Paragraphing with Purpose

Back when my fiction writing was giving off an odor closely resembling marsh gas (it stank and I felt ill while reading it), I began poring through the novels of NYT bestselling authors to see what their writing had that mine didn’t.

It quickly became obvious: their paragraphs were meticulously focused and mine weren’t.

Here’s the deal. A focused paragraph has authorial intent and purpose, whereas the unfocused paragraph lacks direction. A purposeful paragraph pushes the story forward; the paragraph lacking story-forwarding purpose impedes momentum.

I know every writer has a purpose for every paragraph she writes, but that purpose is sometimes static, like placing pieces of furniture in a room, items that just sit there. And these paragraphs are often unfocused because their bits of information are not intrinsically related to each other or to the heart of the story. On the other hand, when paragraphs are carefully purposed, they acquire undercurrents, sets of dynamics that move the story forward in truly wondrous ways.

For example, high on intuition and low on craft, I wrote this chapter opening paragraph years ago and knew something was wrong with it, but was too unschooled to realize just what it was.

The gray of night gave way to an eastern glow and the stars paled. 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 the Taghaz, hurried to finish their prayers.

Although this may be a passably okay paragraph, it is not the kind of paragraph exceptionally good writers write. The stars, the desert, and the men are held together with same-time, same-place glue, yet the actions and natures of these three agents—the stars paling, the desert readying for a deadly day and the men finishing their prayers—share no other relationship to each other or to a broader, stars-desert-men encompassing topic. There is no one prevailing topic and the paragraph, aside from setting a present-moment tableau, lacks story-building DNA.

After giving much thought to what the story was actually about—it was not about stars and a desert’s deadly business—I rewrote it to this:

Rif and Adrar, 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.

By showing the two men’s relationship to the dawn, the paragraph acquired purpose and forwards the story on four fronts: it touches on the story’s theme which is belief; it presents, through Rif and Adrar, an expansion of that theme–cultures holding opposing beliefs; it introduces Rif and Adrar and their desert setting; and it sets up or foreshadows the chapter’s goal of sending the protagonist off on what he believes to be a wild goose chase occasioned by the beliefs of his ranking officers. Each sentence pertains to Rif and Adrar and their relationship to the moment of daybreak, yet the paragraph is spring-loaded with intent.

Most importantly, the paragraph now contains conflict: Rif and Adrar versus the moment of Al Shaytaan. Conflict creates tension. Tension is energy. Energy imparts a life force to the story and life force propels it forward. (Much to ask of this small paragraph, but in its small way it delivers.)

Aspiring writers often lament that rewriting causes their prose to lose color or voice or that something that makes their writing unique. My observation is they may be short-changing themselves by being short-sighted.

The first version of Rif and Adrar with stars paling and the desert readying itself for its deadly business of the day may be more colorful than the more purposeful version. Its prose is possibly somewhat looser, lighter, and the prospect of a possibly deadly day ahead may be catchier. Its problem is it is not directional. It is not coiled around theme and conflict; it does not contain preconditioning information that will assist in propelling the story forward; it does not foreshadow events on the horizon; and the information it contains is too broad to give muscular definition to the story.

Loosely focused paragraphs—paragraphs that do not embody dynamically relevant purpose—may have a certain lilt or aspect of chatter the writer finds appealing. A reader may even agree until she has read pages of writing that seems to meander or in which tension is slack or in which a cogent knitting of events seems to never quite come together. The story may after a while seem sketchy. Authorial promises appear forgotten or go unfulfilled. The reader, disappointed because it did seem as though it was going to be a good story, puts the manuscript aside.

Linda Lambert’s The Cairo Codex is a novel I did not finish. Her opening paragraph lacks direction and story-forwarding purpose and, unfortunately, is indicative of the writing up to the passage where I stopped reading.

Thirteen worn steps descended to the uneven marble floor of the crypt. As Justine ducked into the cool air of the cave at the back of St. Sergius Church, she felt as though she were stepping back two thousand years. Nadia, her UNESCO host, had offered to give her a tour of Old Cairo, but she’d set off on her own this morning instead, eager to reacquaint herself with a city that held so many memories of her childhood visit.

