March 2016 Editor’s Choice Review, Science Fiction

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Charles Coleman Finlay, Jeanne Cavelos, Leah Bobet, and Amal El-Mohtar. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

THE FALL CHAPTER 2 by Seona Churchward

Much writing advice focuses on crafting elegant and purposeful sentences. An equal amount of attention is given to the structure of scenes, stories, and novels. But one tool that is the most overlooked is also the most important.

Paragraphing.

The paragraph is the basic unit of storytelling.

Paragraphing controls the pace of a narrative and can make it move faster or slower, without changing a single word. Paragraphing can hide information and reveal it. Paragraphing can ease the work of the reader or challenge them to pay more attention.

But paragraphing isn’t just important for the impact it has on readers. Paragraphing is a tool that can help writers too. Changing the paragraphing of a scene can show a writer where we’re missing story beats and character reactions. It can reveal places where we’re repeating ourselves and can make cuts.

And the thing about paragraphing is this: there isn’t a prescriptive way to do it, a single right or wrong way. A good writer develops an awareness of how paragraphs affect the story and then plays with the paragraphs to get the effect they want.

Different paragraphing can even take a good story and make it great. Chapter 2 of THE FALL, this month’s editor’s choice, is an example of good writing that I think could be made stronger just by working with the paragraphs.

For an example, let’s look at the very first paragraph. It begins with Kiah and ends with her. Presented as one block paragraph, it creates a very still and heavy moment, focused on Kiah, and gives us a strong sense of how much the story’s main problem is weighing on her.

Kiah sat down opposite her father’s still form. His head remained bowed over the reader and made no move to acknowledge her presence. She wanted nothing more than to knock the monitor from his hand. Desperate for him to react, she blurted out the words. “Jai’s family will run out within two days.” His brow creased, though he kept his eyes on his work. Determined not to let him avoid the topic, she grabbed his hand. “We can’t let them die. We’ve got to share.” When he didn’t answer, she squeezed his fingers tight. “Please.” Despair creased her father’s forehead then and she held her breath.

But if we look closely, the paragraph contains three distinct pieces of dialogue broken up by several actions and reactions. Breaking up the paragraph to emphasize those things will give it a different effect.

Kiah sat down opposite her father’s still form. His head remained bowed over the reader and made no move to acknowledge her presence. She wanted nothing more than to knock the monitor from his hand. Desperate for him to react, she blurted out the words. “Jai’s family will run out within two days.”

 

His brow creased, though he kept his eyes on his work.

 

Determined not to let him avoid the topic, she grabbed his hand. “We can’t let them die. We’ve got to share.”

 

When he didn’t answer, she squeezed his fingers tight.

 

“Please.”

 

Despair creased her father’s forehead then and she held her breath.

Nothing has been changed except the paragraph breaks. But this version emphasizes the back-and-forth between Kiah and her father. It reads faster and feels like it’s building toward the moment where she pleads.

Now look what happens when we combine this last sentence with the first one in the next paragraph to create new paragraphing.

“Please.”

 

Despair creased her father’s forehead then and she held her breath. He looked up and laid a hand over hers. “We can’t help them Kiah.”

The series of long-to-short paragraphs ending with the one word, “Please,” emphasized Kiah’s desperation and her pleading. Following that with a paragraph that includes both Kiah’s tension (“she held her breath”) and her father’s gentle (“laid a hand over hers”) but firm response (“We can’t help”) creates a sense of finality about his “No” that makes it more effecting.

Breaking up a paragraph this way will change how fast the story reads and what we focus on. Two different writers will break up the paragraph that starts this chapter differently, and both of them can be the right way. It’s all about what you want to emphasize in the story and how you want to emphasize it.

