Six impossible things

The Lego Theory, Part 7

OK, you twisted my arm. But I’m stopping at scenes. Really.

As I said, paragraphs are where this analogy switches from looking at building blocks to looking at what you are building out of the building blocks. Consequently, the main properties of paragraphs aren’t so much about the paragraphs as a unit; they’re more about the way all the earlier blocks and bits of blocks fit together to get a particular effect.

Paragraphs are groups of sentences. That’s the official definition I learned back in grade school – a paragraph consists of one or more sentences that deal with a single idea or topic. What I didn’t find out until much, much later is that paragraphs can also be looked at as a way of breaking down a larger idea – a story, a scene, an essay topic – into smaller, more easily digestible chunks. In other words, you can look at them as the largest unit of grammar/syntax, or as the smallest unit of story.

Either way you look at it, though, paragraphs are a collective, and so I call the first major property of paragraphs relationship. The sentences in a paragraph have to relate to each other in ways that aren’t pre-defined by parts of speech or the rules of grammar and syntax. Paragraphs also have to relate to each other in some way, or the story or essay devolves into incoherence.

The tricky thing about paragraphs is that they don’t have the same kind of structural, grammatical, or syntactical rules that you get with words, phrases, and sentences. This is especially true when it comes to fiction, and it means you don’t have anything to fall back on when you’re not sure which sentence should go where. It’s pretty clear if you’ve gotten the subject and the verb in the wrong spots in a sentence, but sometimes the only way to figure out the order of the sentences in a paragraph is to move them around six or eight times to see what works better (and imagine what a pain that was prior to word-processors!). Sometimes, I end up moving a sentence up or down a couple of paragraphs, because it relates better there than it does in the place where I originally thought it up.

The relationship between sentences within a paragraph is usually based on content – they’re all about the same thing. The relationship between paragraphs usually has to do with moving the story smoothly forward – the way the action or the conversation or the description flows from one paragraph-sized unit to the next. If the relationship isn’t clear and the topic of one paragraph doesn’t move smoothly into the topic of the next, you probably need a transition to link the two (or at least clarify the relationship between the respective paragraphs). Also, it’s worth mentioning that most paragraphs have to relate to both the previous paragraph and to the one that comes next (unless of course you’re at a scene or chapter break, and even then, you usually want some kind of transition).

The second major property of paragraphs is…I dunno, I’ve already used “significance,” so let’s call this one “importance.” Each paragraph is presumed to be about as important as every other paragraph in the story (if it isn’t, why is it there?), and each paragraph theoretically has just as many sentences as it needs in order to get its idea across. Since importance is a property of paragraphs, rather than sentences, it spreads out pretty evenly across all the sentences in the paragraph, whether it’s a two-sentence paragraph or a ten-sentence paragraph. The sentences in a two-sentence paragraph thus end up feeling more important or more urgent than the sentences in the eight-sentence paragraph.

A one-sentence paragraph seems more important still.

Especially if it’s short.

It grabs attention.

Hard.

At least, it does the first time you use the trick. After a while, though, the principles of contrast and variation come into play, and all those one-sentence, one-line, one-word attention-grabbers stop feeling important or urgent and start feeling gimmicky. “Fun with Dick and Jane” has almost nothing but one-line, one-sentence paragraphs, and I don’t think anyone sees it as a great model for grabbing and holding the reader’s attention.

The last thing I want to say about paragraphs is a reminder that they’re at the top end of the chain of building blocks that runs from words to phrases to sentences. Consequently, all of the properties of those smaller blocks add up and apply to paragraphs. Paragraphs, though, are the point where things start to shift. Properties like complexity and variation and importance and content become more and more important from here on up, while properties like sound and rhythm and length become less so. A one-word paragraph commands attention. A one-word scene…I’m not sure that’s even possible, and I’m quite sure I’ve never seen one, which tells you right there that even if it is possible, it’s not really very useful for most writers.

5 Comments
  1. A fascinating set of articles. I love this look into the craft of writing. Thank you.

  2. Are paragraphs really all about the same thing in fiction? The ‘all about the same thing’ meme makes sense to me for non-fiction, but for fiction I don’t see it. Can you explain that idea more?

  3. Would you consider publishing your Lego Theory as a resource and guide for teachers? I know many women who homeschool their children, and this would be a valuble tool for helping them. I plan on homeschooling my children when they are old enough and I would like to refer back to what you have taught just to keep myself on track.

    Thank you!

  4. Thank you. I needed to be reminded of how important it is to tie your paragraphs (and scenes) together. Transitions are one of the hardest things for me, but they start in the paragraph.

    I think all the collage papers I’ve written these last few years have helped give me a sense of what transitions should look like. I just need to translate what I learned there into story transitions.

    • Kelly – Thank you.

      Joelle – Paragraphs in fiction aren’t “about the same thing” in the same sense that they are in nonfiction, but they still have a unity of focus – they’re “about” what this person is saying, or a part of a fight, or what someone is seeing or doing. The rules of structure and syntax aren’t as strict; some people use paragraphing as a tool for pacing, the same way you can use punctuation.

      Elizabeth – I’ll think about it.

      Chicory – Transitions are the part I hate most, but yeah, they start showing up at the paragraph level. And transitions in fiction can be more complicated than the ones in nonfiction, because you have so many more things you can be moving between: time, place, focus, thought to speech to action, etc.

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