Paragraphs (Part 1)

Within a paragraph, there must be variety. And by variety, I mean sentences in different forms. Different forms of sentences create rhythm. We want rhythm for flow, but we also want to vary that rhythm to create contrast.

Why is contrast good?

Contrast creates emphasis. Punctuation helps, but don’t rely solely on that. Too many commas weigh down a paragraph. Not enough limits the imagination. And there are only so many times you can use a dash or colon before a reader gets frustrated. I’m guilty of excessive dashing.

One great way to add contrast to rhythm is to toss in a sentence fragment.

Sentence fragments are short bits of information. They are to the point and create a forceful break in rhythm. Fragments imply, giving the reader the joy of using their own imagination. It’s important to give the reader just enough information and then let their minds fill in the rest. If you don’t allow for this, then your technique is more in line with Victorian Realism writing. And that style bores the reader fast.

A story is externalized thoughts of a writer – their creativity in ink on paper – but those thoughts are then internalized by readers. Describing every detail is like holding a reader’s hand from cover to cover, but not just holding – gripping so tightly they can’t stray an inch. (Did you notice this paragraph has varied sentence forms, but too many dashes?)

Let’s take another glance at my prologue and find where I broke my rhythm with a sentence fragment.

“Vagabonds and thieves were placed under surveillance for every kind of election, but for one of this prominence, they were rounded up and arrested for the smallest infraction. All eyes would be on the capital from now until the election. The government wanted to keep the streets clean and the city safe until the scrutiny eased. A waste of resources.”

The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue

By ending with a fragment, I’ve broken the rhythm to emphasize the negative impact an election has on a city. My fragment implies a lot: taxation, constable’s time and energy, inconvenience to city residents, etc.

In natural conversation, we often speak in fragments. It would only make sense that dialogue would be full of sentence fragments too. Here are some in the prologue:

One hundred million tollárs. That’s enough to travel around the world on a first-class airship a thousand times. Enough to buy a small city. She’s set to inherit the rest, which is rumored to be ten times as much, on her twenty-fifth birthday.”

Ricky Dickson, The Lost City of Al-Kimiya

In that example, there are two sentence fragments. The beginning of the paragraph sets the tone for Ricky Dickson’s dialogue as well as the subject: money. The second fragment is in the middle and implies that a thousand first-class airship tickets cost as much as a small city and that Zenetra Noire could afford both. The longer, varied sentence that follows explains that the “one million tollárs” is just a fraction of what Zenetra will inherit in the end.

Writers are imaginative. So are readers. Give them the opportunity to use their own imagination.

Stack Those Words (Part 2)

Last week we stacked words within a sentence. Now, let’s look at stacking sentences within a paragraph. It’s basically the same: put the most striking imagery at the end to make the passage memorable.

Our last example was about a bear. “A brown large bear” was not stacked correctly. We changed it to its natural order of “A large brown bear.” Then we explored why the last word was the most vivid with the following sentence.

“Almost everyone knows what a bear looks like, so leaving a reader with the image of sharp teeth, dark claws, and a hairy body is powerful.”

But that was wrong too, so we restacked that sentence. Why? Because “hairy body” was not as powerful an imagery as “sharp teeth.”

Now let’s take the essence of those two example sentences and make a paragraph. We will probably need at least another sentence or two to fulfill the beginning-middle-end rule. Remember though, we want this paragraph to be just that – memorable. Here’s what I came up with. Can you put these sentences in order?

  • The blackberry bushes were ripe for picking.
  • It was summer.
  • It had a hairy body, black claws, and sharp teeth.
  • As I plucked berry after juicy berry, I realized I was not alone.
  • With me was a large brown bear.
  • I grabbed my bucket and headed off into the thicket.

Does your paragraph match mine? (Also, notice that my sentences begin with different words?)

“It was summer. The blackberry bushes were ripe for picking. I grabbed my bucket and headed off into the thicket. As I plucked berry after juicy berry, I realized I was not alone. With me was a large brown bear. It had a hairy body, black claws, and sharp teeth.”

Ending the paragraph with a vivid image of a bear and its sharp teeth is good, but how can we make it even more memorable for a reader?

Adding a bit of humor should do the trick.

Your readers’ mind is, at this point, thinking of all the possible ways your character is going to get away from this bear. If you throw in some humor, your reader may remember this specific passage better. Keep in mind, an author wants their readers to continue reading, so the end must be good.

