worked for Dickens and Bronte. Not so well for today’s mysteries and thrillers.
- White space on a page spells relief. It balances the larger blocks of expository writing. If you don’t believe me, ask any artist about the value of negative space. Or go read Elmore Leonard. Dialogue provides “white space.”
- Paragraphs pack emotional punch. Longer ones make the reader slow down, which you want them to do at times. But short paragraphs, say for an action scene, quicken the pace and the reader’s pulse.
- And something to consider: Ebooks are often smaller in format than tree books, often giving the illusion of a blockier text per page.
Last week, one of our First Page Critique folks submitted his sample called Samuel’s Mine. It got some good reviews, and I liked it as well. But I thought it could have used some judicious paragraphing, so I asked the author for permission to re-run it here as a lesson. Here is how he wrote it:
Oddly enough her fingernails were left unbroken. Each nail remained intact, as sharp and fresh as they had been right before Julia went to sleep. The bright pink polish now served as a beacon of hope in this otherwise despondent room. She looked around, unbelieving, and still trying to figure out the situation. How did she get here? Where is here? She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone. She remembered painting her nails sitting on the edge of her bed. All else was a fog, like unrecognizable shadows in the poorly lit recesses of her brain. Something was there but yet nothing.
She turned her head. Her neck seized instantly with stiff pain. Oh dear Christ! A thick perspiration began its slow descent down her forehead. She lay across the floor with a dull but growing pounding building inside her head. She rarely got headaches. I fell, she thought. The fog in her head was drifting away as her surroundings grew clearer. I fell..how could I fall? Sharp jabs of pain filled her upper body. No, No, I couldn’t have. This isn’t right. She winced while moving her head to the left. The room was dark and she could smell mildew. The perspiration slid a smooth path down her face although a chill ran through her. The fog finally lifted from her head leaving the remnants of ache and confusion. How did I get on the floor?
Her body shuttered, skin prickled, as a chilling draft surfaced. She could hear the faint shuffle of footsteps above her. Julia’s legs; however, were cramped and stiff pressed on the cold floor. In fact, the floor she was on was not a floor, but rather stones. She can see them now – large cobblestones like the ones that used to line the streets in the City. They were now biting against her body and left prickles on her skin. Goosebumps. This is not right. She scanned the room fighting the ache, unknowing where she was. Stone block walls now came into her ever-strengthening sight. And that smell was more than mildew, but what?
The thick moisture moving down from her brow found her parched lips and with a fine swoop of her tongue, Julia tasted it. At first the sheer moisture was soothing to her mouth, but shortly the taste surfaced. It was not sweat. This tasted coppery. She had her fair share of fights and busted her lip a few times playing hockey. Julia was tough and knew this taste well. It was the taste of blood.
Now I’m going to simply delete a few words and sentences and add more paragraphs:
Oddly enough her fingernails were left unbroken.
Each nail remained intact, as sharp and fresh as they had been right before Julia went to sleep. The bright pink polish was like a beacon of hope in this dank and dim room.
She looked around, trying to figure out the situation. How did she get here? Where is here? She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone. She remembered painting her nails sitting on the edge of her bed. All else was a fog, like unrecognizable shadows moving through her brain. Something was there, yet nothing was there.
She turned her head. Her neck seized up with pain.
Oh dear Christ!
She was laying down, her legs were twisted painfully underneath. A dull pounding was building inside her head.
The fog in her head was drifting away as her surroundings grew clearer.
How could I fall? No, No, I couldn’t have. This isn’t right.
She slowly moved her head to the right, wincing. Now she could see that the walls were made of stone. And she could smell something awful, worse than mildew. Sweat slid down her face even as a chill ran through her. She became aware of the coldness of the floor beneath her. She reached out and felt it. No, not a floor — rough, more like cobblestones.
She heard the sound of footsteps above and lay still, holding her breath.
The sweat was moving down her cheek. Her parched lips parted and she tasted it.
Not sweat. It tasted…metallic, like copper.
Then she knew. She had busted her lip a few times playing hockey. It was blood. Her own blood.
Notice how the first version LOOKS on the page. Each paragraph is of almost equal weight. Why did I add these graphs? Well, this is an action scene, quiet though it is. We want to feel the tension. The woman is just gaining consciousness so her thoughts should be fuzzy and fragmented, so the pacing should reflect this “dreamy” state of mind. To enhance the intimate point of view, her thoughts should be paragraphed and italicized rather than imbedded in the narrative and attributed with “she thought.” Notice, too, how more urgent the second version looks on the page. And there are a couple of cool moments that just need to stand out on their own. Like the first image of the fingernails and the last image of her blood. If you land upon a good image, sometimes you need to let it sing solo high in the trees.
Now, I am not saying my version is the best, because paragraphing also goes to the point of individual style. And some writers have a more legato (connected) style while others favor more staccato (shorter and punchier). But I do think good pacing is a combination of both. You gotta know when to hit ENTER.
Because, as Ray Bradbury said, each paragraph is a mini-scene and when you hit ENTER you are helping your reader enter a new scene, thought or action. I’ll leave you with one more example. It’s from one of my favorite opening pages from a novel.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.
That’s the opening to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I love the way the first line sits there all alone, like a roadside sign that you’re entering hell. I love the juxtaposition of the next long graph with its gorgeous imagery and the nonchalance of the unnamed man. And then, a third paragraph that bam! gives us our arsonist-star by name. I love the way this page looks and sounds. Bradbury could have made this all one graph. But no, he chose three.
That, folks, is master pilcrowing.