Revising: Improve Your Story Using Paragraphs

old beech in forest-enrico fossatiEnhance Reader Ease by Addressing Paragraphs in Your Revision.

Ever so often I get a story from a student that reads like one long run-on sentence… A James Joyce special of stream-of-conscious… In fact, what the writer had done is write many sentences without breaking up the narrative into paragraphs. You might be laughing at this point. “I don’t do that,” you might be saying to yourself. “I haven’t done that since high school!” But go take a look at that first draft you’re working on; there it will be: a page-long paragraph. Oops.

We can’t help ourselves. When immersed in the creative process, we often don’t think about structure. That’s OK; that kind of thinking is more appropriate during the second draft revision process, when you are more objectively assessing the “storytelling”. That’s when you want to pay attention to storytelling devices like paragraph breaks.

Paragraphs are defined by a main point or expression or an idea, not by any specific length. Strong paragraphs contain a sentence or several sentences that are unified around one central, controlling idea. A paragraph may be a single sentence or occupy half a page of sentences.

What a Paragraph Does

Paragraphs do several jobs in stories. They: 1) provide a break from long stretches of text both in content and in space on the page, and 2) they help clue the reader in to key changes in your story. The second point is often subtle and can be assigned almost arbitrarily if the need of the first point must be met. This is because the rules are not hard and fast and, ultimately in fiction, an author can “break” them according to their judgment of style and flavor.

Before you start “breaking” rules, you need to understand what paragraphs are meant to do. They:

  • Introduce something new
  • Define a shift in something already there
  • Mark a movement in a sequence

Each of the above is definable and interpretable in many ways from very subtle alterations to very obvious changes. Because of this, it is important to pay attention to the visual role of paragraphs; that is, how they create a more attractive and easeful text for readers. There’s nothing more “slowing” than seeing a page of narrative without any breaks.

Fiction writers use paragraphs much like punctuation to create a visual flow of narrative that varies in cadence, tone and flavor for readers. This is accomplished in several ways.

Vary Paragraph Lengths

Varying paragraph lengths in text provides diversity in the narrative that adds interest for the reader. Long paragraphs unify a more ponderous and serious mood in a reader. Interspersing these with short paragraphs will break up the reader’s tendency for complacent reading and livens the narrative. The short paragraphs, by default, provide areas of emphasis within a sea of longer text. The fiction writer may use these to make a subtle point.

Using Dialogue

Dialogue effectively breaks up paragraphs and provides a lot of open white space that is attractive to readers and increases pace of narrative. However, even dialogue requires variation. Variation can take on the form of 1) dialogue interspersed with descriptive narrative vs. the use of straight back and forth dialogue, and 2) one-line dialogue vs. dialogue containing several sentences (the one line dialogue serves to punctuate).

Paragraph Checklist

In their 2008 book, The Little Brown Handbook by Pearson Longman (Toronto), H. Ramsey Fowler, Jane E. Aaron, Murray McArthur, Deane E.D. Downey, and Barbara H. Pell provide a general checklist for revising paragraphs that is adapted here for fiction writing. This consists of asking the following questions:

  • Is the paragraph unified? Is it tied to one general idea or narrative direction?
  • Is the paragraph coherent? Are the sentences linked and do they follow a clear and consistent sequence?
  • Is the paragraph developed? Is there a logical beginning and end that “frames” a whole idea or thought?old beech in forest-enrico fossati

Hope this helps. Don’t forget the one line paragraph.

Very effective.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

To Expose or Not to Expose…That is the Question

nude-in-waterIn fiction, exposition breaks away from the ongoing action of a scene to give information. It can be a paragraph or go on for several pages. Exposition often provides contextual information critical for the reader to buy-in to character-motivation or the ideas promoted in the story. It gives a story its perspective and larger meaning by linking the reader with the thematic elements. If scene is action and plot, exposition feeds reflection and theme. Exposition can appear in the form of background, setting, back story, or overview. It is most often expressed through a POV character’s reflection and observation.

There are points in almost every story where exposition is necessary. Most stories would suffer without information that adds past, context and overview.

Exposition in writing lets you:

  • Describe a person in detail
  • Describe a place for more than a phrase or two (important especially if a place serves as a “character”)
  • Skip over periods of time when nothing important or compelling is happening, without a jarring break in the narrative
  • Draw back from a close-focus action scene to give the reader a meaningful overview (and to say how things got that way)
  • Give some background and history of characters, location, event, etc.