Some editors and writing teachers I know treat it as a hard-and-fast rule that there should be a new paragraph every time a new person speaks. This makes sense in certain kinds of thrillers and page-turners, when you want a fast pace matched with constant clarity. But there are occasions where it makes sense to have two characters speak in the same paragraph: if they’re talking over one another, if one of them is finishing the other’s thoughts, or if the paragraph as a whole contains a single block of information or a single effect that the writer wants the reader to focus on.

Let’s consider the second paragraph of this chapter, as an example of one where two characters speak.

He looked up and laid a hand over hers. “We can’t help them Kiah.” Stunned, Kiah swayed on her feet. She grabbed onto the table in an effort to steady herself. “What do you mean?” The sound of her voice was shrill to her ears. “They’ll die if we don’t do something.”

The characters aren’t talking over each other – there’s clearly a pause while Kiah reacts to her father’s statement. They aren’t finishing each other’s thoughts – their opinions are in direct opposition to one another. So the final word – Kiah’s – is strongest. If we take one thing away from this paragraph, it’s Kiah’s reaction. Just like the first paragraph of the chapter, the father’s presence is de-emphasized.

When we break the paragraph up for different speakers, it changes the whole effect.

He looked up and laid a hand over hers. “We can’t help them Kiah.”

 

Stunned, Kiah swayed on her feet. She grabbed onto the table in an effort to steady herself. “What do you mean?” The sound of her voice was shrill to her ears. “They’ll die if we don’t do something.”

Now there’s uncertainty. The father’s calm “no” is opposed by Kiah’s desperate plea. A simple paragraph break creates tension that can drive the story forward – if that’s how you want to drive the story.

Both of these are examples of ways paragraphing can help a reader take something different away from a scene. But there are also cases where playing with the paragraphing can reveal something that’s missing. Any time I find a paragraph that contains three or more separate pieces of dialogue from the same person, interspersed with actions, I look for missing reactions.

Here’s a good example, with five pieces of dialogue broken up by five separate actions:

Kiah yanked her hand from his grip. “No,” she hissed, stepping backwards. “You’re got it all wrong.” She pointed in toward the sector where Jai’s family lived. “They’ll be the ones choking to death, if we don’t share.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe you’re willing to let them die, while you still have a choice to do something about it.” She took a step backwards, away from him. “You always talked as if you were so different from the rest of that bigoted council, and I believed it.” She shook her head. “But you’re not. You’re just the same as they are.”

Let’s break this paragraph up and see what we have:

Kiah yanked her hand from his grip.

 

“No,” she hissed, stepping backwards. “You’re got it all wrong.”

 

She pointed in toward the sector where Jai’s family lived. “They’ll be the ones choking to death, if we don’t share.”

 

She shook her head. “I can’t believe you’re willing to let them die, while you still have a choice to do something about it.”

 

She took a step backwards, away from him. “You always talked as if you were so different from the rest of that bigoted council, and I believed it.”

 

She shook her head. “But you’re not. You’re just the same as they are.”

Two things jump out at me when we do this. First, we’re missing her father’s reactions. She’s clearly moving in response to him but we don’t see him at all. Let’s fill in those blanks:

Kiah yanked her hand from his grip.

[Father reacts.]

“No,” she hissed, stepping backwards. “You’re got it all wrong.”

[Father reacts.]

She pointed in toward the sector where Jai’s family lived. “They’ll be the ones choking to death, if we don’t share.”

[Father reacts.]

She shook her head. “I can’t believe you’re willing to let them die, while you still have a choice to do something about it.”

[Father reacts.]

She took a step backwards, away from him. “You always talked as if you were so different from the rest of that bigoted council, and I believed it.”

[Father reacts.]

She shook her head. “But you’re not. You’re just the same as they are.”

There’s clearly a missed opportunity here to develop their relationship and build toward the dramatic moment where Kiah decides to make a break from her parents. But because we only have half the story here, we don’t see that happen on the page.

