One of my favourite books on writing is, err, ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Not only does he speak with masterly experience but there’s a wry wit and wisdom lurking behind his comments on ‘the craft’. I was particularly struck by this statement from the maestro: ‘I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing – the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.’
But is he right?
First off, the school teacher in me thinks of the main purposes of a paragraph. Namely: to signal a topic shift (heralded by the mighty topic sentence), a change of place or time, a viewpoint shift, or to indicate a piece of dialogue. Great, you might say, I knew that already. King clearly thinks that’s just the starting point, the indent, as it were, that leads you to the flow of fine prose.
I tend to agree with him.
Long ago, I once asked a girlfriend how she decided to buy books in an overcrowded bookshop. It’s simple, she said, I look at how much is dialogue and how much isn’t. I’ve often thought about her comment since. Yes, she meant the ratio of dialogue to exposition or description. But, fundamentally, she was talking about flicking through a book like one of those ‘What the Butler Saw’ machines they had on seaside piers in the Edwardian era and getting an impression about paragraph length.
You might counter, so every paragraph has to be speech? Of course I’m not saying that. Just that, as writers, we need to be aware constantly what visual cues our paragraphs give to readers. They signal mood and tone shifts, stack up information like stairs, or flow on for pages like a long ride in a lift. The paragraphing accounts for so much of the coherence of our fiction. They create patterns based on similarities and contrasts, a happy diversity.
A well-paragraphed page has a visual aesthetic you can’t really explain but instantly recognise. Why not take five books you admire and open pages at random. Without looking at the words, what are the paragraph shapes? Maybe they could tell you a lot about the kind of writer you strive to be. The way stanzas are laid out in a poem can create a similar pleasure and buzz. The sense, above all, you want to read on.
Which brings me to Stephen King’s final point about words standing a chance ‘to be more than mere words’. That can only happen within ourselves as readers. And only if we welcome the writer’s voice in our inner ear by reading on. After all, how many books have you abandoned?
Paragraphs draw us deeper into the novel if well-handled. Each should be larger than it appears. Like stones in a dry-stone wall they are slotted in because they are just the right dimension, weight and size to keep the structure solid.
If you’d like to send me your favourite paragraph, I’d love to read it!