I just finished Francine Prose’s chapter on paragraphs in her book Reading Like a Writer and have to say I don’t entirely agree with her–particularly later in the chapter. Prose seems to prefer long paragraphs–though, fortunately, her examples were of moderate size. I’ve read just about all the long paragraphs I can tolerate in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. They’re tiresome. Even Francine says so.
She also isn’t a fan of one-sentence paragraphs and makes the point these should be used rarely and only if they carry a supreme amount of weight. I do agree with that, but you wouldn’t know it to read my blog. The short one-liners I use here punctuate my snark.
But in keeping with Wednesday’s post, I thought I’d present one of my favorite paragraphs; well, perhaps two. They’re from Demon: A Memoir, by Tosca Lee.
“I was swept up in the ecstasy of worship, of praising Elohim for all that he was and had been and was yet to be. And I had lifted my arm to shield my eyes–the Shekinah glory is too great, even for us. And I wept with it, with the fervency of it, until my tears nearly choked me. My awareness of God was, in that moment, so great that I was overwhelmed. It was always that way.” He didn’t so much look at me as through me. “But this time, as I lowered my arm, the tears hung like prisms in my eyes, like crystals held up to the brilliance of the sun. And I gaped at the beauty of the garden, at the refracted beauty of my own kind filling it. Suddenly, one thing stood out to me as more brilliant than all the rest of that dazzling host, blinding me through the lens of my tears so that I wiped them from my eyes like scales.”
“Lucifer,” I whispered.
Aside from Tosca’s magical descriptive abilities, I love the way the paragraphs are set up. The dialogue is between Lucian, the demon, and Clay, the editor of a major publishing house. The first part of the first paragraph is divided from the second with the line, “He didn’t so much look at me…,” a line that isn’t really necessary, but it serves a function: to divide the beauty of what went before from the evil omen of what was to come. His words, “it was always that way,” illustrate that this praise and worship was his custom.
Lucian had already explained that his purpose for being was to praise God. That was his job, that was why he was created. Clay had said something along the lines of his job being boring, to which Lucian responded that it was joyful to do that for which you were created. He loved praising God; he loved God. But for just a moment, like Peter out of the boat, he took his gaze off Him. He looked about with unclear eyes full of truth-warping tears. Interesting line: “I wiped them from my eyes like scales.”
Notice the one-liner that follows Lucian’s long paragraph. It’s perfect. The fact that Clay whispers the name represents a dawning, a sense of terrible awe. With that one line, we know that the story from here is going to take an awful turn–and we know that Clay is going to stay glued to his seat to hear it all.
He doesn’t, of course, but he endures quite a bit before his mortal mind gets too rattled, too full, too close to bursting to listen to any more.
The invasion of Clay’s observation into Lucian’s dialogue in that first paragraph wasn’t an accident–it’s the well-timed division of two ideas, which is punctuated by the simple word, “but,” that comes afterward. Notice that the “after” is given equal space and eloquence to the “before.” The paragraph is balanced–a teeter-totter propped on Clay’s single observation.
Clay’s one-liner serves to break up Lucian’s long dialogue lines–the demon dominates this conversation with only the occasional, short interruption from Clay. But that isn’t its only function. Tosca Lee is too much a masterful story teller for the line to be there just in case the reader didn’t “get it” and had to be told what Lucian was talking about. In three words, it reveals how Clay is feeling about what he’s being told. Powerful enough that even Francine Prose might approve.
There is so much more to learn about artistic paragraphing, but this is a start. Learning how to mold them can add depth to our writing. And like Francine says, at least this much gets us thinking about it. Maybe if we’re more aware of both sentencing and paragraphing, we can learn to be more artistic in our construction.