Friday, January 2, 2009

Paragraph? Why Should I Care-agraph?

Ignore the title, it's awful. I know. Sorry. Moving on.

Since we've talked about the basics of building an effective sentence, I'd like to focus for a sec on what I think is the buy/don't buy aspect of most books. Go pick up a book. Any book will do. Open it to the middle somewhere and look at a couple random pages. You can usually tell what kind of book you are getting into based entirely on the layout of paragraphs.

For instance, Paradise Falls has, to my knowledge, the longest paragraph in any book. At least any I have seen. One paragraph is fifteen or sixteen PAGES! You know instantly, when you see that thick block of text, that this is going to be a hard read. On the other had, open Artemis Fowl or one of the early Harry Potter books and you'll notice that there is a lot of white space. The paragraphs are broken up to more easily hold the attention of the younger audience. This is where knowing your audience is important.

If you are writing YA, you will want to avoid a Dan Brown-esque block of historical information dumping. While it may work in his books, which are obviously for adults (or really REALLY smart kids) it will put off a younger reader. I highly encourage you to step back from your words and sentences and look at your novel from a distance. Zoom out so that you can fit several pages on the screen (or print it off if you like). How does it appear on the page? Is it a mass of black ink covering most of the page?

While I can't say that there is a right or wrong here, there is certainly a chance to gain or lose readers. While they may not say, "Yeah, I didn't buy that new book because the paragraphs were just so friggin blocky" they may notice it subconsciously.

Since we're focused on fiction here, you don't want your book to look like an old text book. Seriously, have a look at one that you had when you were a kid and compare it to a college textbook. Any text book company worth its salt will include lots of breaks, pictures, side notes and other distractions in a lower grade's text. They are trying to help the kid forget they are learning and make them think it's fun. Yeah right. On the other hand, the college texts don't care if you're having fun. You chose to take this class, you want to learn all you can. No more room for pictures. My law books never had an artist's rendering of a TORT in action.

I personally think that this is a huge factor in a good book and I think it is fairly easy to get right. You just have to know that you need to pay attention to it. Learn the rhythm of the paragraph, learn the beat. Practice practice practice.