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Paragraph as punctuation

For fiction writers, paragraphs are a form of punctuation. They break up large blocks of text, they signal a slight change of emphasis or subject, and sometimes they’re like the pause before a comic delivers the punch line. Let’s take an example – it’s not intended to be an example of good writing, it’s just something I threw together for demonstration purposes.

Blocks of text:

 The castle, beautiful and vulnerable, rose from a hill covered with juniper trees. Built of white stone that glowed almost golden, it was an impressive sight in the light of the setting sun. Elion deduced from the location and the light golden hue that it had been built of locally quarried limestone, not the best choice for defensive walls. Within those walls, he could see a profusion of towers, balconies, peaked roofs and aerial bridges from one tower to another. If one could erect a catapult on the sloping ground outside the walls, it would make short work of those bridges. High arched windows in the towers doubtless let in the natural daylight, but they could also let in besiegers who climbed the towers making full use of the decorative carvings covering the outside. As for the aerial bridges, a catapult would make short work of them. Still, the castle was beautiful in an overwrought Gothic way. It would be attractive to a traveler who was not concerned with defense. His companion, Zaleria, spurred her horse forward across the narrow bridge from the previous hill. She was eager to reach the imposing gateway that was currently closed by massive doors ornamented with evil-looking spikes. As if they were expecting an elephant to ram the doors, Elion thought.

And I think the reader will skim all this and not really take in most of it – which would be a pity, because you wouldn’t have written all this detail unless you meant to use it later, right?

Now try making every sentence a new paragraph.

The castle, beautiful and vulnerable,  rose from a hill covered with juniper trees.

Built of white stone that glowed almost golden, it was an impressive sight in the light of the setting sun.

Elion deduced from the location and the light golden hue that it had been built of locally quarried limestone, not the best choice for defensive walls.

Within those walls, he could see a profusion of towers, balconies, peaked roofs and aerial bridges from one tower to another.

If one could erect a catapult on the sloping ground outside the walls, it would make short work of those bridges.

High arched windows in the towers doubtless let in the natural daylight, but they could also let in besiegers who climbed the towers making full use of the decorative carvings covering the outside.

Still, the castle was beautiful in an overwrought Gothic way.

It would be attractive to a traveler who was not concerned with defense.

His companion, Zaleria, spurred her horse forward across the narrow bridge from the previous hill.

She was eager to reach the imposing gateway that was currently closed by massive doors ornamented with evil-looking spikes.

As if they were expecting an elephant to ram the doors, Elion thought.

I don’t know about you, but this feels herky-jerky to me. I expect a very slight pause at each paragraph decision. It’s part of the rhythm of prose.

Let’s try putting each thought about the castle’s lack of defenses into a paragraph. The overall topic is still the vulnerability of the castle, but each paragraph focuses on a particular weakness.

The castle, beautiful and vulnerable, rose from a hill covered with juniper trees. Built of white stone that glowed almost golden, it was an impressive sight in the light of the setting sun. Elion deduced from the location and the light golden hue that it had been built of locally quarried limestone, not the best choice for defensive walls.

Within those walls, he could see a profusion of towers, balconies, peaked roofs and aerial bridges from one tower to another. If one could erect a catapult on the sloping ground outside the walls, it would make short work of those bridges.

High arched windows in the towers doubtless let in the natural daylight, but they could also let in besiegers who climbed the towers making full use of the decorative carvings covering the outside.

Still, the castle was beautiful in an overwrought Gothic way. It would be attractive to a traveler who was not concerned with defense. His companion, Zaleria, spurred her horse forward across the narrow bridge from the previous hill. She was eager to reach the imposing gateway that was currently closed by massive doors ornamented with evil-looking spikes. As if they were expecting an elephant to ram the doors, Elion thought.

I like this better. One paragraph about the stone, one about the fragile architecture, one about the oversized windows and one about the useless spikes.

But I think it would read better with some dialogue, don’t you? And putting some of Elion’s thoughts into dialogue changes the rhythm slightly, as well as building a little tension between him and Zaleria.

The castle, beautiful and vulnerable, rose from a hill covered with juniper trees. Built of white stone that glowed almost golden, it was an impressive sight in the light of the setting sun. Elion deduced from the location and the light golden hue that it had been built of locally quarried limestone, not the best choice for defensive walls.

“Soft stone,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much to crumble them.”

Within those walls, he could see a profusion of towers, balconies, peaked roofs and aerial bridges from one tower to another. “Just look at those bridges in mid-air! Even on this slope, a catapult would make short work of them.

