Perfecting Paragraphs


Your teachers probably told you that paragraphs are sets of related sentences. Then they added rules. One outrageous rule was that a paragraph must have at least three sentences. Yes, a paragraph is a set of sentences, but serious readers know that every writer develops his or her own guidelines for how those sentences relate — and how many sentences coexist as units.

If you want to compare philosophies on paragraphs, read Faulkner then Hemingway. The differences between these two writers’ paragraphs amaze students; yet, both men manage to convey complete ideas in paragraphs. Faulkner gives you far more than three sentences, surrounding you in details. Hemingway wants you to understand the basics of a person or thing. As a writer, your paragraphs become a major component of your style.

Purposes of a Paragraph

There are several types of paragraphs, each with a purpose. A writer comes to rely upon some paragraph styles more than others. Detecting this favoritism helps a reader understand the writer. You might try to balance your paragraph choices, or cling to a few.

Details

Detail paragraphs give background information or provide depth to improve a reader’s understanding. Lengthy detail paragraphs were a fixture in nineteenth century novels. Current trends include shorter detail paragraphs.

It was a terrible dinner. It was bad enough that the food was cold, but even served warm I doubt it would have been any better. The turkey was drier than the Sahara; the mashed potatoes lacked mashing; the green beans were a shade of aqua; and the Watergate salad would need a pardon for its crimes.

Examples

Example, or illustrative paragraphs providing illustrations, metaphors, et cetera, to clarify a topic.

Sheila is the moody artist. She yells, laughs, cries, and whimpers simultaneously. When I tell her good morning, I never know how she might react. Some days she hugs me and swings me around, making me feel like the center of her universe. On other days, she completely ignores my greeting and goes about her business. Children, before they learn the self-control we consider maturity, possess this same unpredictable flow of emotions.

Comparisons

More than one school essay assignment began with a request to “compare and contrast” one idea to another. We doubt many student essays do this, but good writing does. Comparative paragraphs work well in research and in fiction.

The new house was nothing like their home back in Baltimore. Their home had new electric lamps; now she carried a candle about at night. Their home featured a manicured garden with tall trees, while this wooden box was surrounded by dirt. The Baltimore home felt permanent due to the brick and stone construction. Here in Sacramento, the homes were of wood. But the greatest horror was not the lack of electricity, flowers, or bricks. Ruth wanted indoor plumbing — and she wanted it now.

Reasons

A reason or rhetorical paragraph argues a theory or opinion, giving a list of reasons why the author’s opinion is correct. These paragraphs do not offer examples or details of the current condition except in passing. Strong rhetorical writing uses “reasons” with other paragraph types.

America needs to establish a single age to represent adulthood. One can drive at 16, vote at 18, and drink at 21. Considering most elections, shouldn’t everyone of voting age be old enough to get drunk following the results? I don’t know many 18 or 19-year-old voters paying enough in taxes to appreciate the privilege of voting. Think of how great it would be to link driving to this new, single adult age: less traffic congestion and fewer accidents (in two manners of speaking).

No one said rhetoric had to be logical or persuasive.

Dialogue

Within conversations, the words of individual characters stand as paragraphs. It is increasingly common to include “in-line” dialogue, while previously it was considered proper to start a new paragraph when a character spoke.

“I think he’s a wonderful singer,” Margie sighed.

“He’s a better neurosurgeon,” his wife said, smiling.

Sometimes, what’s not said says a lot.

Organizing Paragraphs

Knowing the basic types of paragraphs is a good start, but the groups of sentences must be organized. Organizing a paragraph improves its effectiveness — if the right form of organization is chosen. Choose wisely. Organizational decisions affect nonfiction more than fiction. Fiction writers must concentrate on retaining readers and audiences, not on presenting orderly instructions. Every writer should understand organization, if merely to compose complete paragraphs.

Time (Chronological)

Within paragraphs organized by time each sentence is “more recent” than the previous. Chronological paragraphs can be limiting in fiction, since writers like to refer to past events. Effective fiction is seldom linear.

Nonfiction, especially technical writing or “how-to” books are linear and are populated by chronological paragraphs. A manual without an order of precedence… would result in some of our do-it-yourself projects.

