Tag Archives: style

Paragraphing

Paragraphing is not a glamorous subject and rarely seems critical, but it’s as important to the structure of our writing as is the sentence.

First, both in fiction and non-fiction the purpose is similar: both sentence and paragraph are organizational tools. The former encapsulates a single idea. The latter collects sentences pertaining to a single idea.

Still, the act of collecting sentences isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem. For example, all the sentences in this article relate to paragraphing. Should they, therefore, form one gigantic paragraph?

Technically an author would not be wrong to throw them all into one unbroken stream. However, the “organization” in that case would look much like a garage used as a junk room: all things not needed in the house regularly get stashed together. Even when each item has its own place, to the visitor, sorting through all the items will take much longer than if they are broken up and stored in separate cabinets and drawers.

Besides helping with organization, paragraphing also can enhance pace. The shorter the paragraphs, the faster the pace.

Longer, more leisurely paragraphs work against action scenes. Instead, shorter sentences and paragraphs convey a feeling of things happening quickly. Those that are longer don’t carry the same sense of urgency.

It’s interesting to note that in most newspaper stories, paragraphs are routinely only several sentences long. (For an example, check out this recent Los Angeles Times story). Generally, readers of a daily want quick, pithy facts, not lengthy, carefully constructed arguments. Short paragraphs create the kind of organization that allows a reader to move quickly through an article, from most important facts to least important.

Paragraphing contributes to writing in still a third way. It helps formulate style. As I wrote the above paragraph about newspapers, I couldn’t help but think that not all utilize the two-sentences-per-paragraph rule. Although I haven’t actually counted sentences, I suspect that the articles in the Wall Street Journal, for example, have paragraphs that are considerably longer than the L A Times. The issue is style. The WSJ, by its structure, conveys that its articles are attempting to do more than give a brief set of facts — they aim to look at their topics in more depth.

A second aspect of style, especially for writers interested in artistic expression, is variety. In the same way that using the same words over and over can become tiresome, using the same sentence structure or the same paragraph length can become monotonous.

A part of good writing in any genre is giving readers something that will hold their interest. Varying paragraph length is one way to do that.

To close, I’ll give an example of writing and let you judge (you don’t even have to read it 😉 ): is there enough variation in paragraph length? Does the structure entice you to read or does it appear too fast or too slow? From JOURNEY TO MITHLIMAR, book two of The Lore of Efrathah:

    Jim sprawled onto a pile of drying grass and stared at the strange night sky. Back in his world the Big Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades, and a handful of lesser-known constellations, were as familiar as the outdoor basketball court near his childhood home. But here in Efrathah the stars puncturing the blackness were larger, scattered, sparse.
    A lump formed in his throat. He pulled his blanket from his pack and rolled to his side, pillowing his head on his arm. After days on the run, he needed to sleep, not to think about this strange world. Better if he blocked out his surroundings — the canyon walls sailing by, the River Pegah churning toward Mithlimar, the two-tiered raft he lay on, Remalín at the helm, the rest of the trek team sprawled atop the woven mat. And those strange stars.
    He closed his eyes, listening to the water sloshing against the logs, to the wind whispers gusting through the canyon and the rhythmic breathing of his companions. To Bilg’s gentle snoring.
    His heartbeat slowed. He snuggled deeper into the pile of soft grasses covering the mat and drifted toward sleep. The image of a Vacant One formed. At the command of a malicious black knight, the soldier of death stalked toward Jim’s sleeping companions. Behind the knight, Vildoth-sadín — the faceless usurper — lurked in the shadows. Jim’s body tensed, and he snapped awake.
    Exhaling a long breath, he sat up.
    “Trouble sleeping?” Jonathan propped himself on his elbow, his walnut-brown hair more tousled than usual by the wind blowing through the river draw.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas.

Eight days, and counting. 😀

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Pace, Paragraphing, Writing Style

Tone It Down, Or Tone It Up?

“Your voice is too loud; tone it down!”

