Paragraph structure

I could have written another travel blog update.  But we all  know I’ve done absolutely nothing for the past week or so except go to class and write essays (I promise I’ll do some sightseeing soon … honest!).  So here we go with the pretentious English student stuff again!

I was having an online discussion the other day about the construction of paragraphs.  And then I watched an entire group of writers say nearly exactly the same thing:
“I don’t really pay attention to them when I’m writing.  They just happen.”

Another one of those things.  Well, you’ve seen me flail about trying to describe the indescribable before (what makes a game ‘fun’?), so why not give it a shot with something I might actually be able to put together coherent thoughts on.

I am very much the same – when I’m writing, I just write.  I’m not thinking very hard about things like which sentence structure to use or how to break up paragraphs (unless I’m just being too clever for my own good.  Thankfully, pretentiousness usually gets removed in post).  So, I’m going to go about this explaining how I think about paragraphs as a concept, rather than my methods for writing them.  I’m also going to do it in dot-point form.  Don’t ask why.

1. Ideas.
I’m a big proponent of the idea that one sentence should contain one idea, usually.  That doesn’t mean sentences with more than one key idea can’t exist, just that they should be used sparingly and extra effort should be taken to keep them clear.
What, exactly, is an ‘idea’ in this context?  Last time I asked that question of someone, they answered “a complete thought”, which was actually less helpful.  I’ll probably come to a proper definition later, if the next thing I say doesn’t force me to come up with one right now.
Then, moving up a level, a paragraph should also contain one idea.
Yes, it’s entirely possible I do this just to frustrate you.
This is probably easiest to think about in a description paragraph.  Say you’re describing a room.  The room itself is a whole idea, but it’s composed of smaller, separate ideas.  So, you’d have a sentence for the table, a sentence for the wardrobe, a sentence for the bed, a sentence for the mysterious marks on the wall.  Maybe you spend two sentences on the mirror, one on the discoloured, spattered glass, and one on the ornate frame.  Individual ideas, and self-contained, but together, they make a larger, whole, also self-contained idea.
Ideally, this is how paragraphs should work – sectioning out the ideas on a page into manageable chunks so that the reader doesn’t get entirely lost in unbroken pages of seamless text.

2. Layers.
You’ve probably noticed I set out my paragraphs in two layers.  Either a new line, or with white space between paragraphs.  This, I find, is quite useful to group ideas together.  Say you have that room from before.  Sally’s just walking into her new house, and she’s going to bed.  You describe the room, then maybe you spend a paragraph on Sally getting into bed and settling down.  Her brother, David is in the room next door, and you want a paragraph where she’s listening to him getting into bed, trying to guess what he thinks about the house after that.
These are pretty obviously different – not only are the first two descriptive, while the third is thought, you’ve also switched the subject of the paragraph from Sally to David (my brain fought with me to write ‘object’ there – that’s what happens when you study grammar too much).  Yes, Sally is doing the thinking, but the paragraph is about David.  Therefore, you can group them.  The two descriptive paragraphs first, with a new line.  Then, the David paragraph with white space.
I usually use white space for scene breaks in novels (occasionally I have fun with the Insert Character function for other scene break indicators), but when I write a blog post, I’ll write a series of paragraphs about one idea, then whitespace to break onto the next.  Actually, my blog posts are structured much the same way as my essays, which makes me kind of worry that this is what I like to do with my spare time.
We all knew I have no life outside academia anyway.

