Paragraphs…they do more than you think. Last time, we stacked sentences to make a paragraph by focusing on rhythm. This week, we’re going to stack paragraphs to emphasize pauses.
Have you ever been in a class where the teacher asks for each student to read one paragraph aloud? Embarrassing for the students who have trouble with public speaking. I was one of those students, and eventually, one of those teachers.
There was always that one dreaded paragraph everyone hoped not to get. It was the longest paragraph, usually filled with complex words that took up half a page or more. As a student, you’re not aware of the reason why that particular paragraph is so long and the others so short. I didn’t understand back then but I do now. I even use it in my writing.
Generally, the longer paragraphs slow the pace of the story. Shorter paragraphs speed up the pace. Without longer paragraphs interspersed throughout the story, reading becomes as tiring as running a marathon.
I’m glad I’m aware of this now but at the same time, it also has me very worried. I’m old enough to remember dial-up tones on the computer, floppy disks, and rotary phones, yet young enough to appreciate YouTube, spark notes, and Netflix.
My future readers will always be of a younger generation. That may be a “Duh!” thing to say, but it’s actually hard to keep in mind, especially while writing. Longer paragraphs often demand more attention, yet so many of us readers tend to skim them. Our attention span is shortening.
Sad, but true.
All that world building, the foundation for plot twists, all the foreshadowing – if it’s skimmed, the world becomes duller, that insane plot twist is given an “Eh” by readers, and when something crazy happens in the story, a troll types a scathing blog post about major plot holes that aren’t actually plot holes.
So how do you stop a reader from skimming?
One way to do it is by adding humor at the end of a long paragraph. If a joke doesn’t fit, try an imaginative analogy or metaphor. Keep the paragraph as serious as you want, but give the reader something to latch onto. A skim reader usually reads the first sentence and the last. If you catch them at the end with some quip, there is a 50/50 chance they will go back to the beginning and give the paragraph their full attention.
I tried to find a good example of this in my prologue, but this is the best I could do. The paragraph doesn’t end on a joke or a clever quip. It ends on a question.
First, try skimming it – read the first and last sentence.
“James was instantly thrown back to the first time he had seen Captain Inglehart’s airship. Did he remember the way around a Kahiki? That was laughable. Buttons and levers, and a wheel that went tuk-tut, tuk-tut tuk when it was free to turn at will. Warmth from firestones and the crew who teased him as he watched the kukoo’s float around in the balance barrels. The porous rocks had fascinated him at the time. Setting them with firestones produced a gas strong enough to make a ship fly. What sixteen-year-old wouldn’t be impressed by that?”The Lost City of Al-Kimiya, Prologue
Did you find yourself interested in reading the whole paragraph? Was it an enticing enough end to the paragraph to make you consider going back?
One of my biggest insecurities of publishing is having a reader say, “Oh, I skipped that part,” or a review stating that chapter such-and-such was tl;dr (that’s too long; didn’t read for us old folks). With that said, let’s make one thing clear. Re-reading something that was skimmed is a mark against the reader. Re-reading something for clarity is a mark against the writer.
What are some ways you prevent readers from skimming your long paragraphs?
“My future readers will always be of a younger generation.” — That’s definitely one of those things that is obvious, but I’ve never thought of it before, good point. I think movies and TV are part of the reason our attention span is shrinking. I thought about that today – like it would have been really, really hard to get The Lord of the Rings published today, with that looooong intro and that long description.
And your example is great. I tried just reading the first and last as an exercise and I ended up wanting to read the whole thing!