How to Write a Paragraph
By Matthew Cheney
7 May 2007
The recent death of Kurt Vonnegut got me thinking about, among other things, paragraphs.
Here, for instance, are some paragraphs from Mother Night, an early novel of Vonnegut's that is among my favorites:
The Ohrdruf gallows were capable of hanging six at a time. When I saw them, there was a dead camp guard at the end of each rope.
And it was expected that I would hang soon, too.
I expected it myself, and I took an interest in the peace of the six guards at the ends of their ropes.
They had died fast.
I have for a while thought that I have a prejudice against short paragraphs, but this is not entirely true. I have a prejudice against paragraphs that don't do much, paragraphs that could be combined with the paragraphs before and after them to create a paragraph no more or less compelling, informative, evocative, or musical than the lone short paragraph itself.
Vonnegut's short paragraphs—or at least the short paragraphs in his best books—are wondrous gems. What distinguishes his short paragraphs from the short paragraphs of mediocre writers is that they seldom serve only one purpose. The (often short) sentences in his short paragraphs say and do multiple things: they convey small chunks of information, they contribute to the tone of the prose, they regulate the pacing, they create drama and humor, they evoke a narrative voice. Vonnegut approached paragraphs the way good poets approach line and stanza breaks, and in that sense he was the Robert Creeley of prose, someone whose writing at its best seems perfect in its rhythm and shape.
Long paragraphs can be a different thing altogether, and just as I have sometimes been prejudiced against short paragraphs, I have also been prejudiced in favor of large paragraphs, and just as unreasonably. For a while, I lived under the delusion that long paragraphs meant a writer was serious and noteworthy, a true artist, a virtuoso.
But, of course, a long paragraph does not guarantee effective writing. I realized this when I became a teacher and many of my students turned in five-page papers with no paragraph breaks. These papers were, usually, unorganized ramblings, or unstructured globs of facts and quotes masquerading as research. Rather different from the unparagraphed chapters of Gabriel García Márquez's Autumn of the Patriarch.
No form guarantees quality; how the writer uses the form is what matters. Paragraphs might better be called tools rather than forms. What distinguishes the extraordinary writer from the ordinary writer is the precision, grace, and vision with which the writer wields the tools. No writer is equally skilled with every tool, nor does every writer, even the greatest, care equally about every tool. Paragraphs, though, are tools that too many fiction writers take for granted, and so the expressive possibilities of the paragraph often remain neglected.
In How to Write, Gertrude Stein stated, "A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is." This idea obsessed her for a while, and she returned to it numerous times in the lectures collected in Lectures in America. In "What is English Literature" she proposed that emotion in English literature had moved first through words (particularly during the Elizabethan era, when the English vocabulary expanded considerably), then through sentences in the eighteenth century, phrases in the nineteenth century, and paragraphs in the twentieth century. (By this logic, we're now in the age of the page. And given how most of us read writing on the internet, for instance, this seems an accurate generalization to me.)
It's almost always foolish, or at least fruitless, to try to pin Gertrude Stein down to one particular meaning, and so I will not attempt to explain exactly what she meant in saying that sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are. Nonetheless, I like the idea. It reminds us that paragraphs are expressive units of their own, that their shape and composition matters.
I thought of Stein recently when I read Greg Bear's 1990 novel Queen of Angels. It's an extraordinary book in many ways, and one of those ways is the attention Bear gives to his paragraphs. I first thought of Stein because of the paucity of commas in much of the writing—"Mary saw a line of women around the giantess's feet mother and aunts sister school friends women from books female legends: Helen of Troy Margaret Sanger Marilyn Monroe Betty Friedan Ann Dietering; all somehow hooked into what she thought of as the essence of human femaleness like a chorus line early to late left to right ending in the transform she had met in the upper reaches of pd Central, Sandra Auchouch."—but then also because of the immense variety of paragraphs, and the care with which they are used. Bear writes extremely long, dense paragraphs to convey what it feels like to be overwhelmed by unprocessed information (the artful version of what my students sometimes, unknowingly, convey); he writes medium-sized paragraphs to move the narrative along at a regular pace; he breaks through that regular pace with short, even fragmentary paragraphs. And much more. Perception is an important element of Queen of Angels, and the organization of the paragraphs helps communicate this, with a paragraph of seemingly objective description followed by a paragraph of subjective response to the objects described, followed by a paragraph mixing the two.
For another example of what a range of paragraph sizes can accomplish, look at anything by Henry James in the New York Edition of his work (earlier editions often broke long paragraphs into smaller chunks). I recently taught his short novel Washington Square and spent an entire class period discussing one paragraph with my students, because their initial response was to skip it—it was, they thought, too long. But it is not too long. There are a few multi-page paragraphs in Washington Square, and each is a masterpiece, though I am most fond of the one opening Chapter XXII, where the paragraph roams from one character's point of view to another. Initially, it seems that there is no organizing principle to the paragraph, that it is just a chunk of thoughts. But if you chart out the movement of ideas from each character's perception and settle on a reason for these particular words, phrases, and sentences to be part of a single paragraph, Washington Square reveals yet another level of meaning.
In addition to how they weave together in the fabric of an entire story, paragraphs can be expressive in and of themselves. Consider, for instance, this paragraph from Ann Stapleton's story "The Chinese Boy," published last year in Alaska Quarterly Review:
Scaff is troubled. The Chinese boy never reads anymore. He walks in little circles at the edge of the cornfield, stares up at the autumn birds going over, pure belonging right in his face like that. Too big, too small, no wings, he flaps his arms once as if to lift off, but he is too heavy for the sky. Out of the darkness of the Chinese boy's hair, Scaff's heart comes shooting up in his throat. The world that just weeks ago had laid him aside, a finished tale, arises again beyond THE END to want something now, its fingers clutching his life as he tries to pull it away. The light on the field rakes his eyes. The Chinese boy puts both hands up and dances lightly with the sun-warmed glass, nothing holding him as close as it can.
Outside the context of the story, some levels of this paragraph's meaning are inaccessible, because without the whole story you do not know how these sentences relate to the whole, or how the paragraph works in context. That allows us to look more closely at some of the other things going on here.
First, the sentences themselves are enigmatic, their imagery and rhythms lovely, their meaning (particularly out of context) not entirely clear. To see some of what the paragraph accomplishes, though, imagine each sentence on a separate index card; then imagine the paragraph on an index card. The effect is different. To me, the sentences gain power from being put together in a group. Three words in the first sentence lead to six words in the second, then twenty-seven in the third. The pace of perception quickens, the narrative absorbs more notions. We start with Scaff, then move to the Chinese boy, then learn the effect on Scaff of seeing the Chinese boy, then finish with the Chinese boy and "nothing holding him as close as it can."
In How to Write, Stein said, "The difference between a short story and a paragraph. There is none." That is certainly the case here, where so much of what is important in the whole story of "The Chinese Boy" is glimpsed in eight sentences. No one sentence would be enough, but together they are a whole story in miniature.
To experience the entire world of the story, we need the whole thing, but only stories with such careful, rich paragraphs are fully able to convey such worlds, whether those worlds be the future one of Queen of Angels or the past one of Washington Square or the liminal one of "The Chinese Boy." Form and function are not separate. Style and content create each other. There is nothing inherently good or bad about the size or shape of a paragraph, but a writer who pays attention to the size and shape of paragraphs is likely to create stories of far more richness and power than a writer who takes paragraphs for granted.