When I was in elementary school, I couldn’t figure out paragraph breaks, no matter how many times my teachers tried to explain them to me. My paragraphs were always too long or too short, evidently. It was always the same feedback.
Like many students, I was frustrated by the lack of clear heuristics. Some teachers said 3 sentences, some said 5, some said “Whenever the topic changes.” That last one, while more accurate, was particularly frustrating because, as it seemed to Little Angela, if the topic were changing, wouldn’t I be writing something entirely different, not just another paragraph? I still struggle with how to teach this concept because I still struggle with how to understand it, even though now I find paragraph breaking to be fairly intuitive. Thinking about the “moves” I’m making, per the infinitely useful book They Say, I Say, has helped considerably. I’ve talked here before about different strategies that can help transition between ideas, and paragraph breaks are a good way to visualize those transition points.
As I mentioned last week, I really learned these kinds of rhythmic writing tools by reading authors like Terry Pratchett. But it’s on my mind again because, while I’m done with the proofreading that prompted last week’s consideration of punctuation, I’m currently knee-deep in a deep revision of the sequel to that novel, and I’m thinking about structure at the global level rather than the local (proofreading) level.
When I teach “rhetorical punctuation,” I like to expand the idea past the period as the highest level of separation. Paragraph breaks are a higher level of separation. Above that, chapter breaks. Above even that, entire text breaks—that is, ideas that are so separate for the writer that they can’t coexist in the same document.
In fiction, we have “scene” breaks, which may be marked by an extra space or some punctuation mark, such as # or *** on its own line, which are a degree above paragraph and a degree below chapter. Some writers don’t use chapter breaks at all, such as Terry Pratchett. Some writers, such as Naomi Novick (excellent writer, btw, highly recommend), use a separation degree above even chapter, which is the “part” break (or “book” for JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). Above that, of course, we have actual book breaks, such as in a trilogy or other kind of sequential series. And above even that, we have series breaks—concepts that are so alien to each other that they can’t even exist in the same fictive universe.
Part of being a writer is determining what kinds of relationships exist between your ideas, and which things are related enough to coexist and which things ought to be entirely excluded from the present matter. And that’s the structural conundrum that has been literally keeping me up at night this week. (OK, that’s a lie. Insomnia keeps me up at night, and thinking about puzzles like structure is how I actually calm my brain enough to fall asleep, so I guess structure is what has been literally putting me to sleep this week, but my brain is wired weird.)
You see, the problem here is that I love parallelism in writing. Nothing delights me more than literary symmetry, and I really struggle to not arrange things symmetrically in most other situations as well. This gets me into trouble in drafting, because I often write myself into a corner because I started a pattern by accident and can’t bring myself to break it: for instance, once year for NaNoWriMo, my first three chapter titles were two words each, and after that I just had to make all the other chapter titles two words. Never mind that it was a first draft and it didn’t matter at all what my chapter titles were, of course.
In my current rewrite, my main focus is on paring down the story so that it’s at least 50,000 words shorter than the first full draft was. “Cutting the fat,” as some people say. Like many writers, I struggle with finding the right place to begin a story, so my NaNoWriMo drafts often have a lot of unnecessary material toward the beginning and become leaner later when I better understand my characters and plot. My revisions were going well, until I realized that I had accidentally made each chapter exactly one scene, because I was cutting and condensing so much but retaining the original chapter structure.
That wrote me into a corner. The next chapter had to be just one scene too. If it wasn’t, I had to make the previous chapters more than one scene somehow. But I didn’t want to add more scenes: the goal here is to make the story more streamlined!
But then a liberating answer came to me: I have more separation options than just scenes and chapters. And I don’t have to stick to the original chapter structure! It was a good enough chapter structure (it certainly did have the typically recommended tension arc for chapters), but it wasn’t the required one.
Considering Novik’s strategy of using parts as a division even higher than chapters started to free my mind to think more radically about my text’s structure. I’m coming to my draft now with ideas that fundamentally change the story’s structure, but they also free me from the problem of having accidentally written chapters that had no scene breaks, which prevented me from fully using the structural tools at my disposal.
In sum, you have more structural tools than you might suppose at your disposal. You can make infinite levels of hierarchical breaks in your text, according to the needs of your structure. Just as punctuation is a rhythmic tool, so are scene, chapter, section, book, and series breaks. Play with it. Obviously, there are drawbacks to too many breaks—you don’t want your text to read like an outline—but there are advantages to allowing yourself to experiment with them.