3 min read

Paragraphs as the smallest living unit of prose

In On Writing (pages 134 and 135), Stephen King writes:

I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of  writing—the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words. If the moment of quickening is to come, it comes at the level of the paragraph. It is a marvellous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run on for pages... .

Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs begin to quicken and breathe.

That rings true for the short stories I've been reading lately. My reading group has a discussion question/prompt about the sentences we appreciated the most — but sentences so rarely stand alone that in probably 29 cases out of 30 we've got to bring the whole paragraph with us. Without the context no sentence stands on its own.

Consider this sentence from "Never Marry a Mexican" by Sandra Cisneros:

My mother's memory is like that, like if something already dead dried up and fell off, and I stopped missing where it used to be.

On its own, it's fine, even good. It's a clear picture and carries the pain. We don't need to know exactly what the "that" is, because it clarifies exactly what is meant. But it doesn't shine.

Now consider the sentence with the full paragraph behind it:

Once Daddy was gone, it was like my ma didn't exist, like if she died, too. I used to have a little finch, twisted one of its tiny tiny red legs between the bars of the cage once, who knows how. The leg just dried up and fell off. My bird lived a long time without it, just a little red stump of a leg. He was fine, really. My mother's memory is like that, like if something already dead dried up and fell off, and I stopped missing where it used to be.

Now that's a sentence.

It certainly seems true of King's own writing in the first part of the book, the not-a-memoir section. Frequently the individual sentences are pretty good, but they aren't electric without their mates. You need the paragraph.

I think of "All Because of the Mistake," an amazing translated short story about a pilot-in-training's first "solo-ish" flight. Their instructor is there to watch — and not giving particular guidance. The story is anxious, and the author shows that anxiety, makes me feel it, through these colossally thick paragraphs shot through with minute details. They go on and on and on, one thing after another. There's so much text so tightly packed it becomes oppressive. It comes alive at the paragraph.

Some ideas that come out of this:

  1. I could review my writing this way, looking for signs of life. Lots of times I seem to find one paragraph or two that I like in a scene. Maybe it's worth treating those with more respect — not as "the best of a bad lot" but as the supports to rewrite the scene around.
  2. Other times there's no such paragraph — and maybe then the scene is better off dead.
  3. This could be an editing tool. If a scene or section feels dead, look at the paragraphs. Mixes with "signs of life."
  4. It could be a learning tool. Look at the story's paragraphs and see what is there.
  5. I don't think it makes sense to explicitly apply at the time of writing — but also it does seem worth remembering occasionally that the paragraphs are where things come alive.
  6. I usually write a sentence at a time over many days because it's easy to keep up — but maybe it's better when I can to write a whole paragraph in one go. Might come out less chunky that way.
  7. When I write "as far as I can go" or on a timer or otherwise more than a sentence, I tend to think a sentence or two ahead. Maybe it is worth also thinking a paragraph or two ahead: What other paragraphs do I want to write, would I have fun writing, etc.