Friday, October 14, 2016

Paragraph and Line Lengths--How They Affect Your Story's Pacing


I never paid much attention to paragraph or sentence lengths.  I just wrote, felt satisfied if I got the story down.  Then, in the late eighties, I got a job as a editor at a publishing company in the Midwest. 

As an editor, I noticed that I had a visual reaction to a person's writing:  how it looked on the page, how dense or light.  How much white space or how much text.  Even before I began to read, I had a sense of whether I would be engaged, just by how the text looked.


Blocks of dense text turned me off.  I was paid to read them, so I did, of course.  But I had to work harder to get engaged. 

I learned about pacing:  how fast a story moves for the reader.  Pacing is half mechanical.  Long or short sentences, big or short words, all affect pacing.  Shorter sentences and shorter words usually read faster.  Longer sentence require the reader to slow down and work harder. 

Seeing writing from an editor's eyes--what a change that was.  Writing became much more than just telling the story.  I began looking at my own writing and changing the sentence and paragraph lengths. 

Whenever I read a piece of writing with same-length paragraphs, I noticed a sleepy feel.  Another clue!

A blog reader wrote me about this:  "Paragraph [length] must be terribly important because as I read and change them the adventures seem to grow in importance."  She's absolutely right. 
She wanted me to share any rules I knew about how to work with paragraph lengths.  There's aren't really rules--it's a kind of rhythm you begin to catch as you gain in writing and editing skill, but here are a few guidelines I picked up as an editor.  See if they are helpful.  If so, try one as your writing exercise this week.

Working with Mechanical Pacing

1.  Print your pages and lay them side by side.  Squint at them.  Notice where you have large blocks of text.  Notice the white space.  (Thanks to writer Alex Chee for this tip.)  This is very hard to see on the computer screen, easy to see in an e-reader or printed out.

2.  Go back into your document.  Read the dense paragraphs out loud.  Look for any natural pauses where you could break them.

3.  Break out dialogue.  Any place you have dialogue embedded in a paragraph of other text, separate it out.

Here's an example from a recent class--a before and after so you can see the difference.  The writing is still rough, but the paragraph changes made a big difference in pacing. 

Before
Sandy climbed the stairs and felt her belly heave.  Pregnancy made her feel like a sea mammal, only she didn't have the luxury of water to buoy her up.  Swimming through the hot Alabama air wasn't her idea of blissful motherhood.  She could hear the phone ringing inside the apartment down the short hallway.  It was probably her sister. It had been weeks since she'd promised herself to call Jeannine and get someone to come for a couple of hours in the afternoon, just to help with groceries or laundry.  Jeannine's idea had rankled at first, and Simon wouldn't hear of it, but her sister said she'd even pay the first few weeks, an early birthday present for Sandy.  Sandy didn't want to buck Simon but as she grabbed the top of the railing at last and pulled herself up to the landing, she promised herself she'd call as soon as she got inside and turned on the a/c.

After

Sandy climbed the stairs and felt her belly heave.  Pregnancy made her feel like a sea mammal, only she didn't have the luxury of water to buoy her up.  Swimming through the hot Alabama air wasn't her idea of blissful motherhood.  She could hear the phone ringing inside the apartment down the short hallway.  It was probably her sister.

It had been weeks since she'd promised herself to call Jeannine and get someone to come for a couple of hours in the afternoon, just to help with groceries or laundry.  Jeannine's idea had rankled at first, and Simon wouldn't hear of it, but her sister said she'd even pay the first few weeks, an early birthday present for Sandy. 

Sandy didn't want to buck Simon but as she grabbed the top of the railing at last and pulled herself up to the landing, she promised herself she'd call.

As soon as she got inside and turned on the a/c.