I heard that line more than once when I was growing up. But tone accomplishes a lot more than identifying how loud or how soft a sound is. For example, muscles are toned, or not, and writing — fiction or non-fiction — has a tone.

More than one reviewer or critique partner has criticized a story because the main character is whiny or uncaring or distant or proud. These are generally traits a reader doesn’t admire and therefore finds disturbing in a novel. Who wants to spend 300-400 pages with someone you don’t really like? Or worse, who annoys you?

But how does the author convey such tones? What exactly is a tone in writing? The word generally refers to the quality of sound. In writing this quality is generated by a variety of things — the voice of the piece, the style, the mood. Behind all these are word choice, sentence structure, and content.

Well, that narrows it down, doesn’t it! 🙄

Of course not, because tone is actually the sum of all these aspects of writing.

The term identifies the quality of a piece of writing. Is there lilting humor dancing behind each word? Is there sultry suggestiveness? Perhaps a touch of haughty grandeur? Or maybe bitter grumbling?

Authors may not always realize their writing carries such subliminal messages, but tone can make or break a piece. As Brian Klems wrote in his Writer’s Digest article 7 Ways to Perfect Your Writing ‘Tone,’ “the wrong tone can derail an otherwise good piece.”

Often times, without conscious effort, writers adapt specific tones for specific occasions. In a note to a friend, we are casual and warm. In a job application we are formal and business-like. No one told us to adjust our tone; we did it without thinking because we realized the occasion required it.

Perhaps the best way to hear the tone of a piece is to read it aloud and actually hear it. If someone reads the story, article, or chapter with inflection, how does it sound? With which character does the reader use a grumpy voice? or a saucy voice? Does a light-hearted character actually sound light-hearted? Or just as serious as his sad and serious great-aunt?

Does the article for the magazine about antiques have the same elegant seriousness as the other pieces they usually publish? Is the article for the children’s magazine friendly and welcoming? Is the devotional personal and honest?

Clearly, when we write articles or blog posts, short stories or novels, we can improve our writing if we pay attention to tone and create the one best suited to the occasion.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at some ways to make tone work for the writer. The first thing to keep in mind is to establish tone from the start and maintain it consistently throughout. To do so, the writer must decide what tone is most appropriate. One way to do this is to imagine who would enjoy reading the piece. Is this reader dressed formally, heading for a business meeting? Is she sitting in an easy chair with a cup of coffee?

Once you have in mind whether you’re coming into a person’s home to share a much needed break or if you’re adding value to a planned business transaction, you’ll have a better idea what tone you want to adopt.

Often times, finding the right tone comes from imitating the right tone. If a particular story is folksy, with a homespun tone, and that’s the exact tone you want for your story, then write a scene for their book, aiming to match the character voice, description, sentence structure, and so on. This kind of imitation exercise will teach you how to create that tone when you write your own story.

There are other important aspects about tone that we’ll look at next time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Tone

Writing Style – The Jonathan Rogers Example

Recently Jonathan Rogers author of the middle grade Christian fantasy, The Wilderking Trilogy and the new release, The Charlatan’s Boy, discussed his writing style in a guest blog post at Speculative Faith.

By way of reminder, style, according to Mort Castle in a Writer’s Digest article earlier this year, is

the summation of “how” a story is presented.

I’d expand that line to say how a story or article is presented because non-fiction writers also have particular styles. Is the writing formal? Folksy? “With it” contemporary? Academic? Imaginative? Analytical? The list of possibilities is long.

Yet too often fiction and non-fiction writers alike give little thought about how they will deliver their content. Not so Dr. Rogers. He revealed in his blog post a refreshing deliberateness to his writing style.

Interestingly, he’s hit upon something that seems quite unique—an American fantasy. As he explains, much of the fantasy genre owes its greatest influence to stories from Europe, with castles and swords and other medieval imagery. What would fantasy be like if, in the telling, it had more in common with Mark Twain than J. R. R. Tolkien?

