Wednesday, January 1, 2014

January 2014 - Don't write wall-to-wall words

Seven years ago, I started writing these 'cheat sheet' posts. Looking back, I found the first year's series of do's and don'ts was so worthwhile that I'm going back to that theme. Let's begin with: Don't write wall to wall words.

Just one caveat: if you write literary fiction, you probably don't have to consider wall-to-wall words. That's the nature of literary writing. However, if your aim is genre and mass market fiction, then you will want to avoid wall-to-wall words, which amounts to a visual brick wall to a reader when they eye a page.

Want to know if you have a wall-to-wall word problem? There's a simple test for it.  Print out five pages to a chapter of your short story or novel. Why a print out? Because you need to line the sheets up to see the paragraphing flow. Next, take a highlighter and mark those five or so blank spaces of every paragraph's indentation. Now, count how many indents you have to a page, and watch to see whether a big paragraph at the bottom of one page continues as a big paragraph onto the next page. If you have four (4) or fewer paragraphs per page, you likely have wall-to-wall words.

If you discover you have wall-to-wall words, what do you do? You go back to the basics of what a paragraph is. A paragraph is a unit of one topic sentence followed by a few sentences that deal with that topic. When the topic changes, that's a new paragraph. Often what happens in those big, long paragraphs is that too many "topics" or "ideas" or "actions" were put together.

When writing fiction, think of paragraphing like this:

The reader is in a theater seat watching the story play out on a stage. Onto that stage comes Character A. The reader is fascinated by Character A and keeps their attention on Character A while he handles props, moves about, thinks, breathes, and speaks.

Now Character B comes on stage to interact with Character A. The instant that Character B entered, the reader immediately switches their attention to what Character B is doing and saying. When Character A replies or reacts to Character B, the reader must switch their attention back to Character A. In other words, every switch of the reader's attention means a new paragraph.

Such switching also applies to a noise or other stage business happening either on stage (like a phone ringing) or a car backfiring on the street outside.  In a nutshell, any worthwhile distraction that the reader must pay attention to gets paragraphed.

All those paragraph indentations add white space to a page. And if you're writing high action scenes, you'll have very short sentence and lots of paragraphing. If the pace is to be slower, you'll have longer paragraphs and longer sentences.

So, did you take the test, and if so, won't you comment on the results?

****This blog is updated the first of each month.  February 2014 - Don't ignore story and scene structures

-SPECIAL NOTE- January 8, 2014, is the deadline for registering for my online workshop, "Revision Boot Camp" which runs Jan. 13-31, 2014.

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1 comment:

Kathy Otten said...

I don't usually have trouble with paragraphs, but every so often I look at the page and see that big block of text. Love the analogy of the stage and audience focus. Very easy to understand. :0