Units of Fiction II: Attention and Focus (Paragraphs)

(This is the second post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I; Part III; Part IV.)

In the first post of this series, I talked about the mechanics and pacing of where to break between paragraphs, scenes, and chapters. But “you have to start a new one under these conditions” and “merits and demerits of short vs. long” doesn’t get you very far; there are still enormous aesthetic decisions involved in where you choose to place your breaks.

(This is where I start flailing vaguely in the direction of articulating things I know, but have never tried to explain.)

As I said in that first post, I think this is largely a matter of regulating your reader’s attention. Unpacking that more, I think there are (at least) three aspects to this:

  • A unit, be it a paragraph, a scene, or a chapter, asks the reader to sustain their attention until it’s over. The intensity of that attention varies — more for a paragraph; less as you go up the scale — but if they’re going to look away, they should ideally do that when the unit ends, not partway through.
  • A unit is a way of signaling to the reader that there is a relationship between its component parts. Units whose component parts are unrelated are usually less effective — and again, that’s most true at the paragraph level, and less so as you go up the scale.
  • Finally, a unit guides the reader’s attention to particular points of focus. This is primarily true at the beginning or end of the unit.

Because the operation of each of these things differs significantly between sizes of unit, let’s take them one at a time, starting with paragraphs.

*

First, sustained attention. It’s not uncommon or all that problematic for a reader to pause briefly in the middle of reading a scene or a chapter (because they need a drink or whatever), but I suspect people rarely do this in the middle of a paragraph unless they’re interrupted or really, really bored. That’s why, of the three units we’re discussing, I say the intensity of attention is probably highest at the paragraph level.

Which means that a paragraph that goes on for too long can be exhausting. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is partly due to the increasing pace of life and the many distractions around us, which have badly fragmented our ability to concentrate; I’ve read period works where a paragraph can go on for more than a page, and man, I find myself having to come up for air mid-swim. Conversely, a story whose paragraphs are all really short feels like I’m reading Twitter, everything chopped into bites small enough for the attention span of a hyperactive puppy.

And that has detrimental effects for the “grouping” aspect of the unit, which is again most vital at the paragraph level. If a paragraph signals that everything in it is connected somehow, then if all the paragraphs are short, nothing is connected very strongly. It’s just a bunch of beads on a string, and none of them are very large. You know how people say Twitter is a terrible place for conveying deep thoughts, because the format limits your ability to be nuanced and complex? The same is true here.

I also find that one of the most glaring flaws of amateur writing is the lack of awareness regarding paragraph unity. Consider a scene which shows a woman coming home, and compare the following three versions:

*

Monica came in and shut the door behind her. The living room windows were open, their curtains fluttering in the breeze. She dropped her keys in the dish. From the kitchen there was a tempting smell of gumbo. Easing out of her shoes, she sighed and dug her toes into the rug. On the couch, her cat woke up and began to wash himself. Then she hung up her coat in the closet and said, “I’m home!”

*

Monica came in and shut the door behind her. She dropped her keys in the dish. Easing out of her shoes, she sighed and dug her toes into the rug. Then she hung up her coat in the closet and said, “I’m home!” On the couch, her cat woke up and began to wash himself. The living room windows were open, their curtains fluttering in the breeze. From the kitchen there came a tempting smell of gumbo.

*

Monica came in and shut the door behind her. She dropped her keys in the dish. Easing out of her shoes, she sighed and dug her toes into the rug. Then she hung up her coat in the closet and said, “I’m home!”

On the couch, her cat woke up and began to wash himself. The living room windows were open, their curtains fluttering in the breeze. From the kitchen there came a tempting smell of gumbo.

*

(Not great prose, of course. Because I wanted something where I could keep the wording exactly the same and not have it be nonsensical or cause my eyeballs to bleed, I made up an example for this post, rather than using text drawn from a real story of mine.)

