Isolating lines in narrative -- what's it all about?

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  1. #1

    Isolating lines in narrative -- what's it all about?

    Something I am noticing more and more in contemporary fiction (particularly in scenes of suspense) is deviation from standard paragraph formatting to frequent use of separating paragraphs into short, sound-bitey lines of single sentences, or sometimes single clauses or even words, away from the main paragraph for no apparent reason other than...profundity I suppose? Emphasis? Kind of a way to make....

    Certain...things...sound...ominous?

    What's more annoying is I find myself doing it too, seemingly out of osmosis. I have been trying to catch it and fix it as I have a bit of a pet peeve for formatting gimmicks to make one's writing seem more "striking" than it really is, but it makes me wonder if there is a purpose for why writers (even good ones) do this sort of thing rampantly and if I am being over-pedantic in finding it irritatingly amateurish? Hence the thread.

    Example of what I mean would be a paragraph like this. (Just something I wrote so I didn't have to track down a published example so no citing needed -- also bolding the lines in question, they would not be bolded in the actual text)

    The door opened with yet another oil-starved protest revealing a tiny room. A faint smell of coffee combined with a stronger odor of dampness. Across an over-sized desk stood, the area behind sealed by a closed door that had the appearance of being locked. The desk was empty but for a sign, old-fashioned and brass tarnished, that said RECEPTION PLEASE RING BELL.
    Except...there was no bell.
    More to the point, there was no evidence there ever had been one. Beside the desk a battered old bookshelf stood, the three modest levels overflowing with a number of cozy-looking paperbacks (and another sign, handwritten in faded ink, saying BORROW BUT BRING BACK) plus a trestle table bearing an urn of coffee, a tray of blueberry muffins and yet another sign. A folded card that said BREKFAST SURFED 7 TO 9.

    Slowly she leaned over to peer behind the desk.
    There was a narrow passageway. It was off to the side behind the desk, gloomy in the windowless eddy. There she could see a filing cabinet and not much else. “Is anybody back there?” she called.
    No answer came.
    She looked back at the glass door and then over to the window wondering what the plan was to be. She had expected somebody to be here. Meanwhile the wind whined outside the room, gathering speed by the sound of it. There had to be somebody here, she told herself. Somebody had left out muffins and coffee.
    Why, she wondered, would anybody do that?
    There are far better examples of it but you get the idea. I don't know why I find stuff like this annoying, perhaps because I think it somewhat symptomatic of a culture where drama has to be artificially exaggerated and perhaps people being too lazy/challenged to read proper passages of text. Not only is it not part of any standard style manual I am aware of (I don't even know if it has a name) but I actually find it weakens the writing by interruption. I would much prefer to read the above as a single paragraph and see no reason why it would not be styled that way. But maybe there are reasons I am just too much of a Luddite/ignoramus to grasp? Any ideas?

    Last edited by luckyscars; August 10th, 2018 at 10:45 AM.
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  2. #2
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    I use it, and I always feel a bit of a guilty "uh" when I do, so I tend to find I bring the following text up to the same line to soften, but not eliminate, the blow. So in your example I might do:

    The door opened with yet another oil-starved protest revealing a tiny room. A faint smell of coffee combined with a stronger odor of dampness. Across an over-sized desk stood, the area behind sealed by a closed door that had the appearance of being locked. The desk was empty but for a sign, old-fashioned and brass tarnished, that said RECEPTION PLEASE RING BELL.
    Except...there was no bell. More to the point, there was no evidence there ever had been one. Beside the desk a battered old bookshelf stood, the three modest levels overflowing with a number of cozy-looking paperbacks (and another sign, handwritten in faded ink, saying BORROW BUT BRING BACK) plus a trestle table bearing an urn of coffee, a tray of blueberry muffins and yet another sign. A folded card that said BREKFAST SURFED 7 TO 9.

