Paragraph length

Friday, November 21, 2008
I just read a pretty well known book. The book was really well written. The prose is striking, and the metaphors original and memorable. For me, the problem came with simply too much prose, metaphors, and description. Now, part of that is that it was written when the rules were more lax, or just plan different. But there's a lot we can learn by going through it and comparing it to now. For instance:

The cheerless cold of the Northland sky hung in thin strips of gray fog against the dull edges that formed the peaks of the solitary mountain of pitted blackness that was the castle of the Warlock Lord.

Not too bad, right? The writing paints us a fabulous picture of what the scenery looks like. Could have ended there. But the problems comes when the first 38 lines of the chapter are dedicated to describing the mountains and castle--lots of repitition here. And that is the norm. Now, we don't know which of the characters, if any, is seeing this scene. None of them are mentioned. It's simply the author painting us a detailed picture in exacting details.

I find this type of writing heavy and, dare I say, condescending.
Why? you might ask.

Because the author feels like they have to hold us by the hand to see the world exactly as it is.
This bugs me for two reasons. First, I have an imagination, thank you very much. Draw me a sketch and let me fill in the blanks. Second, this is an imaginary place, so why does it matter if I see it exactly as the author, or make my own slight variations? The castle and surrounding mountains of the dark lord are dark, cheerless, void, and dead. Got it. Done. Why do I have to know every minuscule detail. Variations of the word black are used no less than 7 times in these 38 lines!

OVERKILL!

Wish I could say that this was an aberration of the book, but the whole thing is basically like that.
So how do you fix it?

Go over you MS. How many paragraphs are there per page? In the passage I mentioned, there are 3 paragraphs in four pages. That's less than one paragraph break per page. If your paragraphs are that long, you're getting way too long winded.

Hold a page of you MS at arms length. It should be jagged and rough because of all the breaks. Long paragraphs should be broken up by dialogue. Description should be sprinkled throughout, not given in one big chunk. When writing YA or middle grade, the paragraphs are obviously smaller, while you can usually make the paragraphs longer for older readers.

Remember, the important thing is the story, always the story. Not the exact shade of your heroines hair or a step by step verbal map of the castle.

We get it. It's a castle. Move on.

A good tip is to have your main character see and experience the landscape. Don't simply tell us what it's like.

Lastly, watch the head hopping! My opinion is that if you're going to switch character view points, you need to have a chapter or section break. And then, your character better go on for a few pages before you switch back. This also breaks up the monotony (more on chapter length later).

One last point, and I promise I'll shut up. The whole first half of the book is the main characters fleeing the dark, flying creatures into dangerous, scary places.

The scary places seem invented merely to make the travels exciting. But what does traveling have to do with the plot?

In fantasy, it's impossible to avoid all the traveling, but try to cut it back. It shouldn't take up half of your book.

Okay, on more last point (cringe as you throw rotten fruit at the screen). Guess what compromised the company? One wizard, two small weak men that are totally dedicated to each other, one dwarf, two elves, and a king of men.

This group travels through the scary, haunted tunnels of the mountain of the dead. Anyway, I could go on, but is anyone else havin' flashbacks to LOR?

Don't do this. It's been done to the point that it's a cliche storyline.

3 comments:

  1. Anthony said...:

    I can't tell you how many times I have said "it's cold, I get it, MOVE ON."

    Something about describing cold makes fantasy authors go off.

    Anyway, good post. I think something ate the paragraph returns between your paragraphs, however.

  1. I type fast, and sometimes I forget to hit return twice. I shouldn't have to do that at all, but if I don't it's all one big blog.
    I agree with the cold thing. Or hot. Heck, anything that makes the character uncomfortable gets center stage.

  1. I think too many people get tied up in echoes of Jack London's Call of the Wild (CotW)- an entire book about "It's cold, but I can't move on."

    When CotW was written, the book was about how to survive problems in a realistic setting that people might actually visit themselves, if they wanted to suffer for the chance of gold. People were interested in the intricate details of how to tell the temperature with your own spit, or how to get a fire started, for example.

    But now the theme "Man vs Nature" doesn't work anymore, because people don't even care about real solutions to that problem. And when you're in a fantasy setting, it's all made up anyway, so why would anyone care?

    Do what's necessary to set the mood, then move the story onward. And, yes, hit [return] occcasionally.

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