Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Organized Paragraphs and Missing Sentences

Last time, we discussed rogue sentences: lines that should, thematically, reside in a different paragraph than the one in which they’re found. But not all rogue sentences jump to the wrong paragraph. Sometimes, they don’t even get written. They are missing sentences.

Sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters, and even books themselves all serve to divide content up into easily-processed portions. A sentence is a single thought—when reading, we rarely focus on more than one sentence at a time. A paragraph collects sentences which need to be processed together, helping us to easily find the connection between a series of thoughts. And a series of thoughts can easily become a narrative—a small story in its own right. And no matter how short a story is, it is always jarring when it doesn’t come to an end:

You can find the missing panel here.

Just as you can tell when a panel has been left off of a comic strip, your readers will be able to tell when a sentence has been left off of a paragraph:

     Borya knelt on the carpet before his king. As a general, he was not required to press his forehead to the ground as others would in the presence of the monarch, but he would still be forced to wait for his audience to begin. That would not happen until the king’s small army of servants had finished grooming and pampering their corpulent ruler. Young women and girls darted about, straightening the king’s clothing, powdering his face, and buffing his nails. Borya tapped his fingers on his knees impatiently for several minutes before the women began to finish and withdraw.
     The king snapped his pudgy fingers and a young slave boy hurried to his side, bearing a heavy tray loaded with sweets. The boy winced as the king reached for the tray, ducking his head to the side as though he expected the massive hand to descend in a blow rather than to snatch one of the treats. The king picked up a chocolate-covered plum and bit into it, sending purple juices dribbling down his chins. He frowned down at the chocolate and then spat the mouthful into the boy’s face. As the boy blinked the mess from his eyes, the king swatted the tray from his hands, sending the sweets scattering across the carpet before Borya.
     “What is it, general?” the king said at last. Borya stood and approached the throne.
     “The Gorilam has arrived in the harbor, your majesty.”

Do you see were the thought is incomplete? We had an entire paragraph on that slave boy—his approach, his reactions to the king’s movements, and the unfortunate abuse he suffered. Then, the paragraph ends without completing the narrative. What happened to the boy?

Was he forced to crawl along the floor, gathering up the sweets, all while spit and chewed chocolate dripped down his face? Did he immediately dart from the room, leaving the sweets scattered over the floor? Is he still standing there between the king and Borya while they converse? All we need is that one missing sentence to tell us what happened.

To be fair, the boy’s story doesn’t need to be completed in that same paragraph. We could mention the boy’s movements during Borya and the king’s conversation, and use them for further character building. What is important is that we finish the narrative that we began—because the boy was such a prominent focus of the scene, the scene won’t feel complete until his little story has been finished in some manner. It doesn’t matter if the boy leaves or if he’s still there when Borya leaves, as long as his presence is consistently acknowledged or resolved.

The importance of finishing this sort of paragraph-sized narrative is proportional to the amount of focus and activity you’ve given it. Since the boy was the prominent focus of an entire paragraph, he deserves at least a sentence of resolution. If there had been a single sentence about servants with massive palm fronds fanning the king, they wouldn’t have required resolution—they are largely inactive, part of the scenery rather than the narrative.

Just as your readers would be irritated if you left a chapter off the end of the book or a paragraph off the end of the scene, so will they notice if you leave an important sentence off of the end of a paragraph. Every portion of the story will have its own narrative arc, even the smallest—don’t let missing sentences ruin even a part of your work.

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