See for yourself.

The two boys regarded one another. At last the wild boy’s nasally voice broke the silence. “Are we going to tangle or not?”

Aidan stood flabbergasted. It had never occurred to him that this wild child of the river bottoms might speak a recognizable language. The feechie boy placed his hands on his hips and leaned in closer. “You heard me, young civilizer. Let’s tangle.”

Aidan blinked twice, not quite sure he understood. “T-tangle? Do you mean fight? You want to fight?”

“Sure, I reckon!” answered the river boy, bending into a slight crouch and raising his fists in front of him. For the first time a little smile flickered on his muddy face.

Aidan swallowed hard. He wasn’t feeling quite as wild and adventurous as he had a little while earlier. “Wh-why would we want to fight?”

The river boy straightened up and cocked his head. He seemed genuinely perplexed. “You want a reason? For fighting? Hmmm…I reckon I can think of something.”

He scratched his head with one hand, counted his fingers with the other, and after a short pause looked up again. “All right. Here goes. But I ain’t had a chance to polish it up yet, so don’t laugh.” He hummed a little to get his pitch, then sang to the same march tune Aidan had sung a few minutes earlier:

Dobro of the Tam I am
And I could whip you easy.
I’ll make you weep cause you smell like sheep,
And your looks are kind of greasy.

The verse was not up to Aidan’s standards, of course, but Dobro of the Tam seemed proud of it. “See,” he said, “you not the only rhyme-maker on this river.” A self-satisfied smile showed several greenish teeth, as well as three gaps where greenish teeth should have been.

Aidan thought he caught a glimpse of the feechie good humor his grandfather had told him about. The river boy was smiling. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? Perhaps he could escape without getting torn limb from limb. On the surface, Dobro’s song was a challenge and an insult, but for some reason it had put Aidan at ease. It was a funny song, made funnier by Dobro’s ridiculous gap-tooth grin. Being a poet himself, Aidan appreciated the boy’s effort. And considering it was spur-of-the-moment, it wasn’t all that bad.

“Good work,” Aidan laughed. He was starting to like this fellow, in spite of his boorish behavior. “But I’m surprised you’d make fun of my looks. You look like you were fished up from the river mud. And I may smell like sheep, but you smell like a…like a… well, you smell like you brush your teeth with mashed garlic. You smell like you use a rotten catfish for a pillow. Aidan was only warming up. “You smell like you slick your hair with eel slime.”
(Excerpt from The Bark of the Bog Owl, book one of The Wilderking Trilogy

By way of comparison, read the opening pages of The Charlatan’s Boy. I think you’ll quickly see a similar writing style.

One reviewer at Amazon said

If Huck Finn were the hero of a fantasy novel, the result would be The Charlatan’s Boy. The folksy, southern voice is a delight to read, and the setting is a rough-and-tumble frontier rather than fantasy’s usual (and tired) medieval village.

Style—something that can set a writer apart, and just maybe something we should create with a little more intention.

3 Comments

Filed under Writing Style

The Art of Storytelling, Part 4

Style, as I see it, is an underrated component of artful storytelling, and I hope to learn much, much more about it, but the key element, of course, is the story. Once upon a time, I equated story with plot, but I now understand that character is just as central, though some argue it owns the prominent place.

Some might think there is little left to say about plot and/or characters. I might have thought this myself, except I read another article in Writer’s Digest that opened my eyes to More. I’m referring to “Your Novel Blueprint,” an excerpt of the book From First Draft to Finished Novel by Karen Wiesner.

The thing that grabbed my attention the most was the interplay between plot and characters that Wiesner clarifies. Here’s one example from the section entitled “Evolving Goals and Motivation”:

    Goals are what the character wants, needs or desires above all else. Motivation is what gives him drive and purpose to achieve those goals. Goals must be urgent enough for the character to go through hardship and self-sacrifice.

