Imagine being on the scenic Oregon coast. Surf is crashing in the background, spring trees are blooming. Flowers that you’d expect in bloom come summer or even fall are full of color regardless of the date on the calendar.
Gusts of wind bring briny air up the cliff for you to breathe, all the way up where you’re safely away from the tsunami zone. The danger of earthquakes is inescapable. You and your fellow writers were given a briefing on what to do, should the earth move. You have five to eight minutes to get your ass off that beach and up the 78 stairs to the top of the cliff before the big wave hits. People keep emergency supplies in their cars. Escape kit updates are aired on the local radio station.
But relax! You’re here to write and have fun. You need to unwind. Decompress. Come to your writer’s workshop with a clear and empty mind. Ready to learn. Ready to soak it up, like a dry sponge. So push the creepy uncertainty of the tectonic plates underfoot out of your mind!
Paragraphing. The most useful skill I took away from Dean Wesley Smith’s classroom is, in fact, hitting the return key.
A long block of text will tell the reader that hard work lies ahead. Slogging through endless text, sentence upon sentence and clause upon clause. The reader will assume that it will be slow and descriptive. He’ll brace to suffer through it. Or he’ll just skip over it, missing that all-important clue that breaks the mystery open like a clam shell.
“Not me,” I thought. “I don’t write long paragraphs. I’m okay… I guess. (I hope.)”
Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?
Fast-forward one week. I gave a friend of mine a copy of the “Relativistic Phenomena.” Granted, I wrote that book years ago. No, it’s not boring. Yet – imagine my shock and embarrassment – I found a whole page of uninterrupted text.
Don’t do that.
I swear never to do that again.
The words of the teacher will ring in my head from here forevermore:
“Hit that fucking return key!”
Pacing is critical. Short paragraphs convey a faster read that’s easier to absorb. We were taught to create four, maybe five line paragraphs regardless of content.
Forget all that.
Paragraphing is content-driven.
It’s okay to have a one-line paragraph, if that’s what your story demands. If your content comes in big chunks, break it up with dialogue. Never, ever have a paragraph longer than one third of your printed page. In paperback format, that’s about seventy words.
Many literary classics sport long swaths of text and complex sentence structures. They have their charm. They were written at a time when we weren’t quite so distracted. You could slow your pacing and revel in the description of your setting, or of an emotional reaction. As a rule, however, both sentence length and paragraph length have shortened considerably in the last twenty years. Blame the Internet – I do – but keep all this in mind as you toil to entertain your distracted reader.
Learn to hit the return key.