My strong sense is that developing the scene with Kiah’s father at the beginning of the chapter, and placing them in separate paragraphs to emphasize their opposition, followed by drawing more attention to Kiah’s relationship with her father here, and her increasing distance from him, has the chance to give more emotional power to the final line of the chapter: “You’ve a little of your father in you, if I’m not mistaken.” The more these paragraphs isolate them and push them apart, the impact we get from that final line.

The second thing I notice when we break up the paragraph this way are the repetitions – she steps backwards twice and shakes her head twice. That indicates to me that there is duplication that may not be advancing the story. Perhaps a set of three reactions here instead of five would build more effectively to the dramatic moment.

Here’s a very similar paragraph from near the end of the chapter that does the same thing. As an exercise – for anyone reading this and not just the author – I would suggest breaking it up to see what it reveals:

The man stared at the ground. “Two days ago we were ordered to organize the last of the endalium supplies to be delivered,” his monotone voice droned on, “Only Peers and Cardinals were to be supplied. The lower classes were to be cut off completely, except for a few key personnel. I operated the planning protocol from the house. Jaia and my son Ranus were among those who accompanied the deliveries. Toward the end of the day, some in the lesser classes realized what was happening.” He paused. “They waited till the shipment was as on the outskirts of the Peer neighbourhood before they hit it…” His voice cracked. “Neither of them survived.” He was silent for a moment. “Nothing like that has ever happened before. Nobody expected rebellion, but I should have known. I should have realized.” He was shaking. “There’s never been a situation as dire as this. Of course people would break the rules and risk their own lives for a chance to survive.” He put his head in his hands. “I should have been there to help them.”

I want to end this review by making one more observation about paragraphing and how they can effect pacing and reader focus.

A series of really long paragraphs followed by a short one will lull the reader and then draw the reader’s eye. A sequence of short, sharp paragraphs followed by a longer one will signal to the quick-paced reader to slow down and pay more attention. A series of one word paragraphs can bring the reader to a full stop.

There’s a scene later in this chapter, where I felt paragraphing was used very effectively to create some of these effects.

With one hand holding her bag securely behind her, she crouched down and peered under the sleep pod, relieved to see the box of canisters actually there. This whole endeavor had been based on an educated guess. Very conscious of the presence of her parents sleeping in the pod above, she slid onto her stomach and edged toward the box tucked in at the head of the pod. The sound of her clothes sliding across the floor, made her cringe. As she crept forwards, a bead of sweat trailed into her eye, the salt making her blink. The thought of failure terrified her.

 

If her parents caught her, they would watch her like jailors. Jai and his family would die.

 

She was half way under the pod when a snort made her freeze. Wide-eyed she looked upwards, waiting.

 

The snoring stopped.

 

Kiah held her breath. This had to work.

 

Tonight.

 

A delay could lead to disaster. She tried not to picture what might happen to Jai.
Kiah focused and inched forward on elbows and stomach, her eyes on the box. She didn’t stop until her nose was almost touching the metal of the container.

Here in a 7-paragraph sequence, we have 1 longer paragraph, 1 medium length paragraph, 2 short paragraphs, 2 very short paragraphs, and 1 single-word paragraph. This kind of variation keeps a story interesting and creates different foci and effects – here the single word “Tonight” in the middle of the action creates a sense of urgency, which is developed in the next paragraph. On the whole, I found this sequence to be effective and it gives me the sense that the writer has a sense of paragraphing that can be developed and improved with practice.

There’s much more to be said about effective paragraphing, and the ways it can be used to create strong narratives. Perhaps I’ll return to this topic in future reviews.

For the meantime, I thought this was an interesting chapter with a strong emotional arc – Kiah’s break from her father to “you’re like your father” – and meaningful actions that develop the characters and move the plot forward. With some different paragraphing choices, and filling in some of the gaps that would reveal, I think this chapter can be even stronger.

Good luck with your revisions and with the rest of the book.

Best wishes,

C.C. Finlay
Editor, FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION
sfsite.com/fsf/

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