Welcome back! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison‘s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month fifteen:
“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 15: Tools of the Trade
In the second grade, my classmates and I learned to write paragraphs. To ease us into the task, our teacher, Mrs. Stockinger, wrote a paragraph on the blackboard and told us to copy what she had written. Although the paragraph was only two or three lines, I remember that assignment as grievously laborious. I’m glad I didn’t know then that we would soon have to compose our own paragraphs and even write a whole story full of paragraphs.
Good grief, whatever was Mrs. Stockinger thinking?
She was thinking that the ability to write a viable paragraph would be a useful tool during our academic lives and beyond.
If you’re writing a novel, then it’s safe to bet that someone at sometime showed you how to write paragraphs. You were probably taught that a good paragraph begins with a topic sentence and goes on to explain or develop the premise set by that sentence.
That’s a great place to start, but, because we’re writing novels, let’s consider a few more novel-pertinent ideas about writing paragraphs.
1. Most of the time, you should keep your paragraphs relatively short. Readers today grew up with television, and, therefore, with stories conveniently nipped into bite-sized pieces. Unlike our ancestors of the 1800s, we’re used to ideas presented succinctly. To modern readers, long paragraphs are akin to a monotone speaker.
2. Unless the reader is enjoying an audio edition or using Braille, the act of reading is a visual experience. Even before a reader delves into the words or the story, the page imprints on the brain — white space versus black letters. I used to keyline page layouts for a small university press. You’d be amazed how much time we spent considering column widths, margins, photograph placement, and caption sizes. Odd as it sounds, readers drift away when a page doesn’t contain enough white space. Ebooks have introduced a whole array of new possibilities, but still, as a writer, don’t be afraid to chop up your chapters with a few one-sentence or even one-word paragraphs. They rest the eyes, and they add pleasing visual variety.
3. Paragraph lengths impact the Voice or Voices you have chosen as the vehicle to carry and tell your story. You can test this for yourself. Read aloud a page of your manuscript. Now rewrite it with longer or shorter paragraphs. Read it aloud again. The difference is amazing, isn’t it? And that’s what I want to get across. The lengths of your paragraphs make a difference, and knowing that fact places a very useful tool into the hands and the mind of a writer.
4. Long chapters are discouraging to many readers. I love to insert a couple of one-page chapters in my suspense novels. That bit of choppiness ramps up the tension — another tool to add to your collection.
So there you have it. Writers can use chapter and paragraph length as tools to tweak their novels.
What’s your tendency? Short or long paragraphs? Short or long chapters? Which do you prefer to read?
Strength to your pen!
*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*
Bestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.
Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you come back May 22, 2014, for part 16.
What a wonderful column. My first book had way too many long and clunky paragraphs, narrow margins, small font, etc. I had it reworked and it looked much better. A friend who manages a small local book store pointed out these mishaps, and I avoided them in my other books. Sue really hit the nail on the head.
Thank you! I’m so glad you brought up your friend at the book store. Often we writers get our best advice from bookstore managers. They see beyond the story to other ways books impact a reader.
Great tips, Ms. Harrison! And dialogue (no matter how much) always deserves its own paragraph. 🙂
Yes it does, Erik!