The first version jerks the reader’s attention around by switching repeatedly between things that aren’t very closely linked. Yes, they all have to do with “Monica arrives at home,” but there are two different components in there (what Monica is doing, and what’s going on in her environment), and mixing them does the story no favors. This is especially jarring when it happens in first-person fiction, because then you feel like the narrator’s focus is all over the place. The second is better, because at least it’s A and then B, but the third works best because it separates A and B with a paragraph break.

An aside, which is relevant to what I’m about to say: I think prose fiction writers should always be leery of craft comparisons to TV and film, because there is an utterly crucial difference between those two kinds of media. Prose feeds you information through one channel, which is the words on the page. TV and film feed you information through two channels, the audio and the video. Which means they can create effects through the juxtaposition of those channels, e.g. by having Character A talk offscreen (audio) while the camera remains on Character B and their reactions (video). You can receive the dialogue and its effect simultaneously, in a way that’s just not possible in the unilinear format of prose. But this isn’t to say that prose is somehow inferior; it can do lots of things A/V media can’t, like direct interiority. It just means that we have to take different routes to achieving our desired effects.

Having said that, I do think there’s a semi-useful A/V metaphor here, which is the cut. Ending one paragraph and beginning another is a bit like ending one camera shot and beginning another: it redirects the audience’s attention to a new subject. In a film, you wouldn’t generally expect to get a montage (a quick series of cuts) jumping back and forth between the woman putting her keys down — look, there’s a room with a couch and a cat — now she’s taking off her shoes — shot toward the kitchen — hanging up her coat — etc. It wouldn’t be unheard-of to get a single continuous shot panning from her arrival to the room. But the most common approach would be to first show her routine in the front hall, then cut to what’s going on at home.

Related to this: when writing a conversation between two characters, you’ll want to pay close attention to where their actions (including their thoughts — basically, any narration about that character) go vis-a-vis their dialogue. The general default is to say A’s actions belong in the same paragraph as their dialogue, and then start a new paragraph when B does something or speaks. But there are times when you want the actions to carry you across that gap, in a technique I think of as enjambment, after a similar trick in poetry:

“Your pardon, alta,” Renata said, breaking in. “I’m afraid you misunderstand. It’s true my mother is Letilia—Lecilla—who was Gianco’s sister, but she’s no longer in the Traementis family register. So I am not Era Traementis’s niece.”

She let a touch of regret flavor the words. Carinci scoffed. “Registered or not, unless your mother is here with you—no? Of course she isn’t—then Donaia should be looking after you and who you associate with. Gossip leaves dirt on everything around it.”

(This and subsequent selections are drawn from The Mask of Mirrors, so I don’t have to keep making up random examples with no surrounding context.)

We could have put “She let a touch of regret flavor the words” in the first paragraph, keeping all of Renata’s bits together, and in most cases that’s exactly what I do. But since we wanted the reader’s focus to be on that final bit, about not being Donaia’s niece — more on that in a moment — it worked to shift that line down one. When you do that sort of thing, the key is to make it absolutely clear who’s speaking next, before they speak (hence “Carinci scoffed”). Otherwise the reader will default to assuming that same character is still talking, and have to readjust their interpretation when they get to the dialogue tag later.

Speaking of focus, that’s where the question of guidance and flow comes in. Most paragraphs are, to a greater or lesser degree, going to do one of two things: they’ll either start with the point of focus and then unpack it, or lead the reader up to the point of focus at the end.

The first of those approaches will probably be familiar to just about everybody, since “topic sentence, then supporting evidence!” is the constant refrain of poor, beleaguered schoolteachers despairing of ever teaching their students to write a coherent paper. That always annoyed me, though, because sometimes your purpose is better-served by leading the reader through your train of thought, arriving at your conclusion at the end. But I digress . . .