    Slowly she leaned over to peer behind the desk. There was a narrow passageway, off to the side, behind the desk, gloomy in the windowless eddy. There she could see a filing cabinet and not much else. “Is anybody back there?” she called.
    No answer came.
    She looked back at the glass door and then over to the window wondering what the plan was to be. She had expected somebody to be here. Meanwhile the wind whined outside the room, gathering speed by the sound of it. There had to be somebody here, she told herself.

    Somebody had left out muffins and coffee.


    I just thought I'd separate out thagt muffins and coffee to show the effect it can have when used; to me, that bottom line would suggest a comedic tone. I would say deploy sparingly, and appropriately




    Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and are awed,
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    - Rainer Maria Rilke, "Elegy I"

    *

    Is this fire, or is this mask?
    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous

    *

    C'mon everybody, don't need this crap.
    - Wham!





  3. #3
    It's something I use sometimes, when I'm wanting to draw attention to a particular point of narrative or dialogue. I've never really given it much thought.

    Is this something that's particularly deprecated or just not standard?

    Sent from my Moto G (4) using Tapatalk

  4. #4
    I tend to do that as well - but I'm an amateur so what would you expect? I do it to lend emphasis, but I am very sparing with it because emphasising in too many places tends to be counterproductive.

    The door opened with yet another oil-starved protest revealing a tiny room. A faint smell of coffee combined with a stronger odor of dampness. Across an over-sized desk stood, the area behind sealed by a closed door that had the appearance of being locked. The desk was empty but for a sign, old-fashioned and brass tarnished, that said RECEPTION PLEASE RING BELL.
    Except...there was no bell.
    More to the point, there was no evidence there ever had been one. Beside the desk a battered old bookshelf stood, the three modest levels overflowing with a number of cozy-looking paperbacks (and another sign, handwritten in faded ink, saying BORROW BUT BRING BACK) plus a trestle table bearing an urn of coffee, a tray of blueberry muffins and yet another sign. A folded card that said BREKFAST SURFED 7 TO 9.

    Slowly she leaned over to peer behind the desk.
    There was a narrow passageway. It was off to the side behind the desk, gloomy in the windowless eddy. There she could see a filing cabinet and not much else. “Is anybody back there?” she called.
    No answer came.
    She looked back at the glass door and then over to the window wondering what the plan was to be. She had expected somebody to be here. Meanwhile the wind whined outside the room, gathering speed by the sound of it. There had to be somebody here, she told herself. Somebody had left out muffins and coffee.
    Why, she wondered, would anybody do that?
    In your quoted text there are four emboldened places:

    I would regard the first as being fine, particularly if the 'no bell' is significant in some way - like showing something about the personality of the receptionist/hotel owner.

    The second is probably unnecessary.

    The third is probably ok as it's a substitute for dialogue. Although not technically necessary under whatever grammar rules are left, a line break is reasonable I feel.

    The fourth is reasonable too. Although it is a thought rather than speech, so not strictly necessary to break the line, to me it helps the text flow better.

    Plenty of white space also helps with readability, especially when I'm tired. If someone doesn't wish to continue reading something that I've written, I at least would like to ensure it's not because the text is too blocky.


  5. #5
    I think you could argue that these do follow standard paragraph rules - they're creating new paragraphs for a new action/set of actions/situations.

    So the first paragraph in the example lays out a standard reception area.

    Second paragraph shows what's not standard. (no bell)

    Third paragraph gives more description of non-important elements.

    Fourth paragraph is a character action (leaning over)

    More description plus some dialogue. (Honestly, I might have started a new paragraph for the dialogue, just to drive you COMPLETELY batty)

    Response to dialogue (no answer)

    And then I might still use two paragraphs for the last bit, but I'd probably break them up differently - one for the descriptive part, one for her wonderings.


    On a wider note - yes, I think short paragraphs are a tool for creating drama, but... lots of writing is about tools for creating different effects in readers, right? Any of them can get annoying if they're over-used, so I assume that's what you're reacting to, but in general, I'm all about using whatever tools create the impression I want created.

  6. #6
    I consider it just another form of emphasis (like the bolder cousin of the italicized word).

