One of the most anxiety-inducing and thrilling discoveries we might have, when working to understand rules for creative pursuits, is that those rules can readily be discarded. The rules are a means by which a person can ignite their confidence, attain mastery, and form goals for the future, whatever that might mean. Writing forums, at times, can be incredibly unhelpful.
"Writers should never..." "A good writer should always..."
"If you don't...you'll never be a good writer."
Mostly, we learn about what is liked or disliked. Previously on this blog, I've discussed how helpful close reading can be and why. In my last article, I discussed how teaching by example can be terribly counterintuitive. No doubt, it can become monotonous. We need stakes.
We need to know, according to whoever may be giving advice, why that advice is important and how to carry it through. The latter, showing how something can be done in writing, is one of the hardest parts because writing is creative and communicative. Options exist as far as they can be expressed, and writers are relied upon to express effectively.
In writing, there are rules. That's why we have style guides, but thankfully, rarely are they followed to the letter. That aside, they are incredibly helpful. Sometimes, writers need to abide by what is technically correct as opposed to following the trail of their prose, and know when to strike that balance.
Francine Prose (2006) does, very effectively, teach by example with the caveat that she gives clear and balanced reasons why she chooses that example. Her reading of the paragraphs is a guide and starting point wherein further observations about a given passage can be made. For writing instruction, this is important.
In this chapter, Prose collects paragraphs, explaining that while paragraphs can accomplish specific goals or hold a certain cadence, not every paragraph has to do this in the same way. There is a place, for example, for paragraphs that are only one or two sentences long.
She cites the opening paragraphs of Denis Johnson's Angels, specifically a novel that had been published following several books of poetry. "Again, you have the sense that these sentences could not have been paragraphed in any other way, that the breaks are essential and organic to the narrative as each of the word choices that suffuse it with an almost hallucinatory paranoia that is, at the same time, solidly grounded in exterior reality" (Prose, 2006).
If we already know that Johnson wrote poetry prior to this novel, we already have the expectation that the novel will achieve a sort of rhythm. We have a reason to hang on to each word, as is established later, because every word means something unto itself or greater than itself. While the same story could have been paragraphed another way, the decision to do so was shaped by instinct, by what is "organic to the narrative."
Prose also covers "dead rules" in relation to paragraphs, that they don't always need an ill-defined topic sentence to be effective. Andrea Hairston (2006), playwright, wrote a beautifully paragraphed novel called Mindscape. The following is the opening paragraph: "We set our calendars by the Barrier, counting the hours, days, and years from the moment it engulfed our planet in its mystery. On this day of days half a century ago, astronauts returning from beyond the Asteroid Belt and the wonders of Mars reported a blood red cloud of unknown material overwhelming Earth. As the captain and crew encountered instrument malfunction, disappearing probes, and a chunk of spacetime wiped from the sky, the signal died. These last astronauts and their marvelous ships vanished from the radar screen. On the surface eyewitnesses all across the planet said the Barrier erupted out of nothing, out of nowhere. Some said it boiled up from the bowels of the Earth. Fire rainbows, tentacles of diamond dust…spreading faster than thoughts or radio signals, breaking apart land and sea, night and day, yesterday and every other tomorrow."
In the opening sentence, a device (the Barrier) that might normally elicit mass panic becomes a source of curiosity. We have a sense of time, that it has been long enough since the Barrier's genesis that attitudes towards it have shifted. We also have a sense of place, and since space is vast beyond human's current comprehension, the exhibitions, uncertainties, and conflicts are believable.
We understand that the Barrier brought forth devastation, but it's described so beautifully in retrospect that, as readers, we accept it as life as readily as those living in Hairston's world. The pacing of that paragraph is methodical, starting slowly, a multitude of commas breaking up each event until the climax of "These last astronauts and their marvelous ships vanished from the radar screen." We then come to understand that the Barrier has broken both space and time in a decrescendo of "land and sea, night and day, yesterday and every other tomorrow."
The paragraph, in its own right, could stand alone. We have rising action, a conflict, falling action, a way of living, a space, and crucially, time. Following this paragraph, Hairston zooms out, focusing on how different groups of people perceive and interact with the world she's given us.
There are no hard and fast rules in paragraph construction, but it depends on a person's writing style and the effect that they are trying to achieve. Prose's method of close reading a paragraph is interesting, but she could have used more variations of paragraph styles as some of them tend to run together. Overall, this introduces another excellent method of close reading.
Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!
If you would like to follow along with my conversation on Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, please support your local independent bookstore! You can also order a copy through Bookshop.org! Proceeds from your Bookshop.org purchases do benefit local independent bookstores. If you do purchase this book, I would love to hear your thoughts on my reading of Prose!
Also, I highly recommend reading Mindscape! It was awarded the Carl Brandon Parralax Award and shortlisted for both the Philipp K Dick Award and the Tiptree Award, and all for very good reason. Andrea Hairston's novel tells the stories of six characters and the issues with the societies they live in. If you're looking for a highly relevant and beautifully written novel, I highly suggest this one.
If you want to be the first to receive updates on Purposeful Prose posts, you can become a member! Members can interact with my posts and start new discussions on my forum. Also, if you have any suggestions for new materials or subjects I can look into, I will see your name first!
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Hairston, A. (2006). Mindscape. Aqueduct Press.
Prose, F. (2006). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). Union Books.