Position or Relationship

Closely related to time organization, position or relationship organization reveals the order in which an item was seen or experienced. Learning about events in a particular order does not require those events occurred in the same order. Relationship paragraphs keep related events together, not chronological events.

Most history books follow the migrations of a specific culture or ethnic group before discussing another population. It would be difficult to organize history texts by years because events in different parts of the world did not always relate.

Importance

Organizing paragraphs by the perceived “importance” of information is common in rhetorical works. Writers use four importance orders: most to least, least to most, most-least-most, and least-most-least.

Do not confuse importance with the “wow” factor we discuss later in this chapter. Important information can be dull, while interesting information is often trivia. Come to think of it, trivia is interesting.

Inverted Pyramid (Most-Least)

Journalists organize news articles in inverted pyramids, placing the most important information within the first paragraphs, and then offering supporting details. No, the theory is not that people do not read entire articles (though that is true). During the American Civil War, correspondents feared telegraph cables would be cut as stories were transmitted. The reporters developed a habit of sending the outcome of battles, followed by the details.

The Civil War was almost a sporting event, in terms of news coverage and viewership. People took picnics to watch battles, and the reports often read like football or baseball games.

Inverted pyramids work at the paragraph level, too. The first sentence defines the topic and contains the most important information. The next sentence is the second most important detail relating to the topic. Paragraphs are marked by changes in topic.

Pyramid (Least-Most)

School essays tend to feature paragraphs organized from least important detail to most important. This is the traditional pyramid form. Maybe teachers find this easiest to model, but it is a poor organizational style for effective writing.

Readers want a reason to read a paragraph, so give them one. Beginning with the least important information results in a paragraph that bores a reader before you present anything of value.

Hourglass (Most-Least-Most)

Hourglass figures are considered attractive (yes, we know that isn’t politically correct), and hourglass paragraphs are, too. The hourglass paragraph begins with the topic and an important detail or two. Then, readers receive additional information. Hourglass paragraphs end with a strong restatement of the topic or the second strongest detail.

Hourglass paragraphs read smoothly because the reader knows the topic from the first sentence. The following sentences support any assertion or fact stated within the topic sentence. The last sentence is almost a summary, which reinforces your original point.

Diamond (Least-Most-Least)

Never, unless it’s a matter of survival, should you write a paragraph in diamond style. Diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, but they are lousy organizational models for paragraphs.

Diamond paragraphs begin with unimportant information, and end with equally unimportant details. What readers need to know lies buried in the middle of the paragraph. Do not make readers hunt for what matters, especially in nonfiction.

Comparison Strength

A few paragraphs are organized by the strength of several comparisons. Each sentence presents a “stronger” or more effective comparison than the previous. This organization works because you need to establish basic comparisons before making elaborate ones.

Transitions and Paragraphs

We link the thoughts found in paragraphs with transitions, words that indicate how thoughts relate to each other. A transition word can have multiple purposes. The following table indicates some of the purposes of transitions:

Purpose Sample Transitions
Adding Information additionally, also, and, besides, finally, further, furthermore, in addition, moreover, next, then, too
Comparing by comparison, likewise, similarly
Contrasting however, nevertheless, nonetheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, still, yet
Establishing a Chronology afterwards, before, currently, during, earlier, eventually, finally, immediately, in the future, lastly, later, meanwhile, next, now, soon, subsequently, then
first, second, third... firstly, secondly...
Establishing Proximity behind, here, nearby, there
Introducing Examples as seen in, for example, for instance, like, specifically
Conceding Facts as we know, granted, naturally, of course
Results accordingly, as a result, consequently, due to, so, therefore
Summarizing finally, hence, in brief, in conclusion, in short, in summary, on the whole

Great Paragraphs

Great paragraphs include two types of sentences: “Wow!” and “Hmmm.” Knowing when to use each transforms a good plot into a great story.

Wow! and Hmmm.

“Wow!” sentences demand a reader’s attention. They grab you and shake you by the collar, excite your emotions, and make you want to read more.

