Making Ever Paragraph Count, Part 2

Writing Lesson

Writing Lesson

Last time we introduced the idea of Making Every Word Count.  Now let’s get more specific.

Make every paragraph count.  Make every scene and description count.  Ask yourself, as you edit, if this event is important.  What am I learning about the situation and the characters?  Every word counts.  Your book is your baby.  Your reader wants to enjoy it, but in the end, it’s another book on their shelf.  Even if they adore it, they can’t spend their life studying it.  Appreciate and respect this fact by making every paragraph count.

What does this look like for the writer?  Emotion.

Sometimes rough drafts can be quiet dry.  They have all the plot points and all the action but little of the emotion.  (Sometimes they’re the other way around: all emotion and no plot. But that’s a different problem.)  This is especially true of new or young writers.  Never fear.  It’s all part of the process.  What you have to do, after you’ve written those two great words, THE END, is go back and add in the emotion.  You have to go back and make every paragraph, every word count.

There are a two key places I regularly see this problem as an Alpha Reader, and as I edit my own work.

Treebeard by Alan Lee

Treebeard by Alan Lee

Description:  You know the paragraphs where you spend several lines and a few hundred words talking about clouds, trees, grass, sand, snow, and wind?  Or maybe you invested some words in the description of a beautiful car, a surprisingly fast motorcycle, or the long limbs of a racehorse.  Descriptions shouldn’t be dry.  They are the playground of the writer and the soul of the story.  Descriptions are mood setters.  Wait!  What’s that?  They effect emotion?  Yes!  Descriptions pull the reader away from their world and into yours, be it the same one they inhabit or a fantastical one.  Adjectives and adverbs clue the reader in on who to love, who to hate, when to be nervous or at peace, to slow down or quicken their reading pace.  If you write an emotionless description, go back and look at your word choice.

Have you read Lord of the Rings?  If you haven’t, I highly suggest it.  If you have, think back and remember how you felt when the Hobbits entered the Old Forest.  Did you feel its twisted nature?  What about the feelings you experienced in Fangorn Forest, the Misty Marshes, Lothlorian, Rohan, or the Shire?  These places take on a life of their own because Tolkien harnessed the power of descriptions, and used them to set the emotional stages of the story.  They feel alive, almost separate from the people who live in them.  Emotion in descriptions is a powerful tool in your writing smithy.

How do you do this?  Easy.  Ask yourself how your character feels as they observe the world around them, or what you want your reader to feel as they look in on the world you’ve created.  Are the clouds overhead ominous or uplifting?  Is the car a deathtrap or a thing of beauty?  Does the dog’s hair stand on end while its lips curl back, or are his ears perked and his tail wagging?

Legolas and Gimli by John Howe

Legolas and Gimli by John Howe

Plot:  You know the little in-between plot points were your character cleans the house, goes grocery shopping, travels from point A to point B, and does their laundry?  We all know they have to do these things.  Even if you’re writing a futuristic story, there’s always laundry to do.  Maybe you cover a few non-important days in their life by listing out all the mundane things that they did.  Or maybe you tell us how their friends were late to see a movie, or their car needed to a wash.  These scenes should be filled with emotion or cut.  Noting is more annoying to a read than a pointless list of events….especially if it looks a lot like their own To Do list.

If your character is doing laundry, how do they feel?  Happy, content, defeated, frustrated?  Maybe the laundry time is just an excuse for the character to think, giving us needed insight into their mind.  Don’t tell me they did the laundry, give me a point for the laundry that drives the story forward.  If you need to tell your reader several days had passed were nothing happened, then just tell them.  Don’t give them a list of all the mundane things done.

Back to Lord of the Rings, no one thinks that Aragon didn’t shower and wash his clothes ever.  We all know he did at one point in time or another, but Tolkien never tells us this.  Why?  Well, it wouldn’t fit in the story.  It wouldn’t drive the story forward.  It would bog us down.  He does tell us about making campfires and eating.  Now eating is pretty normal, but Tolkien uses food and pipes to show us the comfort of home, or the lack of comfort.  The lack of pipeweed on the journey to Mordor is used to show us how out of their element the Hobbits are, and how far from civilization they are.  Tolkien doesn’t give us a list of Sam’s backpack contents.  He uses those contents to drive the story forward or to help us look back at crucial moments.

How do you combat useless plot points, or lists?  Easy!  Ask yourself if the reader is learning anything about the character based upon what is going on.  Is this scene driving the plot forward?  If yes, than draw out the emotion of the scene.  Develop it.  If no, cut it!  If you aren’t sure, see if it can be used.  Ask yourself how your character feels as things slow down a bit and work that angle of the story.  Make sure there’s a point.

Waste nothing.  Every moment, breath, scene, paragraph, and word counts.  They’re all important.  Look for clues.  The longer you write, the more books or articles you get under your belt, the more familiar with your own strengths and weaknesses you will become.  You will find words that clue you in that a scene needs to be developed.  It becomes your personal short hand.  When the words are flowing let them flow.  Then go back and add, develop, and cut, as you need.

And for goodness sake, if you haven’t read Lord of the Rings, go do it!

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