Thanks to a host of sentence enthusiasts—my favorites: John Gardner, Virginia Tufte, Stanly Fish and Constance Hale—the syntax unsavy can learn to structure simple, complex, compound, periodic, forward-leaning, subordinating, additive and other sentence forms. Good prose and best-selling fiction cannot be created without them.
Good paragraphs, like good sentences, also have identifiable forms and functions. Every bestselling novel features a star-studded cast of paragraph personalities that boosted its rise to the top of the lists. Those of us not innately gifted with literary genius—we of the Gene Fowler Club (Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead)—can significantly improve our writing if we too make the acquaintance of these paragraphs forms and give them supporting roles in our productions.
Two basic paragraphs found in all good fiction are the Simple Expository Paragraph and the Simple Action Paragraph. As their names indicate, the simple expository paragraph presents information; the simple action paragraph presents action.
Examples of each reveal the protocols by which they are composed.
Frank Herbert opens a scene on page 134 of his classic, Dune, with two simple expository paragraphs:
In the dining hall of the Arrakeen great house, suspensor lamps had been lighted against the early dark. They cast their yellow glows upward onto the black bull’s head with its bloody horns and onto the darkly glistening oil painting of the Old Duke.
Beneath these talismans, white linen shone around the burnished reflections of the Atreides silver, which had been placed in precise arrangements along the great table—little archipelagos of service waiting beside crystal glasses, each setting squared off before a heavy wooden chair. The classic central chandelier remained unlighted, and its chain twisted upward into shadows where the mechanism of the poison-snooping had been concealed.
Attributes of the simple exposition paragraph:
- It tells information.
- Its content is static; no action forwards the story.
- It raises story expectations, rather than specific story questions.
- It is often elaborate. Herbert’s paragraphs contain description, subtext, mood and glimpses into backstory.
- It often contains modifiers: “yellow glows”, “bloody horns”, “darkly glistening oil painting”, “heavy wooden chair, “precise arrangements.”
- Its every sentence pertains directly to its topic: it is focused.
From Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child’s Book of the Dead is this simple action paragraph:
As D’Agosta eased the van through and made the right turn, he slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and removed a pint of Rebel Yell bourbon. He unscrewed the cap and took a slug, swishing it carefully around in the mouth before swallowing. He could feel the fiery bolus burn down his gullet into his stomach. He shook a few drops on his coat for good measure and slipped the bottle back into his jacket pocket.
Attributes of the simple action paragraph:
- It shows information through a character’s actions.
- Its content is a sequence of actions; the character’s actions forward the story.
- It raises specific story questions: In this example, why is D’Agosta making it look as though he’s drinking?
- Its character’s actions are articulately detailed, but there are no references to his environment, to his thoughts, to his backstory.
- It rarely contains modifiers. Preston and Child’s contains only one modifier, “fiery bolus”.
- Its every sentence pertains to D’Agosta’s action with the Rebel Yell bourbon. The paragraph is focused.
Lorenzo Carcaterra opens his novel, The Chasers, with a simple exposition paragraph that focuses on the last moments of a shooting victim’s life. In it we see just how fully a writer can elaborate and still remain on topic in a simple exposition paragraph. It is prefaced with a one-sentence exposition paragraph:
It took her less than a minute to die.
Two bullets, both close-contact hits, sent her slumping to the black-and-white tiled floor, crystal-blue eyes glazed and watery, staring up at a blue ceiling dotted with red stars. Her long brown hair was heavy with sweat and blood and was forced to one side of what had been a face pretty enough to always earn a smile. During those last few seconds, she lay there whispering a silent prayer, the two plates of hot food she had been holding scattered, white cream sauce from the grilled Dover sole running down the right leg of her black slacks. Her left arm twitched and one of her shoes had somehow landed near her neck, a low-heeled pump resting on its side, black strap snapped off. She had bought the shoes with the money from her last paycheck, paying more than she could afford for a pair of Ferragamos she had always dreamed of owning. She closed her eyes and wondered if she would be buried wearing those shoes.
This expository paragraph details the last seconds of this victim’s life. It is static. The dying character does not act, does not move the story forward. Reader does not have an immediate question about what this character will do next, but does have expectations for how this story will proceed. The victim’s dying moments are richly documented, from the red stars on the ceiling to the low-heeled Ferragamo pump lying near her neck.
In this same novel, on page 358, Lorenzo Carcaterra wrote this simple action paragraph:
Dead-Eye gave a nod to Tony Rigs and reached a hand out for Ash. He stared at Robles for a few moments and then turned and moved down the walkway toward the pay tolls and his parked car. He was about ten feet away when he pushed Ash to the ground and whirled back to face Robles.
