The Serpent in Para(graph)dise

The Unfocused Sequence Paragraph

Below is an example of perhaps the sneakiest paragraph to appear in a writer’s first attempts at fiction, the unfocused sequence paragraph.

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, Rif and Adrar, the first-born sons of the sheiks of Taghaz, were finishing their prayers.

A sequence of actions within a given span of time can seduce a writer into a sense of paragraph coherence or focus. The actions have temporal direction; they move forward in time, one after the other. However, like flotsam and jetsam borne upon the water, the actors or agents in the sentences within a sequence paragraph are not necessarily related to each other or to a broader topic.

Again, Elizabeth George in her Write Away says it most succinctly, “…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.”

In the example above, the stars paling, the desert readying for a deadly day and the men finishing their prayers share neither a relationship to each other nor to a broader, stars-desert-men encompassing topic; hence there’s no prevailing topic and the paragraph lacks focus.

It is not a good paragraph.

The opening paragraph of Leon Uris’ QB VII is a focused sequence paragraph.

The corporal cadet stepped out of the guard hut and squinted out over the field. A shadowy figure ran through the knee-high grass toward him. The guard lifted a pair of binoculars. The man, half-stumbling, carried a single battered suitcase. He waved and gasped a greeting in Polish.

The sequence leads us to a conclusion: a refugee is crossing the field toward a safe haven. This conclusion is the paragraph’s topic. Each sentence in the paragraph focuses, like the guard’s binoculars, on this man.

The guard squints out over the field. (All the better to focus, my dear.)
He sees a shadowy figure running toward him.
He lifts his binoculars. (All the better to focus on the shadowy figure, my dear.)
The man and his suitcase is seen more clearly.
The man waves and gasps a greeting in Polish.

So insidious are unfocused sequence paragraphs, that even writers of above average skill are not immune to them. One has graciously allowed me to use this example:

Harvest was over and summer with it. The hay was stacked, the beans were picked, the garden put to bed and finally the potatoes dug and stored in a tomb-like earthen cellar such as many I’d seen dotting the countryside without knowing what they were. With Bella in a sling across either Virginia’s or my back, even I helped dig the potatoes, often working side-by-side with old man. At least he kept his venomous tongue between his teeth. I doubt he had energy to spare as the labor was exhausting. After the last heavy bag was hauled to the cellar—to be kept there I don’t know for how long until being taken somewhere else—Virginia and her brother had no more need of us until the following spring. Next year, according to Marc, they’d be planting nothing but sugar beets and hay.

This paragraph’s first line is precise: “Harvest was over and summer with it.” The second sentence amplifies that statement: “The hay was stacked, the beans were picked, the garden put to bed….” Both sentences are agents of the topic, harvest was over. So far, so good.

The third sentence incorporates a time change, which shouldn’t happen within a paragraph, in which the narrator who’s told us harvest was over says that she even helped dig the potatoes (before the harvest was over). She worked beside the old man. He, at least, kept his tongue between his teeth. She attributes his apparent civility to a lack of energy because the labor was exhausting.

The subject changes again to Virginia and her brother not needing them again until spring. And it changes again when Marc says they’ll plant nothing but sugar beets and hay next year.

These five sentences veer away from the end of the harvest and the end of the summer, and the paragraph, which started so promisingly, has lost focus.

This particular sequence paragraph is made even more seductive because these actions occur not only in a sequence, but in a sequence beneath the umbrella of the harvest. Still, they do not amplify or develop the harvest, but–like the stars paling, the desert about to get deadly and the men rising from prayer—they list disparate events that belong to separate agencies:

• The harvest
• The conflict between her and the old man
• Virginia and her brother’s needs
• Next year’s crops

Another excellent writer, in her first draft of her first story’s opening paragraph, wrote,

The air in the stagecoach was stuffy and Lily struggled with the strap on the window, breaking a nail when its rusted clasp refused to budge. She was too impatient to count to ten. She picked at it with the point of her knife and it reluctantly moved. When the canvas swung open she was hit not by a pleasant prairie breeze but by a blast of hot air that carried with it all the odors that hung over the shacks of Sandy Creek. She slammed the canvas down. She had to get out of there.

The reader has no difficulty concluding that Lily is agitated, and the back and forth sequence of actions, on the part of Lily and her several opponents—the stuffiness, the broken fingernail, her impatience, the window strap, the blast of hot air, do address, “in some way,” this agitation.

Lily, however, begins this paragraph with a goal. She wants to open the stagecoach window to relieve the stuffiness. She achieves this. But, with “She slammed the canvas down” and “She had to get of there,” Lily has negated her previous goal and stated a new goal. The paragraph, loosely focused to begin with, loses focus with these ending statements.

Remove them, and it becomes a focused paragraph.

The air in the stagecoach was stuffy and Lily struggled with the strap on the window, breaking a nail when its rusted clasp refused to budge. She was too impatient to count to ten. She picked at it with the point of her knife and it reluctantly moved. When the canvas swung open she was hit not by a pleasant prairie breeze but by a blast of hot air that carried with it all the odors that hung over the shacks of Sandy Creek.

Here, from John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, is a tightly knit sequence paragraph:

As he opened the front door he heard Gwen crying. To his right in the small living room he found a crowd huddled above a small figure huddled on the couch. The child was covered with wet towels and surrounded by crying relatives. As he moved to the couch the crying stopped and the crowd backed away. Only Gwen stayed by the girl. She softly stroked her hair. He knelt beside the couch and touched the girl’s shoulder. He spoke to his daughter, and she tried to smile. Her face was a bloody pulp covered with knots and lacerations. Both eyes were swollen shut and bleeding. His eyes watered as he looked at her tiny body, completely wrapped in towels and bleeding from ankles to forehead.

Every sentence in this paragraph pertains to the father approaching his brutalized daughter.

Sequence paragraphs seem to appear more often in amateur manuscripts than in bestselling novels. Professional novelists do show sequences, but generally in a sequence of paragraphs rather than one paragraph. Below, the first three paragraphs of Frank Herbert’s Dune show how it can be done.

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.

The old woman was let in by the side door down the vaulted passage by Paul’s room and she was allowed a moment to peer in at him where he lay in his bed.

 

Advertisements