    Sometimes a particular line works better when offset from the paragraph. Perhaps it's a separate idea all its own. Or perhaps it's meant to change the rhythm of the reading, throwing in that extra pause and downward swoop of the eye that a line of white space requires.

    Or, yes, sometimes it's just there for dramatic emphasis.

    I don't mind it so long as it's handled in moderation (as Bayview pointed out, it might just be overuse that's the problem?).

    I believe that good prose isn't just about word economy and proper form—it's also about the reading experience. Sometimes, a little change in the structure can give the text just a little bit more.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Bayview View Post
    On a wider note - yes, I think short paragraphs are a tool for creating drama, but... lots of writing is about tools for creating different effects in readers, right? Any of them can get annoying if they're over-used, so I assume that's what you're reacting to, but in general, I'm all about using whatever tools create the impression I want created.
    Quote Originally Posted by Kyle R View Post
    I don't mind it so long as it's handled in moderation (as Bayview pointed out, it might just be overuse that's the problem?).

    I believe that good prose isn't just about word economy and proper form—it's also about the reading experience. Sometimes, a little change in the structure can give the text just a little bit more.
    A common issue I encounter, not limited to this forum nor online forums in general but in virtually any discussion over stylistic preferences or dislikes, is misunderstanding over intent behind raising specific stylistic techniques. Of course I am not opposed to this kind of thing (or any kind of thing, really) used in “moderation”. Of course I am not opposed to anything in writing or, for that matter, in life when done well.

    I consistently referred in my original post to the issue involving “rampant” and “frequent” use so there’s no need to assume that is what I was reacting to: I said it was.

    Neither, though, am I necessarily talking about overuse, though, as any overuse of anything by defintion is a negative and not requiring of discussion —we can all agree it is just bad writing and probably doesn’t reach the bookshelf anyway. It should be assumed then that I am talking about the gray area. In this case, I would definite that as where there is consistent, constant formatting in the fashion I illustrated, with no evident purpose behind it beyond it being “writer choice” and apparently it is also good writing. Good enough to be published, sold for money and read in spite of what I think is bad style. When the pattern of prose becomes dominated by a kind of, I would describe it as, a stutter I am trying to understand why this kind of “writing by sound bite” occurs without having to write letters to every author who does it. As a somewhat more secondary concern, I am also trying to gauge if it is “just me” who has the issue with what I perceive as a highly pretentious affectation.

    Anyway, maybe I was somehow not clear enough as to what I meant so here is a professional excerpt by the author JD Robb Putnam’s “Creation In Death”.

    for him, death was a vocation. killing was not merely an act, or a means to an end. It certainly was not an impulse of the moment or a path to gain and glory.

    Death was, in and of itself, the all.

    He considered himself a late bloomer, and often bemoaned the years before he’d found his raison d’être. All that time lost, all those opportunities missed. But still, he had bloomed, and was forever grateful that he had finally looked inside himself and seen what he was. What he was meant for.

    He was a maestro in the art of death. The keeper of time.

    The bringer of destiny.

    It had taken time, of course, and experimentation. His mentor’s time had run out long before he himself had become the master. And even in his prime, his teacher had not envisioned the full scope, the full power. He was proud that he had learned, had not only honed his skills but had expanded them while perfecting his techniques.

    He’d learned, and learned quickly, that he preferred women as his partners in the duet. In the grand opera he wrote, and rewrote, they outperformed the men.

    His requirements were few, but very specific.

    He didn’t rape them. He’d experimented there, as well, but had found rape distasteful and demeaning to both parties.

    There was nothing elegant about rape.

    As with any vocation, any art that required great skill and concentration, he’d learned he required holidays—what he thought of as his dormant periods.
    I read this as soundbiting into bullshit pseudo-wisdoms seemingly made for a wikiquotes page such as, a personal fave, “There was nothing elegant about rape” (what a goofy thing to say) Perhaps my criticism is unfair, but I see no other reason for this. And here’s the thing, he’s not to my mind a terrible writer. There’s nothing about the writing itself that draws my contempt. Plenty of good writers do this often, from Dean Koontz to Cormac McCarthy. It is purely the way that it is formatted that makes it feel lofty and sometimes rather comedically self-important. Why write like this?
    Last edited by luckyscars; August 10th, 2018 at 03:56 PM.