You need to balance the show and tell part of your narrative and to maintain a rhythm in your pace and tone. This means doing several things, including:

  • Restrain yourself and keep your notes to yourself: I’ve seen excellent writers add too much exposition on a subject that obviously excited them but didn’t necessarily excite me. This often occurs when a writer feels impelled to share their invention or discovery at the expense of story-telling. Doing your “homework” in writing (e.g., research) also includes keeping it to yourself, no matter how much you want to share it. Doing your homework is the “iceberg” and the story is the “tip”. Many genre books (e.g., science fiction, thrillers, mysteries, etc.) must be supported by solid research. The writer takes what she needs for the story and keeps the rest.
  • Arouse then explain: introduce your character by letting her act and show herself and engage the reader’s curiosity and sympathy, then explain how and why she got there.
  • Build exposition into the scene: get creative and include expository information as props in a scene. This is a great way to add information seamlessly.
  • Put exposition in between scenes: instead of interrupting a scene in action, exposition can be used to give the reader a breather from a high paced scene to reflect along with the protagonist on what just happened. This is a more appropriate place to read exposition, when the reader has calmed down.
  • Let a character explain: have your characters provide the information by one questioning and the other replying. There is a danger in this kind of exposition, in that the dialogue can become encumbered by long stretches of explanation. Take forest path goldencare to make this realistic and enjoyable to the reader. If done well, this type of exposition can also reveal things about the characters.
  • Use interior monologue: use a character’s inner reflections to reveal information, which also reveals something of the character herself. Be careful not to turn this into polemic, however.

Now, go and have fun exposing!

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Ten Things to Consider When Revising Your Novel

streaming conifersNo piece of writing is complete without submitting it to the scrutiny of revision. A colleague of mine once shared the story of what a student of hers had said about revision: it’s “like beating up a nice friend. Why would I want to do that?” Because, my colleague replied, without a little pummelling all you have is a “nice draft”.

Here are ten things you can do to revise your first and subsequent drafts into something stellar.

  1. Let Your Work Breathe

Once you’ve completed your draft, set it aside for a while. This is key to helping you make objective observations about your writing when you return. The longer you leave it, the more objective you will be. Don’t worry about losing momentum or interest; they most certainly will return. But if hey don’t, then you didn’t have a story in the first place—and that, too, is a good thing to discover.

  1. Dig Deep

Now that you have the whole story in front of you, you’re in the position to restructure plotlines, subplots, events and characters to best reflect your overall story and its main theme. Don’t be afraid to remove large sections or even whole characters; you will likely add others.

  1. Take Inventory

Take stock of how each chapter and scene/sequel contributes to plotline and theme; root out the inconsistencies as you relate the minutia to the whole. You may decide to merge two characters into one or add a character or change a character’s gender or age to better serve your plotline and theme.

  1. Highlight the Surges

Some passages will stand out as being particularly stunning; pay attention to them in each chapter and apply their energy to the rest of your writing.

  1. Purge & Un-clutter

Make a point of shortening everything; this forces you to use more succinct language and replace adjectives and adverbs with power-verbs. Doing this will tighten prose and make it more clear. Reading aloud, particularly dialogue, can help streamline your prose.

  1. Check Point of View

This is the time to take stock of whether you’ve chosen the best point of view style for your story (e.g., first person, third person limited, omniscient). Many first manuscripts by my students have suffered from shifting or inconsistent point of view. Ensure that yours is consistent. You may wish to experiment with different points of view at this stage (e.g., changing your narrative from the third person to the first person, for instance); the results may surprise you.

  1. Make a Plot (Story) Promise

Given that you are essentially making a promise to your readers, it is advisable that you revisit that promise. Tie up your plot points; don’t leave any hanging unless you’re intentionally doing this. But, be aware that readers don’t generally like it. Similarly, if you’ve written a scene that is lyrical, beautiful and compelling but doesn’t contribute to your plotline, nix it. You can file it away for another story where it may be more applicable.

  1. Deepen Your Characters

The revision process is an ideal time to add subtle detail to your main characters: a nervous scratch of his beard, an absent twisting of the ring on her finger, the frequent use of a particular expression. Purposefully adding unique qualities to your characters, like vernacular, body language, and inflections grounds them in reality and makes them more personable and memorable. However, if you want a particular character trait to stick with the reader, you should repeat it a few times throughout the story. This applies to minor characters as well. When you paint your minor characters with more detail, you create a more three-dimensional tapestry for your main characters to walk through.

  1. Write Scenes (show, don’t tell)

Use the revision process to convert flat narrative into “scene” through dramatization. Narrative summaries often read like lecture or polemic. They tend to be passive, slow, and less engaging. Scenes are animated by action, tension and conflict, dialogue and physical movement.

  1. Be Concrete

Ground your characters in vivid setting and rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon them to a generic and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead brighten up their lives by having them speeding along Highway 66 in a red Carmen Ghia while sipping a Pinot Noir.

Remember to pace yourself when revising; otherwise you may become streaming conifersoverwhelmed and discouraged, even confused into incessant rewrites. Your story needs to settle between revision stages. As my colleague said, “you don’t need to beat up your nice friend all at once.”

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.