3. Flair
The first two are what might be considered technical basics.  Once they’re down and sorted, it’s time to play with the formula a bit.
The basic thing that you’ll need to know about a paragraph to play with the structure is that the first sentence draws the reader’s attention most.  In regular paragraphs, this means that the first sentence sometimes acts as a sort of ‘topic sentence’ – one that indicates the subject of the paragraph as a whole, and is meant to transition from whatever the last paragraph was talking about.
“The room was quite large, actually” – this indicates we’ll be discussing the room.
“Sally switched on the light” – possibly an even more subtle indication of what will be in the paragraph to follow.  The reader assumes that Sally can now see into the room, and therefore the author will describe what she sees.
“Glen sighed” – this one could conceivably come on its own, but at the beginning of the paragraph it means we’re almost certainly going to see the narrator take a bit of time to explain why Glen is sighing, or make a judgement on Glen’s mood.  This one will almost always act as a transition, because Glen sighing has to be in response to something.  People don’t just sigh – there might not be an external catalyst (that is, they could be thinking about something), but there is always a reason for a sigh.  The transition is therefore Sally says something –> Glen sighs –> Sally/the narrator provides an explanation of/guess about why David is sighing (often also with Sally’s reaction to this – is she annoyed because he’s always so negative, or is she happy that he’s sympathising with her about her bad day at work?).
But enough about that – if essay teaching is at all the same for you as it was for me, you’re about sick to death of being told you “have to have a topic sentence” and “your topic sentence has to encapsulate everything you’ll talk about in the paragraph”.

The real question is, how does one have fun with this?
The one that you’ll see everyone use (it’s one of the first tricks an author learns when they’re first figuring out how to manipulate structure) is the one-sentence paragraph.  I used one just above.  Actually, you’ll find these everywhere with me – I probably overuse them.  The one-sentence paragraph is a quick and dirty way to emphasise something without caps or exclamation marks.
Compare the two paragraphs:
“Sally switched on the light.  The room was cold, but at least she’d warmed the bed with a hot water bottle.  She got into her pyjamas and snuggled up to her hot water bottle.  Next door, she could hear David thumping around, probably also getting ready for bed.  The door creaked.”

With:

“Sally switched on the light.  The room was cold, but at least she’d warmed the bed with a hot water bottle.  She got into her pyjamas and snuggled up to her hot water bottle.  Next door, she could hear David thumping around, probably also getting ready for bed.
The door creaked.”

For the first one, the reader probably assumes that it’s David’s door creaking.  Maybe he’s closing it.  Or perhaps it’s just an old house and Sally’s not yet used to the weird noises it makes.
In the second paragraph, you’re probably in a horror novel, and the Creature of Darkness and Too Many Spiky Bits is about to jump out and maul somebody.
Alright, maybe that’s going a bit far.  But certainly, setting out the door creaking from the rest of the paragraph draws attention to it, makes the reader think it’s significant somehow.  The question is now “why is the door creaking?”.

But how should we go beyond just this trick?  What else can the paragraph do?
Well, for one, varying paragraph lengths might work the same way as varying sentence lengths.  Shorter paragraphs read faster.
But they’re also capable of far more complex variation.  Think of a paragraph full of sentences like these ones – a couple of clauses long, but nothing too out of the ordinary.  What happens if you add in a one-clause sentence between two of them?  Something as short and simple as possible: The door creaked.  Sally heard David sobbing.  Glen left.
That’s really just enhancing the former point, though – what about if we go the other way?  What difference do you get if you have a paragraph full of short sentences, even fragments, followed by a long, coherent sentence?

“The fight was brutal.  Bloody.  Sam saw nothing but weapons and armour.  Something moved, and she swung.  She didn’t even think.  Someone attacked her.  She reacted.  Pain.  But her opponent was down.  She couldn’t spare a thought for him.  She had to move on.
And then, suddenly, before she had fully realised it, the fight was over, and she was standing alone.”

That first paragraph is probably the worst thing I’ve written this week (I am so not good at fight scenes), but notice how different this is to the long-sentences paragraph with one short sentence following? It’s much more of a slowing-down feeling, going from snatches and glimpses of something to being able to see the whole. 

That’s about all I’ve got the brain power to think of at the moment, but probably not the only variation.  If you have other ideas on how to change up paragraphs, leave a comment!  This is a blog, not an echo chamber for my grandiose ideas.

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