Paragraphs Are People Too

The Importance of Paragraph Focus

Novice fiction writers, caught in creativity’s thrall, have a tendency to throw off the yokes of the writing rules laid down by fifth and sixth-grade teachers. I know I did. Creative writing is, after all, creative, original, imaginative, and, as beginning fiction writers like to say, fun. Principles need not apply.

But a sad thing happened to me along this unprincipled road to fiction writing: my stories suffered story mange, a not quite rightness, and, in worst cases, an amateur night mélange that read like a flea circus.

When I placed my pages next to pages from bestselling novels, regardless of genre, the bestselling pages bedazzled. They rang clear and precise; they captured and held my attention. My pages tended to befuzzle, their notes discordant, and my reader seldom got past the first paragraphs without raising his eyes and giving me the look.

It took a while but then I saw it. Every paragraph in every bestseller is focused. Every paragraph has one topic that is either stated or implied. No other topic is allowed. This is the same rule promoted by my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Derrick, who was once so annoyed with me that she shook me. The woman had foresight.

Elizabeth George stated it best in her Write Away, page 159: “Thus, every sentence in every paragraph you write either should be an amplification of the sentence that precedes it or should address itself to a prevailing albeit implied topic in some way. If the sentence you’re writing does neither, get rid of it.”

Look at the first paragraph of chapter 1 of Steve Thayer’s NYT bestseller The Weatherman.

Dixon Graham Bell back-stepped with the breeze. He paused one more time on the Nicollet Walk and looked far up Eighth Street, where cars were crawling out of a blue-black wall cloud that extended westward. Above him a dark, greenish cast was spreading over the heavens. Electricity filled the air. The humidity was suffocating. A raindrop slapped his face.

Topic: Dixon Bell in the gathering storm. Every sentence in this paragraph addresses itself to Dixon experiencing the weather.

The paragraph has seven clauses and six actors and each pertains directly to the topic:

1. Dixon Graham Bell back-stepping with the breeze; DGB pausing and looking far up Eighth Street
2. Cars crawling out of a blue-black wall cloud
3. A dark greenish cast spreading over the heavens
4. Electricity filling the air
5. Humidity suffocating
6. A raindrop slapping his face

And James Huston’s first paragraph of chapter 7, Shadows of Power.

Don Jacobs was furious. Rat hadn’t known him for long, but long enough to know that he was furious. Perhaps it was the bulging veins on his forehead or the red complexion that gave it away. Rat sat in the hard chair across from Jacobs’s desk, waiting to be asked something, to be able to defend himself, but Jacobs’s silent pacing was driving him crazy. Jacobs looked like a bear in a zoo that checks both ends of the enclosure for possible escape routes twenty times a minute all day long. After several minutes Jacobs spoke. “So we were right. We smoked out his target. We were there in exactly the right position. We did everything right.” He stopped. “Right?”

Topic: Don Jacobs’ anger. Every sentence in this paragraph is an amplification of the first sentence: Don Jacobs was furious.

This paragraph has two main actors, Don Jacobs and Rat. Don shows his anger and Rat, the POV character, makes note of it. The “bulging veins” and “the bear in a zoo” illustrate Don’s anger.

And from Joseph Kanon’s NYT bestseller Los Alamos:

At first he didn’t recognize her. She was walking toward him across the plaza, still dressed in the blouse and riding pants of the night before but with her hair down now, swaying lazily behind her, and her face partially hidden by sunglasses. She was carrying a few books under one arm, leaving the other to keep time with her long stride, and stopped short when she saw him on the curb.

Topic: “her.” Every sentence in this paragraph is about her and nothing but her.

Aside from the transition sentence, “At first he didn’t recognize her,” there’s only one actor in this paragraph, her.

And Steven Coonts’ Deep Black chapter 4 opening paragraph:

Eight hours and several time zones later, Charles Dean found himself at the counter of Polish National Airlines in Heathrow Airport, waiting as one of the ten ugliest women in the world pecked his nom de passport into the reservations computer. His handlers had chosen “John Brown” as his cover name, matching it to a cover story claiming he sold metal and plastic fixtures used for filling teeth. Undoubtedly they knew of his fear of dentistry, though if they had really wanted to be perverse they might have given him the first name James and sent him out as a record salesman.

Topic: Charles Dean’s cover name. Each sentence refers to a name Charles Dean has, will have or could have had: Charles Dean, John Brown or James Brown.

This paragraph has two main actors, Charles Dean and his handlers, who selected his cover name. The other actor, the ugly woman, types in his nom de passport.

Each of these paragraphs is impeccably focused. And good paragraphs are focused. Yet paragraph focus is, from my experience, one of the most difficult writing principles for beginning writers to understand. As mentioned before, it was for me.

It might help to take a look at a few paragraphs that did not live up to professional standards, and they are, I am ashamed to say, mine.