Here’s how I would end that paragraph:

“It was summer. The blackberry bushes were ripe for picking. I grabbed my bucket and headed off into the thicket. As I plucked berry after juicy berry, I realized I was not alone. With me was a large brown bear. It had a hairy body, black claws, and sharp teeth. If my grandmother were here, she would have dropped her bucket of berries and hugged the beast.”

How would you end the paragraph? Let me know below!

Stack Those Words (Part 1)

Now that we’ve determined the value of words and begun to add to our vocabulary bank, we need to utilize these words to their fullest potential. Though it’s considered a creative art form, there is structure to writing. Words stack naturally in a specific order.

“A brown large bear” doesn’t sound right. Why is that? The meaning is the same, yet we would never express it that way. The natural stack – or order – would obviously be, “A large brown bear.”

Natural stacking was a challenge for me to explain while I taught English as a second language. My students spent months learning and memorizing vocabulary, only to then, after all that work, be told, “a brown large bear” is wrong. Needless to say, my explanation was vague. In the end – mostly for the sake of time management – I deferred to the ill-old phrase, “Because I said so.”

I wish I had told them that we end a sentence with the strongest word, that we stack words from least complex to most complex.

Here’s why.

If we end a sentence with the strongest word (and by the strongest, it’s usually the most vivid), we end on a high note.

High notes are memorable. A reader may not remember what color the animal was, but they remember the animal was a bear. Almost everyone knows what a bear looks like, so leaving a reader with the image of sharp teeth, dark claws, and a hairy body is powerful. Powerful enough to get them to read on to the next sentence.

What if we have a longer sentence that stacks a list? Let’s take the above sentence for example:

“Almost everyone knows what a bear looks like, so leaving a reader with the image of sharp teeth, dark claws, and a hairy body is powerful.”

That sentence was stacked incorrectly. What’s the most vivid of the bolded? Where should the most vivid go? Rearrange the sentence. Did you get:

“Almost everyone knows what a bear looks like, so leaving a reader with the image of a hairy body, dark claws, and sharp teeth is powerful.”

Does that not sound more memorable? Stacking also applies to paragraphs. We’ll look more closely at that next week.

This is definitely more of a habit of writing to get into (if you haven’t already). Self-editing becomes verrrry time consuming if not. Also, it’s much easier finding better ways to stack words when it’s not your own work. Can you find some sentences in my prologue that should be stacked differently?

Eloquence Over Fanciful

As I stated in my previous post, words are important. Are your choice of words effective? Do you see a mundane word in your writing and instinctively right click to see a list of more fanciful synonyms?

We’ve all been there. I get it. I’ve done it. But is it better to try to replace perfectly good words with flowery, out-of-use ones?

Not necessarily.

Eloquence is not synonymous with fancy words. Eloquence is knowing – and understanding – which word is perfect for your subject, audience, and setting. With that said, there is a time and place for fancy words. Consider dialogue.

“I will commence at my earliest possible convenience” is not something you or anyone you know would say, unless you are a time traveler (in which case–carry on). In everyday life, “I’ll start as soon as possible” is more eloquent than the previous example.

If you don’t use this in your everyday life, why put it in dialogue? Because it reads better?

Nope.

There are exceptions of course, but don’t assume you are the exception. Take The Lost City of Al-Kimiya for instance. It’s set in the industrialized age of my world; a century flooded with mechanized inventions, woven with alchemy and magic, and which begins not even a century after a great war. Words like “gubbins,” “ninnyhammer,” and “tootle-loo” would be spoken by the older generation of characters, and thus, they’re added into dialogue. Sparingly, I might add.

Include old-fashioned words cautiously. Oversaturation of out-of-use words will pull a reader from the story. Your audience may roll their eyes. As the writer, you are supposed to be the one who decides when the reader should roll their eyes.

So how does an author become eloquent? They broaden their vocabulary by listening. I like to keep a pocket-sized notebook or my phone nearby for this exclusive purpose. It helps when creating a “voice” for a character. Reading, watching T.V., eavesdropping on a stranger’s conversation, all add to your vocabulary, but knowing when and how to use words distinguishes time travelers from modern eloquence.

I still struggle with using the word “for” after a comma. “Elivia knew no other way, for she had studied the classics at her university and could not break this terrible habit.”

What “terrible habits” of writing do you struggle with?