This action paragraph focuses tightly on Dead-Eye’s actions. Carcaterra does not tell us what shoes Dead-eye is wearing or if he’s chewing a breath mint so the onions from the triple-cheese hamburger he had for lunch won’t offend his partner. That kind of information does not appear in good, succinct, simple action paragraphs. In this action paragraph, Carcaterra does not use descriptive adjectives.
Look at this simple expository paragraph, a chapter opener from Steve Thayer’s The Weatherman:
Search dogs had found victim number seven buried in the wet autumn leaves. She was fifteen years old, mildly retarded and strangely gifted. Her name was Karen Rochelle. An only child, her parents called her the Princess of Afton. She got off a school bus one rainy afternoon in late October and was never again seen alive.
Though definitely an attention grabber, the paragraph is static. No character is onstage, moving the story forward. Note the modifiers in this simple expository paragraph: “wet autumn leaves”, “mildly retarded and strangely gifted”, “rainy afternoon.” We also see in this paragraph the use of the past perfect tense, “had found.” Herbert’s first paragraph used the past perfect passive tense, “had been lighted.”
On page 297 in William Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men is this simple action paragraph.
Then I bolted from the room, and ran down the hall, trying to run on tiptoe, and ran down the back stairs to the back passage and then into the kitchen, where I put a match to the gas under the coffeepot with trembling fingers just as the front screen door slammed and people entered the hall. I sat down at the table and began to make sandwiches, waiting for my heart to stop pounding before I confronted my mother and the Pattons and whatever bastards they had with them.
This action paragraph is true to form, the character moves the story forward through his actions and William Penn Warren, although a poet, has written it with no expository embellishment. One modifier is present, “trembling” fingers, which are integral to the character and his fear. This paragraph creates a reader question: what bastards do the mother and the Pattons have with them and what kind of a confrontation will the character make?
Here are two last examples. The first is a simple exposition paragraph from Steve Thayer’s The Weatherman, a description of his main character that appears on page 14:
He was a big, husky man, over six feet tall. But he was well past forty now, and his husk was turning to fat. Dixon Bell was losing the battle of the bulge. He drank too much beer. He couldn’t keep his shirts tucked in. His butt was getting big, his gut even bigger. It didn’t help that television makes even the most slender person appear fifteen pounds heavier. His dark, curly hair was thick and salted. He had bushy eyebrows. Women thought him cute. In truth, his face would be clownish if it weren’t for a scar that cast a bitter cloud over his puffy cheeks. But his looks were deceiving. His oversized features played well on television. And when he opened his mouth to talk about the weather, people liked him. They listened. He was a meteorologist and dead serious about it. His gift for reading the weather, and it was a gift, was the envy of his peers.
And, from The Weatherman, page 22, is this simple action paragraph:
Kit hung up his headset and checked the cables. He tuned in the monitor in front of him. He mounted the camera on his shoulder and pointed it out the door at the ugliest cloud he could find.
Ta-dah! The simple expository paragraph and the simple action paragraph.
Easy, huh? So easy that one wonders why—although they abound in bestselling fiction—we rarely find simple expository or simple action paragraphs in beginning writers’ work.
This, as I have observed it, is what happens. The beginning writer, warned by his peers against “tell,” in no way wants to write a paragraph of total tell which is precisely what a simple expository paragraph is. And, then, look at the simple action paragraph. See much prose variety there? No. So, the beginning writer looks at a simple action paragraph and thinks, Minimalist. I’m not a minimalist. I’m not going to write like that. In regard to the simple action paragraph, he may also think that moving the story forward in such simple increments is not only boring, but risky—it doesn’t end with a hook. Everyone says you gotta end with a hook.
And . . . privately, he considers fiction-writing craft beneath him—he’s not a technician, he’s an artist.
What does he do? He brews a cup of green tea, opens a bag of gummy bears, and writes himself right onto the reject pile. To avoid a full paragraph of tell or a sparse (minimalist’s) paragraph of action, he interjects—into an action paragraph in which his protagonist wields his sword in a to-the-death battle against an alien three times his size—descriptions of his protagonist’s cloak, of the cicatrix in his right armpit, of the woman with the long hair and long thighs fighting to his right, and, he adds—within that same paragraph—backstory regarding his protagonist’s birth and the origin of the brute who, if they don’t win this battle, will pull out all their tongues and feed them to his mutant peacocks.
What has this talented story-creator written? A wonky, unfocused paragraph.
John Gardner wrote, page 117 of The Art of Fiction:
The second important lesson the beginning writer learns is that fiction is made of structural units; it is not one great rush. Every story is built of a number of such units: a passage of description, a passage of dialogue, an action (Leonard drives the pickup to town), another passage of description, more dialogue, and so forth. The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. . . .
The simple expository paragraph and the simple action paragraphs are two such units. Get to know them. Place them into the roles for which they are intended and watch your writing achieve star quality.