A first attempt:

Stars paled as the gray of night gave way to an eastern glow. A wakening wind stirred the sand into ghostly serpents that whispered and coiled as they skittered toward the three men rising from their morning prayers. Day would soon break.

This paragraph’s topic might have been Daybreak, but the three men rising from their prayers in the second sentence do not amplify or address themselves to the break of day. These fellows take the paragraph off focus.

This paragraph has six actors, six things doing actions in this paragraph:

1. Stars paling
2. Gray of night giving way
3. Wind wakening and stirring
4. Serpents of sand whispering, coiling and skittering
5. Three men rising
6. Day soon breaking

I may not have paid attention in sixth grade, but I did in kindergarten. Which does not belong to this group, to this topic that seems mainly to be about the breaking of the day? Right. It’s the three men.

Another way to consider paragraph focus is to think of each actor—person or thing doing an action in the paragraph—as an agent. Agents work for an agency. Each agent in a paragraph should be working on behalf of the paragraph’s agency, its topic.

If the prevailing topic in this paragraph is “Day is About to Break”, then Stars paling, Night giving way, Wind wakening are indeed agents involved in the phenomenon we call daybreak. The sand serpents are created by the wind. In this they are collateral agents. One could argue whether they could stay or should go. The men, however, are not agents for daybreak but for an agency yet unnamed. They need to go.

Had I written,

Stars paled as the gray of night gave way to an eastern glow. A wakening wind stirred the sand. Day would soon break.

I would have had a simplistic, but focused paragraph. The implied and prevailing topic would have been daybreak. Each sentence works for the same agency, the breaking day. A reader could read this graph without his mind doing loop-de-loops from stars, to night, to wind, to serpents, to men, to daybreak.

I tried again:

Stars paled as the gray of night gave way to an eastern glow. In this pre-dawn stillness, before the desert went about its unpredictable but usually deadly business of the day, Hassan and Abdul Azizz, the first-born sons of the sheiks of Hamdu, were finishing their prayers.

In this second paragraph, I tried for connectivity, which was a move in the right direction, but its agents were still not working for one and the same agency.

There are four actors in this paragraph:

1. Stars paling
2. Grey of night giving way to an eastern glow.
3. The desert about to go to its deadly business of the day
4. Hassan and AA finishing their prayers.

The stars and grey of night are agents of the dawn.
The desert is an agent of deadly business.
Hassan and AA are agents of belief.

Although it has a certain flow, a sequential logic—a favorite paragraph structure, it seems, of novice story writers—there is no prevailing topic. It is unfocused and not a good paragraph.

The game changed when I discovered paragraph focus:

Adrar and Rif, sons of the sheikhs of the Taghaz, knelt on the sand in the last minutes before dawn. Daybreak, a beacon of hope for much of mankind, was for them the moment of Al Shaytaan, the evil one. As night pulled back from the horizon, they hurried to finish their prayers.

This paragraph’s topic is belief: “The believers, Adrar and Rif, believe daybreak is evil and dangerous.” (I only know this because I wrote it with belief, this story’s theme, in mind.) The first-time reader more likely sees it as “Rif and Adrar at prayer.”

The first sentence places Rif and Adrar on the sand in an attitude of prayer in the last minutes before dawn.

The second sentence discloses that daybreak is, for them, the moment of the evil one.

The third sentence shows night pulling back from the horizon and Rif and Adrar hurrying to finish their prayers.

The actors in this paragraph are Adrar and Rif.

1. Adrar and Rif kneel on the sand.
2. Adrar and Rif believe daybreak is the moment of the evil one.
3. Adrar and Rif hurry to finish their prayers.

By attempting to write a focused paragraph, I ended up with a better paragraph not only in terms of focus but also in terms of story. The first paragraph was a simple statement, with actors to illustrate, that day was about to break and that three men were rising from prayer. The second paragraph was a bit of an information dump: Day is breaking. The desert is dangerous. And men are finishing their prayers. Logical cohesion was missing.

The third paragraph, by involving Al Shaytaan, not only allowed each of the men’s actions to be connected to their beliefs, Allah on one side and Al Shaytaan on the other, but allowed the men to have an opponent, Al Shaytaan, in the paragraph. This lent the paragraph a sense of urgency and that other major story ingredient, conflict.

Going back to chapter 1 of Steve Thayer’s NYT bestseller The Weatherman, we see his opening paragraph also projects conflict via the brewing storm and the raindrop that “slapped his face.” James Huston’s first paragraph of chapter 7, Shadows of Power was all about conflict: “Don Jacobs was furious.” Joseph Kanon’s Los Alamos paragraph is a chance encounter between a man and woman, a situation that’s always interesting and made more so by her action, “she stopped short when she saw him on the curb.” Steven Coonts’ Deep Black chapter 4 opening paragraph also hints of conflict between Charles Dean and his “handlers,” whom he considers capable of perversity.

To conscientiously focus a paragraph requires us to think more deeply and sometimes differently about that one unit of story than we may have otherwise. It gives us not only better paragraphs, but better story.