Help Your Paragraphs Flow
Episode #4 of the course Ten editing techniques to perfect your fiction writing by K.C. Finn
When I’m coaching writers one to one, I sometimes meet people with superb ideas and strong characters, but their prose is too confusing to follow. Many writers self-edit and pay careful attention to spelling errors and typing mistakes, but that’s not the only thing that can turn readers off your work.
Endless paragraphs that weave in and out of different subjects can make even the most exciting story a pain in the neck to read, so today, we’re examining topic through an analytical questioning model. It sounds complex, but all you have to do ask yourself a few questions about what you’re trying to get across, and then fix your structure to meet that. I’ve broken it down into a really easy process for you to practice. Here’s three easy questions of the topic test:
1. Who or what is this paragraph about?
If you’re describing the actions of one character, then suddenly start talking about another within the same paragraph, there’s a good chance you’ll confuse readers. This can happen with description too—for example, when you’re describing a room, then you focus in on one area of it without being clear about the shift.
The fix: Decide on the main focus of the paragraph you’re in, and look for signs that you might be leading readers somewhere else. If that’s not your intention, delete those lines or move them to another paragraph where they make more sense. If you need to combine two major elements in a paragraph (e.g., two characters doing an activity together, or perhaps a character moving through the scenery), watch out for point of view. Stick with one of those characters through that paragraph and tell it from their side to add clarity.
2. Does your paragraph length match the mood of the moment?
People often ask what an ideal paragraph length is. The truth is, that changes depending on the atmosphere you’re trying to create in the scene. Slow action and thoughtful and tragic moods require longer paragraphs, often with more detailed, flowing sentences. Action scenes and high drama usually contain short, sharp sentences with less detail to derail the action, and sometimes those paragraphs are short so they move along with the character into a new physical position.
The fix: When you spot a mismatch, the quickest fix is to edit down or up a little to match the length you need. Add more details if you need your character to linger a moment over an important place you want your audience to remember, or chop up your sentences into smaller, dynamic actions if things aren’t moving quickly enough. I like to imagine I’m a cinematographer in the editing room, and I treat my paragraphs like the length of each “shot” in my story.
3. Does your work flow?
Flow is the way that one idea leads into the next. While a great deal of editing is about looking in detail at every paragraph, it’s also important to read between the lines and be sure that your structure doesn’t cause confusion when readers move from one thought to the next. If you’ve ever had your writing labeled as “disjointed,” this is the primary reason.
The fix: Study the last line of one paragraph and the first of the next. What’s changing? If you’re moving to a new location, make that smooth and clear with a strong first sentence that introduces the new focus. If the character is changing, make sure their name is there somewhere early on. Subtle but clear signs help point your readers to the place in the story where you want them to look next.
Tomorrow’s lesson is a BIG one for those of you seeking a full mainstream public book deal—the extraction of hundreds of useless adverbs from your work! Stephen King says that the road to hell is paved with them, so I’ll give you tips on how to avoid this hellish route all together.
‘Till then, folks!
Over at Writing World, Victoria Grossack does a great cheat sheet on when to start a new paragraph and what it might contain. If this is an area you struggle with, print out this email, that website article, and pin them both to your wall ‘till you can recite them like the national anthem!
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