Monday, December 15, 2014

Overview: Constructing Proper Paragraphs

How do you decide where to break content into paragraphs? This is the most common problem that writers have regarding paragraph construction, whether they’re writing stories, essays, or anything else. Content appropriately divided into paragraphs will be orderly and easy to follow; content poorly divided into paragraphs can be meandering, confusing, jarring, and just all around difficult to read.

Fortunately, the process of organizing paragraphs is similar to the process of organizing anything else. Imagine, for instance, that you have been charged with opening a new library. You’ve been given piles and piles of books and a building full of shelves, and now you have to organize the books so that visitors will easily be able to find what they want. What would you do first?

You’d probably begin sorting the books, wouldn’t you? You’d divide fiction from non-fiction and sort out YA, middle-grade, and children’s books. You might further these sections into genres: fiction would be separated into mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and so on; non-fiction would be separated into travel, cooking, history, etc. The specificity of the categories would be determined by how many books you had in each—the more books in a category, the more likely you would need to divide the category into sub-categories for ease of access.

Once your books were sorted by genre, you could assign each category a section of your library and begin shelving them. But in what order would you shelve them? Almost certainly in alphabetical order by the last name of the primary author, right? It’s the order that will be easiest for people to understand, after all.

Libraries: you don't even have to open a book for lessons on how to write one.
No matter what you ever have to organize, this process will be essentially the same. If your closet is organized, it’s probably by clothing type (shoes, slacks, shirts, dresses, etc.) and sub-type (dress shoes, casual shoes, sports shoes, sandals), with each category organized within the closet by size or color. Are you a visual artist? I’ll bet you’ve got your supplies organized by type (paints, colored pencils, kopecs, etc.) and then color.

Organizing content is essentially the same. Your paragraphs are categories of content divided by subject matter and character, organized in a logical procession such as linear order of actions or an increasingly magnified focus.  Let’s look at an example from “The Chaplain’s Assistant” by Brad Torgerson (about which you can learn more here). I’ve numbered the paragraphs for easy reference.

1.     I was putting fresh oil into clay lamps at the altar when the mantis glided into my foyer. The creature stopped for a moment, his antennae dancing in the air, sensing the few parishioners who sat on my roughly-hewn stone pews. I hadn’t seen a mantis in a long time—the aliens didn’t bother with humans much, now that we were shut safely behind their Wall. Like all the rest of his kind, this mantis’s lower thorax was submerged into the biomechanical “saddle” of his floating mobility disc. Only, this one’s disc didn’t appear to have any apertures for weapons—a true rarity on Purgatory.
2.     Every human head in the building turned towards the visitor, each set of human eyes smoldering with a familiar, tired hate.
3.     “I would speak to the Holy Man,” said the mantis through the speaker box on its disc. Its fearsome, segmented beak had not moved. The disc and all the machines within it were controlled directly by the alien’s brain.
4.     When nobody got up to leave, the mantis began floating up my chapel’s central aisle, the mantis’s disc making a gentle humming sound. “Alone,” said the visitor, his vocoded voice approximating a commanding human tone.
5.     Heads and eyes turned to me. I looked at the mantis, considered my options, then bowed to my flock, who reluctantly began to leave—each worshipper collecting handfuls of beads, crosses, stars, serviceman’s bibles, and various other religious items. They exited without saying a word. What else could they do? The mantes ruled Purgatory as surely as Lucifer ruled Hell.

Each paragraph is divided based on the content it contains. Paragraph one focuses on appearance—primarily the appearance of the mantis, but the author uses this paragraph to supply a bit of description of the chapel and a bit about the history of the setting. Paragraph two moves from description to action, specifically the actions of the congregation. Paragraphs three and four focus on the mantis again—three on its description and four on its actions. Paragraph five focuses on the actions of the protagonist and then the actions that the congregation takes in response.

Now, Mr. Torgerson might not have organized his paragraphs in the same way that you or I would have. For instance, paragraphs three and four could have been combined into one paragraph if he had felt like it, since they both focus on the mantis. Conversely, paragraph five could easily be split into two paragraphs—one covering the actions of the protagonist and one covering the actions of the congregation. There will almost always be several ways to organize the same content.

The specifics of your content organization are generally up to you—just like you can decide whether or not you want your books organized by author or by size and color, you can decide how you want your content to be arranged. What’s important is that the content be divided and organized logically.

There are, however, a few rules and common mistakes regarding paragraphs, which we will cover in future posts.

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