And look at the size of those windows in the towers! My ten-year-old could climb up to them on all the decorative carvings they’ve put in the walls!”

“Well, I think it’s beautiful!” said Zaleria.

“Sure, as long as nobody lays siege to it!”

Zaleria spurred her horse forward across the narrow bridge from the previous hill. She was eager to reach the imposing gateway. “See the spikes on the doors? You can’t say they paid no attention to defense!”

“Oh, sure,” Elion grumbled. “You know what those spikes are for? A defense against elephants! You think anybody’s going to bring an elephant over the bridge we just crossed? They’re defending against the one danger they’ll never face!”

You might break up the passage differently, or feel the details about the castle’s weakness don’t need to be enumerated. Doesn’t matter; I’m not saying this is the only way to do it. It’s just to demonstrate how you can control the rhythm of a passage.

17 Comments
  1. Yes – I much prefer filtering the descriptive information through conversation. Feels more organic, reading it.

    October 18, 2018
    • Mary #

      Much depends on character and company. If your character is tactiturn, or knows the warriors will scorn a wizard’s noticing how the violets appear to be not so much violet as black, or has companion that will panic on the news. . . .

      I’ve read some really awkward conversation where characterization was sacrificed to such description.

      October 19, 2018
  2. Nice! Another thing you can add is internal thoughts that might run counter to the dialog, or add history. Any one of these can change a readers expectations:

    _If King so-and-so decides to use force, I can point out the perfect spot for a quick victory to buck up our army’s morale._

    or

    _Glad we’re just passing through_

    or

    _After three centuries of peace, I guess we’ve forgotten the importance of defense._

    or

    _So confident! They must have a damned good resident wizard!_

    October 18, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      Ooh! I like all of those!

      October 18, 2018
      • It’s amazing how much world building and foreshadowing a few words can do. Friends, enemies, magic . . .

        October 18, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      _It’s a real fixer upper, but maybe the estates will fund it once we get the books sorted out._

      October 18, 2018
  3. Ahem. Quit looking over my shoulder. I just finished several stream-of-consciousness paragraphs in the W.I.P. I am reminded why I don’t do that in most of my books. I can hear the ghosts of at least ten English teachers screaming at me for having such wandering chunks of text.

    October 18, 2018
    • That’s scene drafting… well, for me, when I haven’t quite decided what fits.

      October 19, 2018
    • Mary #

      Write fat, revise lean. Always easier to lop something off than remember the detail that you left out and weren’t quite sure about.

      October 19, 2018
  4. Draven #

    illusory carvings to trap would-be climbers? hidden retractable spikes on the carvings? i can think of all kinds of nasty ‘hidden’ defenses a castle like that might have.

    October 18, 2018
    • Yes! I think Margaret’s got a serious writing prompt there.

      October 18, 2018
  5. 23 skidoo

    October 18, 2018
  6. Mary #

    Folding it deeply into the character’s point of view sometimes helps. For instance, having the character delight that there hasn’t been a war for a good seven years, or that he’s leaving before he has to defend that place, or dread that he has to risk even a night there, and otherwise tying it back to his purpose in trudging to such a poorly built castle.

    October 19, 2018
  7. Paragraphing is definitely a thing to be mindful of, and it’s often what I notice most about novels written back in the eighties–very long paragraphs that go on for nearly a page.

    But, too many breaks are equally bad. All I can say is that I’m still learning. Thanks for the lesson.

    October 19, 2018
    • I can tell when I’ve been reading a lot of German because I walls-o-text with clauses in clauses in sub-clauses writing start. 😉

      October 19, 2018
  8. TRX #

    If the paragraphs are too short, it reads like a list or a children’s book.

    If the paragraphs are too long… that was the style a century ago, when one or two paragraphs per page were sufficient.

    One thing I’ve noticed, boring through the pulp SF magazines at archive.org, is the use of blank lines between paragraphs to space off changes in scene or action. At least, that’s how I learned to use them. In the pulps, they’re mostly inserted randomly, even in the middle of a conversation or description. Looking at the page images, I’ve come to the conclusion that the typesetters added the spaces to break up the “wall of text” look. Almost every page has at least one, even if it doesn’t make any literary sense.

    October 19, 2018
  9. Kord #

    Thanks. Good lesson.

    I like the first example very much if done with the right protagonist talking or thinking in first person. Someone who does this kind of stuff for a living. The old Rogue warrior books used that trope quite well. Bronn, Tyrion Lannisters cynic minion does it well when he sees that castle on a mountain top.

    October 20, 2018

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