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Paragraphs: The Waves on your Story’s Sea

In the same way that a simple, clear sentence (see “S+V+O”) leads the reader through without any bumps or diversions, a simple, clear paragraph provides the reader a piece of information, and by doing so leads the reader through a train of thought to a conclusion, as well as prepping the reader for the next paragraph.

Think about your paragraphs as mini-stories, with a beginning, middle, and conclusion. Whether you’re putting together an essay, a short story or a novel, sentences and good paragraphs are part of the foundation to good prose. Get your story working at this level, and you’re well on the way to success for the story as a whole.

Just as the S+V+O sentence structure is the most straightforward and easy to read structure, your paragraph should use a similar structure to provide information, though in the paragraph’s case, you’re trying to provide a set of statements that leads to a description of the moment, and an explanation at the end.

Reshuffle the sentences and improve the paragraph. Tell a story. Let’s look at a sample paragraph and see what changing sentence order does to the overall meaning and direction. In this case, we’re setting the scene for a potential fight, so we’re looking for rising tension. Here’s the first version:

Here I am with an orbital fracture. By ten p.m. or so, Charles would be crying, or muttering, or shaking, and whatever it was about, he always made it about me. Last night especially so. The daytime wasn’t a problem. But he’d start drinking in the afternoon. Charles and I managed to stay civil most of the day. We had told each other we’d hide things from the children, but they had become distant lately. It would be hard to miss the low, enraged voices coming from our room if they’d been walking by at night.

Problem number one, of course, is leading with the punch line, then following up with the lead in. This is okay, it grabs the reader at the start, but it leads to a conclusion that isn’t as dramatic as the first sentence. You want the paragraphs—the waves on your story’s ocean—to carry the reader along. And the paragraph jumps back and forth in time too much.

The daytime wasn’t a problem. Charles and I managed to stay civil most of the day. But he’d start drinking in the afternoon. We had told each other we’d hide things from the children, but they had become distant lately. It would be hard to miss the low, enraged voices coming from our room if they’d been walking by at night. By ten p.m. or so, Charles would be crying, or muttering, or shaking, and whatever it was about, he always made it about me. Last night especially so. Here I am with an orbital fracture.

The reshuffled paragraph starts with the general situation, morning to evening, adding in the children, then the closed door, then the immediate past night, and boom. Ow.

I recommend writers practice looking at paragraphs by taking some random ones from a writer’s manuscript and separate them line by line. Read each as a statement leading to a conclusion. Try switching sentences around to see if the paragraph works better with a different sentence order.

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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