This paragraph focuses on the steps, on Justine stepping into the crypt of the church, and on Nadia her UNESCO host offering to give her a tour whereas Justine sets off her own instead. Unfocused, the paragraph has no compelling life force. It hints at the heart of the story, “she felt as though she were stepping back two thousand years,” but weights it less than Nadia’s offer to give her the tour.

Look now at the opening paragraph of John le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama:

It was a perfectly ordinary Friday afternoon in tropical Panama until Andrew Osnard barged into Harry Pendel’s shop asking to be measured for a suit. When he barged in, Pendel was one person. By the time he barged out again Pendel was another. Total time elapsed: seventy-seven minutes according to the mahogany-cased clock by Samuel Collier of Eccles, one of the many historic features of the house of Pendel & Braithwaite Co. Limitada, Tailors to Royalty, formerly of Savile Row, London, and presently of the Vía España, Panama City.

Or just off it. As near to the España as made no difference. And P & B for short.

This paragraph opens with an inciting incident: Harry Pendel changes from one person to the other while Andrew Osnard is in his shop. Conflict is indicated. And the details of the clock—that timed the visitation of Andrew Osnard—and of Pendel & Braithwaite, “P & B for short,” indicate Pendel is possibly quite pretentious to begin with. With this paragraph, Le Carré has wound his story’s opening as tightly as Pendel wound his Samuel Collier clock.

The reader, upon reading this le Carré paragraph, is fully aboard for the ride and is already careening into the story. But with a less focused, relatively superficial paragraph that seems out of touch with its story’s core, the reader remains in place, waiting for the next or the next paragraph to get the story on the road.

I like Ollie North’s television program “War Stories,” but lost interest in reading his and his co-writer Joe Musser’s The Jericho Sanction. The problem was again a dearth of purposefulness in the paragraphing.

Captain Mitch Vecchio sat in the reception area of the FBI headquarters looking at his watch. He had worn his TWA pilot’s uniform to the meeting both to impress the people he was about to meet and to save time. Vecchio had to be at Dulles for a listed flight and was hoping he hadn’t scheduled his time too tightly. His appointment with FBI Special Agent Glenn Wallace wasn’t until eleven o’clock, but Vecchio had hoped that by coming in a few minutes early he might get it pushed up.

This paragraph focuses mildly on Mitch Vecchio’s mild concern over a possible shortage of time. This mild, everyday sort of concern, not even a real urgency, does not get a reader’s engines racing. And, despite each sentence’s ending with a reference to time, each is frontloaded and overpowered by non-urgent information: where Vecchio was sitting, what he was wearing and why, where he had to be, and when he was scheduled to meet with FBI Special Agent Glenn Wallace. There’s no dynamic there there. No conflict, intimated or otherwise. No inciting incident provided. As a story forwarder, it’s a dud.

Robert Harris’s Archangel also opens quietly but, in opposition to The Jericho Sanction, it is meticulously focused and thus powerfully directional and the moment depicted touches on the heart of the story.

Late one night a long time ago—before you were even born, boy—a bodyguard stood on the verandah at the back of a big house in Moscow, smoking a cigarette. It was a cold night, without stars or moon, and he smoked for the warmth of it as much as anything else, his big, farm lad’s hands cupped around the burning cardboard tube of a Georgian papirosa.

The choice of bodyguard as subject indicates conflict is in the offing. That he has been relegated outside to the bitter cold indicates something may be occurring inside the house that he should not observe. A big house in Moscow tells us his boss is a man of power. Because the narrator says this is a story of time long ago, we know it is a story the narrator regards as memorable. And, from the bodyguard’s smoking a Georgian cigarette at the back of a big house in Moscow, we surmise the story may revolve around Stalin. It’s a paragraph rich in subtext focused on a bodyguard smoking a cigarette; the subtext provides the undercurrent that sweeps the reader into the story.

Paragraphing with purpose sufficient to propel the story forward is a boon not only to the reader but to the writer. The purpose placed in one paragraph effects purpose in the paragraph that follows. The reader is pleased by the coherence and the feeling of going somewhere, and the writer doesn’t have to suddenly stop and scratch her head over what to write next because purposeful content indicates what, in some form, should come next.