“Hmmm” sentences are pauses, like the calm before a storm. When the victim is walking down a shadowy hall, but nothing is happening, that is a moment of “Hmmm.” The reader knows something is going to happen.

Most sentences are neither “Wow!” nor “Hmmm.” Descriptive passages might be poetic, but they seldom inspire curiosity. Try to use more “Wow!” and “Hmmm” to improve your writings.

Paragraph Patterns

The “Wow!” and “Hmmm” factors are not the same as “importance” in paragraph organization. Sometimes a “Wow!” is trivia, used to grab the attention of a reader before sneaking important information into a paragraph.

The patterns appear in the preceding table in order of effectiveness, which is subjective. We like the “Wow!” paragraphs most, as do most American readers and audiences.

Wow the Reader

We believe there are two highly effective “Wow!” patterns. The remaining “Wow!” pattern is effective when used to introduce background.

Wow! Hmmm. Wow!

One effective “Wow!” pattern begins with a shocking condition or description and ends with a stunning conclusion or fact.

Blood stained his white shirt. He had not felt the sting of bullets, but was certain he was shot. Then he noticed the smell of explosives coming from his shirt pocket. Bits of plastic were melted to the shirt. The pen was more than a gift from the ambassador.

In our example, readers recognize the bloodstained shirt instantly. Someone has been wounded. We assume this is a thriller, so the wound is no accident. We conclude the paragraph with a revelation. This paragraph could begin a chapter, having established the “good” and “evil” characters.

Wow!

Another effective “Wow!” pattern is the “all Wow!” paragraph. It can be any number of sentences, but every sentence shocks or stuns the reader. One-sentence shockers make wonderful chapter endings, while multiple shocks commonly describe confrontations.

She slapped him, right in front of the President. His clenched fist struck her jaw before her palm had retreated. The election was over in that instant.

The preceding paragraph is packed with “Wow!” A slap, a punch, and the end of a political career are together in one paragraph. The sentences definitely relate.

Wow! Hmmm.

The “Wow! Hmmm” pattern reminds us of Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Impress the audience then explain something important. Bill Nye inflates a balloon attached to an empty cola bottle by heating the bottle. He then explains how heat and air pressure relate. Romance writers have long used a similar pattern, showing an action then explaining the cause.

She wanted him, and wanted him now. She could feel her body warm when he entered the room. It wasn’t his money, his influence, or his perfect physique, though those did not hurt. It was his eyes. Those deep-blue, passionate eyes could see into her soul.

The example begins with a “Wow!” description. (We assume you know the implied meaning of the first two sentences.) The remainder of the paragraph is thoughtful explanation. The protagonist supports her physical response to the man’s presence with observations, subjective as they are.

Notice the last sentence is still “Hmmm.” The reader should want to know what is in the observer’s soul. Why does it matter that the man can see into her soul? “Hmmm” sentences are not bland statements; they encourage curiosity.

Hmmm-ing Along

We have seen two “Hmmm” patterns with regularity. One pattern works, the other stinks as used by most writers — and that’s being generous. “Hmmm” sentences generate curiosity, so if a sentence fails this test, it isn’t a “Hmmm.”

Hmmm. Wow!

“Hmmm. Wow!” pattern starts with a calm observation, trying to create anticipation. Suddenly, readers receive a shock. They scream in delight.

I would describe myself as a normal suburban housewife and mother of two. I work from home, selling cosmetics. I belong to the PTA. I’m perfectly average, unless you consider that I’ve killed a few people.

The paragraph begins with “Hmmm” because readers anticipate some revelation. The type of work serves to establish the “Hmmm” factor, too. We might assume this paragraph begins a mystery.

The “Wow!” is obvious. You can assume murder qualifies as a “Wow!” in most works. The “Wow!” is magnified because the image of a housewife-murderer makes readers uneasy. (At least it did in the past.)

Hmmm. Wow! Hmmm.

Only the best writers seem capable of this trick, so we advise against it whenever possible. Then again, every writer thinks he or she can work without a net. It looks simple and appealing: “Hmmm. Wow! Hmmm.” Unfortunately, many attempts end with: “Hmmm. Wow! Yawn.”



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 27-May-2014
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach