1. Elven Candy
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    Elven Candy Contributing Member

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    One paragraph per character, but what about this?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Elven Candy, Sep 19, 2016.

    I know the rule is that each paragraph needs to be about one character, and I get that, especially when I've been confused many times by books that didn't follow that rule.

    My confusion comes from the scenes where I have two characters semi-interacting and the character focus changes nearly every sentence or every couple of sentences. I'm not talking POV switches, just, for example, character actions.

    In this case it's the MC dragon watching the female human come out of her hiding place (a second time). This is the specific scene I'm struggling with right now, though I've run into this a few times before and I'd really like to know the correct way to handle it.

    (Bogre is the dragon term for humans. It stands for boney ogre.)

    The bogre peeked out the hole.

    So she hadn’t found the other one yet. Interesting.

    She slowly stepped out of the hole, watching his face for signs of movement. He forced back a chuckle. The last thing he wanted was to frighten her back into hiding.


    I don't know if He forced back a chuckle. The last . . . should be in a separate paragraph, or if it's fine the way it is. It kind of sounds off to me where it is, but the next sentence is going to be her doing something and it feels odd to have so many insanely short paragraphs without any of them being dialogue. It's a really fun scene, but when this kind of thing stumps me, it's really hard to stay focused because I have no idea how I've handled it previously in the book, so I don't know if I'm being consistent. I run into this problem with fight scenes, too, but those don't feel as off as calmer scenes.
     
  2. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    What gave you the idea that's a rule? As you said, lots of books don't follow that. There's no such rule.
     
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  3. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    When you say character each paragraph needs to be about one character, do you mean it needs to follow the same POV, or that you can only mention one character per paragraph?

    Your excerpt confuses me because it seems like it's head-hopping but I'm not sure because I don't know who "she" and "he" are. The first two paragraphs seem to be from the dragon's POV, then the third paragraph starts in the human's POV and switches back to the dragon?

    I mean yeah, there are successful books that head-hop... but it drives a lot of readers mad and will make them put the book down.
     
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  4. Viridian
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    Viridian Contributing Member Supporter

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    I think I see what you mean and that last line would be fine as it is if you stay within the dragon's POV. You switch to the human's POV for a moment when you say She slowly stepped out the hole, watching his face for signs of movement. The dragon can see she's watching his face but he doesn't necessarily know why or what for because he's not in her head. If you stick with the dragon's POV I think this can run on just as it is, no need for another paragraph.
     
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  5. Elven Candy
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    Elven Candy Contributing Member

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    I read it somewhere when I was first learning to write, and since I've been confused on multiple occasions when a book didn't follow this, it made a lot of sense to me . . . except in scenarios like this. Maybe those paragraphs just weren't clearly written?

    Sorry for the confusion. I was wondering if I head-hopped there. The thing is this is the second time he's watched her do this, so he knows (or thinks he knows) what she's watching for. Putting the "watching his face . . ." was kind of an experiment and I guess it threw me off. Now that I read it without the head-hopping part, I think it makes sense the way it is. Guess I have to find another way to show what he knows (or thinks) she's watching for.

    Thank you! I did try reading it without the head-hopping as you suggested, and I agree it now sounds fine. Funny how one little thing can throw me off. Now that I know what the issue is, maybe I can catch any other time I'm tempted to head-hop (though I'd like to think that's rare, since I knew this one might be and I usually opt to change a sentence that "might be).
     
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  6. Elven Candy
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    Elven Candy Contributing Member

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    I just realized I forgot to answer this question. What I mean is, for example, when character A does something, and then character B does something, I've read that the two actions should be in separate paragraphs. So,

    Betty grumbled and picked up the filthy clothes. They were so caked in dirt she couldn't even tell what color they were supposed to be. Walking into the house, she stopped at the kitchen doorway.
    Eliza was scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush, cursing under her breath.
    Betty smirked and dropped a few clothes onto the clean part of the floor.

    Vs.
    Betty grumbled and picked up the filthy clothes. They were so caked in dirt she couldn't even tell what color they were supposed to be. Walking into the house, she stopped at the kitchen doorway. Eliza was scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush, cursing under her breath. Betty smirked and dropped a few clothes onto the clean part of the floor.

    And,
    Eliza screamed and threw a cup full of water at her.
    Betty dodged it easily and picked up the clothes.
    Eliza's face turned red and she glared daggers.
    Sticking out her tongue, Betty picked up the dropped clothes and sauntered off to the laundry room.

    Vs.
    Eliza screamed and threw a cup full of water at her. Betty dodged it easily and picked up the clothes. Eliza's face turned red and she glared daggers. Sticking out her tongue, Betty picked up the dropped clothes and sauntered off to the laundry room.


    That's what I mean. But it also kind of doesn't make sense sometimes, so it can be very confusing.
     
  7. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Hmm. As far as I'm aware, this isn't a rule. I'd have written your examples the second way, unless I had a reason to separate them (pacing, effect, etc).

    There are so many "rules" out there and it's really hard to sort the wheat from the chaff!
     
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  8. Elven Candy
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    Elven Candy Contributing Member

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    Tell me about it! Thanks for your input--it's good to know that it's just optional!
     
  9. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    Like the others, I'm not aware of such a 'rule' and have no qualms about mixing various characters' actions in a single narrative paragraph. Is it possible you're confusing the convention for dialogue where you'd start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes, so that it's easier for the reader to track who's speaking?

    (Even that convention has grey areas though, e.g. should you start a new paragraph if character B makes a non-verbal reply to character A's dialogue? I probably would, but what about other character B actions that happen at the time, but aren't exactly a reply? Maybe, maybe not...)

    P.S. I like 'bogre' :)
     
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  10. Elven Candy
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    Elven Candy Contributing Member

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    I'm not getting the conventions for dialogue mixed up with this. I know because I actually looked it up so I could figure out how to respond to Tenderiser (search "paragraph structure in fiction writing" and I'm sure you can find a few blogs/articles that mention it). For dialogue, I think it makes the most sense to put only the dialogue character's actions and thoughts in the same paragraph as their dialogue. In your example, I'd put character A's dialogue and action in one paragraph, and B's internal reply or external action in the next. It makes it a lot easier to keep track of who does what.

    Example:

    Betty grumbled and picked up the filthy clothes. They were so caked in dirt she couldn't even tell what color they were supposed to be. Walking into the house, she stopped at the kitchen doorway.

    Eliza was scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush, cursing under her breath. Smirking, Betty dropped the clothes onto the clean part of the floor.

    Eliza screamed and threw a cupful of water at her. "You did that on purpose!"

    Betty dodged the water easily and leaned in against the doorway, arms crossed. "Now why would I do that?"

    "Because you're a spoiled brat who always gets me in trouble," Eliza said through clenched teeth. Her face had turned red and she was glaring daggers.

    Betty placed a hand on her chest and gave a shocked expression.

    "Don't you play innocent with me!" Eliza pointed to the pile of clothes. "Pick. Them. UP!"

    It was way too easy to mess with her.

    "I said pick them up!"

    "Why? You're not in charge of me."

    Eliza startled and looked into the other room. Her jaw dropped, and she jumped up and curtsied.



    Verses:
    Betty grumbled and picked up the filthy clothes. They were so caked in dirt she couldn't even tell what color they were supposed to be. Walking into the house, she stopped at the kitchen doorway.

    Eliza was scrubbing the floor with a toothbrush, cursing under her breath. Smirking, Betty dropped the clothes onto the clean part of the floor.

    Eliza screamed and threw a cupful of water at her. "You did that on purpose!"

    Betty dodged the water easily and leaned in against the doorway, arms crossed. "Now why would I do that?"

    "Because you're a spoiled brat who always gets me in trouble," Eliza said through clenched teeth. Her face had turned red and she was glaring daggers.
    Betty placed a hand on her chest and gave a shocked expression.

    "Don't you play innocent with me!" Eliza pointed to the pile of clothes. "Pick. Them. UP!" It was way too easy to mess with her.

    "I said pick them up!"

    "Why? You're not in charge of me." Eliza startled and looked into the other room. Her jaw dropped, and she jumped up and curtsied.



    Do you see the potential confusion? I've found books that did A's dialogue, B's reaction, then more dialogue from A all in the same paragraph, and that got so confusing I gave up trying to read the darn things. Putting B's reaction and internal thoughts in a separate paragraph from A's dialogue makes it easy to know where the break should be. Otherwise I might easily have put "Because you're a spoiled . . ." to "'I said pick them up!' all in one paragraph, and that would be confusing indeed!

    Edited to add: it would also make character beats difficult!


    Thank you :D.
     
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2016
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  11. Sifunkle
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    Sifunkle Dis Member

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    Yep, I agree with what you're saying there, and that's more-or-less how I'd format the paragraphs too (the former example) :) I sometimes run into situations that don't seem as clear though. Having a hard time thinking of one off the cuff, but maybe something like:

    I've kept that to as few paragraphs as possible, but there would definitely be an argument for more. Harder to pick? Who says the last line? It's a contrived example that would be easy to fix in other ways, but if I had my heart set on these words in this order, where should the paragraph breaks go? I'm not sure, so if anyone has pointers :) although perhaps a considered answer would need more context.
     
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2016
  12. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    This is a good illustration of why characterizing something as a rule is a disservice to beginning writers. Such characterizations stick with people. The author of whatever text said to limit one paragraph to being about one character was probably trying to simplify writing in a manner that would be simplest for a new writer to address, but in reality ended up creating a false impression about what you can do with fiction.

    Even the "one POV per paragraph" rule is bogus, insofar as it is called a "rule." You can go to the bookstores and find books that don't follow this. It's simply meant to provide beginners with an easy way to ensure they maintain clarity (if clarity is what you're going for; it isn't always - some famous writers head-hop mid-paragraph or mid-sentence in a way that isn't the most clear manner possible, but instead a stylistic choice).
     
  13. Elven Candy
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    Elven Candy Contributing Member

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    I think the way you have it is fine, though I'd put an ellipsis before the second dialogue since he's finishing his sentence. ". . . That would mean that we're both in big trouble." That also helps the reader know who's talking; that it's Barry's completed thought rather than Elijah's response. Or is it Elijah's response? I just realized I could be wrong on whose dialogue it is. I did this once, with the dialogue interrupted by something, and the second half of the dialogue on a separate paragraph. I just added an ellipses to the end of the first half and the beginning of the second, and that made it obvious who was talking.

    The reason I think it works is because you're giving Barry's impression and internal thoughts on Elijah, rather than what Elijah's doing. Yes, you mention that Elijah's eyes are smiling, but it's said so clearly within Barry's thoughts. Instead of Elijah's eyes crinkled in a smile, you have Barry's thoughts on Elijah's smile. Get it?

    Agreed! When someone asks for advice and says they're new at writing, I always try to remember to answer their question(s) and also explain to them that the writing "rules" are important to know and that they're just guidelines. Important guidelines, obviously, but just guidelines.
     
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  14. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree that there isn't such a rule, though I have in the past said things that suggest that there's such a rule. I think that the difference between what I said then and what I'm saying now is that there is such a rule for dialogue. And when dialogue is mixed with actions, I think that it's often confusing to have the "wrong" character's actions in the same paragraph as the dialogue. Also, in dialogue interspersed with the occasional speech-free action, it's sometimes better to break out the actions to keep the alternation going.

    Example of doing it "wrong"--that is, doing it the way I don't like it. :) :

    "Are you sure you saw it yesterday?" asked Henry.

    Henry knelt to peer under the sofa. Emily said, irritably, "Yes, I'm sure. I had it in my hand while I ordered those seeds."

    She lifted the sofa pillows and peered under them. Henry got to his feet. "Maybe you put it away," said Henry. "Weren't you doing something about carrying fewer credit cards?" Emily finished with the sofa pillows and moved on to the armchairs.

    "No," said Emily. "I mean, that was last month, and I had this today." Henry circled the living room, lifting each lamp and looking under it. Emily shook out an afghan. Henry moved on to the figurines.

    Henry asked, "What did you buy, anyway?" Emily looked up irritably.

    Emily said, "I said seeds!"

    I find the above really confusing, even though there is technically only one speaker per paragraph. There's one speaker, but the other character's actions are in that paragraph, in a way that doesn't in any way add to the paragraph. If we put the actions into the same pararagraphs as the speech, we get rid of some tags and it's less confusing.

    "Are you sure you saw it yesterday?" Henry knelt to peer under the sofa.

    Emily said, irritably, "Yes, I'm sure. I had it in my hand while I ordered those seeds." She lifted the sofa pillows and peered under them.

    Henry got to his feet. "Maybe you put it away. Weren't you doing something about carrying fewer credit cards?"

    Emily finished with the sofa pillows and moved on to the armchairs. "No. I mean, that was last month, and I had this today."

    Henry circled the living room, lifting each lamp and looking under it.

    Emily shook out an afghan.

    Henry moved on to the figurines. "What did you buy, anyway?"

    Emily looked up irritably. "I said seeds!"

    In the above, I continue the alternation with the two zero-dialogue paragraphs. Unless those two paragraphs had a vibe of silent communication, I would try to shift the actions to eliminate that:

    "Are you sure you saw it yesterday?" Henry knelt to peer under the sofa.

    Emily said, irritably, "Yes, I'm sure. I had it in my hand while I ordered those seeds." She lifted the sofa pillows and peered under them.

    Henry got to his feet. "Maybe you put it away. Weren't you doing something about carrying fewer credit cards?"

    Emily finished with the sofa pillows and moved on to the armchairs. "No. I mean, that was last month, and I had this today." She shook out an afghan.

    Henry circled the living room, lifting each lamp and looking under it, then moved on to the figurines. "What did you buy, anyway?"

    Emily looked up irritably. "I said seeds!"
     
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  15. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    I am reminded of the maxim that rules are for the guidance of wise men and the blind obedience of fools... that is all rules about writing are actually more like guidelines
     
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  16. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @ChickenFreak I tend to like it the same way you do, though I'm happy enough to read it done other ways if the author can pull it off. Writers like Virginia Woolf, for example, will have multiple people talking, or run through multiple POVs, without any kind of paragraph break. Sometimes, you have to slow down to keep it straight. Then again, when you're using modernists as an example (as I am) you are necessarily holding up writers who were experimenting with style. If you're writing a modern, commercial thriller, for example, you're not going to want to adopt the approach of Woolf, Joyce, or others.
     
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