Compare these two examples:

The Traementis made the perfect target: small enough these days that only Donaia stood any chance of spotting Renata as an imposter, and isolated enough that they would be grateful for any addition to their register. In the glory days of their power and graft, they’d been notorious for their insular ways, refusing to aid their fellow nobles in times of need. Since they lost their seat in the Cinquerat, everyone else had gladly returned the favor.

I consider this front-loaded because the purpose of the paragraph is to add detail to its opening sentence, i.e. why the main character has chosen a particular noble house to con. Therefore, it starts by calling them the perfect target, and spends the rest of the paragraph unpacking what makes them so perfect. Contrast with:

The close confines meant Sibiliat’s flock shifted like starlings in flight, changing partners to follow the banter. Renata doubted it was an accident that every single one of the nobles found occasion to walk alongside her and comment on her mask—and, by implication, the man she’d gotten it from. Their approach was more genteel than the river rats she’d known, but the behavior was the same: testing whether she was fit to run with their crew.

I consider this end-loaded because the important thing here isn’t that this group of people walking along keeps shifting their configuration; instead it builds up to the final line, which is that there’s some social fencing going on here, and if Renata doesn’t hold her own, she may find herself cast out.

Both approaches work just fine, and which one you want will depend on both the situation and your aesthetic preferences, though you should use both rather than always following the same format. Front-loading a paragraph is ideal when you want to explain a previously-established point, or when a character is reacting to something surprising or upsetting; it feels weird if the reader gets multiple sentences of context, then the supposedly knee-jerk reaction. (Though every so often, you can do that for ironic effect.) End-loading is ideal when the context is helpful to building up a new point. What you almost never want to do, though, is bury the focal point in the middle of the paragraph — or the middle of a scene or a chapter.

There’s one other option, but it should be used sparingly, because otherwise it stops working at all. Consider the following:

Ren eased backward, pressing herself against the wall for cover, even though it crawled with mold and river beetles.

As soon as she rounded the corner, she started moving faster, trying to put distance between herself and whatever [redacted] was doing.

She sacrificed caution for speed, and paid the price.

Hands shoved her shoulders from behind at the same moment a kick took her knee from under her.

Ren fell hard, skidding in the mud, all the wind driven from her lungs.

Where’s the focal point? Which part of that is supposed to really hit home, more than the other stuff around it?

A single-sentence paragraph is like shining a spotlight on something. But if you shine a spotlight equally on everything, the audience doesn’t know where to look. So while a really short paragraph is an excellent tool, it carries the most impact when it’s the exception to the surrounding rule. Overused, it starts to feel like every! sentence! is shouting! at! the reader!

In actuality, that segment is paragraphed like this:

Ren eased backward, pressing herself against the wall for cover, even though it crawled with mold and river beetles. As soon as she rounded the corner, she started moving faster, trying to put distance between herself and whatever [redacted] was doing.

She sacrificed caution for speed, and paid the price.

Hands shoved her shoulders from behind at the same moment a kick took her knee from under her. Ren fell hard, skidding in the mud, all the wind driven from her lungs. [etc; the paragraph goes on from here with some more action]

Because the part we wanted to spotlight was the transition from “get away” to “oh crap.”

When I’m drafting, I do a lot of fiddling with paragraph structure. I’ll rearrange a graf to shift a front-loaded point to the end or an end-loaded point to the front, move the final sentence of one graf to the beginning of the next or vice versa, break something out into its own graf or combine it with an adjacent one. I get annoyed with myself when five paragraphs in a row all have the same number of lines (it means my rhythm is getting predictable and repetitious), or if I realize I’ve got three sequential instances of larger graf followed by single line. Or just that the flow of ideas is muddy because I put my paragraph breaks in the wrong places or buried the focus in the middle somewhere. There’s a lot of flexibility here — rephrasing your sentences can allow you to make big changes in the paragraph structure — so this is where a lot of the moment-to-moment effect of the story happens.

Certainly not all of it, though. Which is why tomorrow we’ll turn our attention to scenes.