    Multiple goals collide and impact the characters, forcing tough choices. Focused on the goal, the character is pushed toward it by believable, emotional and compelling motivations that won’t let him quit. Because he cares deeply about the outcome, his anxiety is doubled. The intensity of his anxiety pressures him to make choices and changes, thereby creating worry and awe in the reader.

I love this section, but the next is just as good – “Plot Conflicts (External)”:

    External plot conflict is the tangible central or outer problem standing squarely in the character’s way. It must be faced and solved. The character wants to restore the stability that was taken from him by the external conflict, and this produces his desire to act. However a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug of war with the plot conflicts. He has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not he should face, act on, and solve the problem.

That’s probably enough to show how Wiesner interweaves plot and character, but it brings up one of the components of story I think is necessary—well, two actually. The first is that the character must have a want, need, or desire. More than one actually, and these can not be secret. The reader must understand from the outset what it is the character is after.

The second is that the story is really all about the character working to achieve the goals, even as the goals change by growing “in depth, intensity, and scope.” Of course, to achieve these goals, the character must overcome the problems standing squarely in the way.

Of late I’ve read a number of novels that don’t demand my attention until a third to a half way through. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a compelling reason to keep reading because I don’t see the character taking action to achieve some deeply felt goal. I don’t have a rooting interest in continuing to read.

So now I have a new goal for my own writing, a deeply felt one, I might add. 😉

First posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, January 2009.

1 Comment

Filed under Characters, Story, Writing Style

The Art of Storytelling, Part 3

In a Writer’s Digest some time ago, Mort Castle wrote an article about mimicking other writers, entitled “Write like Poe.” In the section “The Elements of Style,” Castle said this:

    Authors’ styles grow from all the basic elements of prose: vocabulary, sentence length, structure, rhythm, narrative point of view, imagery, figures of speech and lots more. Style reflects a writer’s line-by-line, moment-by-moment decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out, what tone to adopt and what mood to induce in the reader. Style is the summation of “how” a story is presented … Many popular writers aren’t considered stylists, and they seek what’s termed a “transparent style” that focuses exclusively on plot.

It is this “transparent style”—really a whitewashing of style—I’ve referred to as “stilted writing, robotic fiction, cloned storytelling.”

For much of the history of fiction, authors wrote in such unique manners that readers could tell who created the work without seeing a name affixed to it. In contrast, I won’t say that today such individuality is frowned upon. Rather, style is rarely discussed.

In numerous writing conferences, writing books, writing discussions, fiction techniques come across like how-to components—there is a right way that editors and agents are looking for, and other ways lead authors to the unpublished ranks. This impression feeds into the tender author psyches (like mine was) that suspect there is a secret to grasp which will lead to the promised land of publication.

Understandably, authors scramble to put their story into the “right” style, much as they do to put their writing into the required format, and the result is the equivalent of white bread.

Do publishers want this type of writing? Castle said “many popular writers” seek a “transparent style.” After all, rye bread has a distinct flavor, and not everyone likes it. Won’t a “transparent style” appeal to the widest possible audience?

I suspect that is the thinking, but millions read Tolkien and millions read Lewis, though neither of those authors wrote in a “transparent style.” The argument, of course, is that those writers would never be published today. And that could be true.

But my point is, they’re being read today. In other words, a transparent style is not requisite for a work to be well-liked, even loved. Granted, I have heard some people (certainly not everyone) complain about Tolkien’s style, even admit they skip parts.

Please understand, I’m not advocating a return to a style of yesteryear. I am suggesting, however, that readers have a far greater tolerance for varied styles—more so than what many in the business give them credit.

Frequently I say that story trumps all in fiction, and I believe that completely.

Style, on the other hand, can vary in its importance, depending on the approach an author takes. His style can be transparent (move out of the way) or opaque (get in the way), or he can use it to highlight (add and enhance).

If we writers keep learning, I think it’s within our grasp to do more than get out of the way.

First posted at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, January 2009.

3 Comments

Filed under Writing Style