  8. #8
    Just as you would isolate the punchline of a joke, you probably should isolate the awesome moments in your story. Or semi-awesome moments. I have a thread on this.https://www.writingforums.com/thread...Awesome-Moment Both the punchline and awesome moment should be as short as possible. (Think punch.) That leads to short paragraphs.

    Yes, it can be overused. Like Bayview said, the paragraph can be short just naturally, but I actually don't find that much.

    It's crept into online political nonfiction. A short paragraph from Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes:

    Oh. . . my . . . God!

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by luckyscars View Post
    A common issue I encounter, not limited to this forum nor online forums in general but in virtually any discussion over stylistic preferences or dislikes, is misunderstanding over intent behind raising specific stylistic techniques. Of course I am not opposed to this kind of thing (or any kind of thing, really) used in “moderation”. Of course I am not opposed to anything in writing or, for that matter, in life when done well.

    I consistently referred in my original post to the issue involving “rampant” and “frequent” use so there’s no need to assume that is what I was reacting to: I said it was.

    Neither, though, am I necessarily talking about overuse, though, as any overuse of anything by defintion is a negative and not requiring of discussion —we can all agree it is just bad writing and probably doesn’t reach the bookshelf anyway. It should be assumed then that I am talking about the gray area. In this case, I would definite that as where there is consistent, constant formatting in the fashion I illustrated, with no evident purpose behind it beyond it being “writer choice” and apparently it is also good writing. Good enough to be published, sold for money and read in spite of what I think is bad style. When the pattern of prose becomes dominated by a kind of, I would describe it as, a stutter I am trying to understand why this kind of “writing by sound bite” occurs without having to write letters to every author who does it. As a somewhat more secondary concern, I am also trying to gauge if it is “just me” who has the issue with what I perceive as a highly pretentious affectation.

    Anyway, maybe I was somehow not clear enough as to what I meant so here is a professional excerpt by the author JD Robb Putnam’s “Creation In Death”.



    I read this as soundbiting into bullshit pseudo-wisdoms seemingly made for a wikiquotes page such as, a personal fave, “There was nothing elegant about rape” (what a goofy thing to say) Perhaps my criticism is unfair, but I see no other reason for this. And here’s the thing, he’s not to my mind a terrible writer. There’s nothing about the writing itself that draws my contempt. Plenty of good writers do this often, from Dean Koontz to Cormac McCarthy. It is purely the way that it is formatted that makes it feel lofty and sometimes rather comedically self-important. Why write like this?

    Nitpick: I don't know where the "Putnam" came from, but JD Robb is a woman (Nora Roberts). She's one of the best-selling authors in the world. ETA: Figured it out - Putnam is the publisher.

    Content: Yeah, those are a lot of short paragraphs. It doesn't bother me (while McCarthy's "punctuation light" style does bother me), but obviously it bothers you. I'm not sure what you're looking for in this thread, though... do you just want to vent, or are you actually interested in "what's it all about?"

    Because what it's all about, to me, is style. Seems like this author's style is short paragraphs. Okay. You don't like her style. Okay. I'm not sure where else we can go, really.

    Do you want to segue into "not using standard punctuation - what's it all about?" Do you have an answer for that beyond "it's that author's style of writing"?

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Bayview View Post
    Nitpick: I don't know where the "Putnam" came from, but JD Robb is a woman (Nora Roberts). She's one of the best-selling authors in the world. ETA: Figured it out - Putnam is the publisher.

    Content: Yeah, those are a lot of short paragraphs. It doesn't bother me (while McCarthy's "punctuation light" style does bother me), but obviously it bothers you. I'm not sure what you're looking for in this thread, though... do you just want to vent, or are you actually interested in "what's it all about?"

    Because what it's all about, to me, is style. Seems like this author's style is short paragraphs. Okay. You don't like her style. Okay. I'm not sure where else we can go, really.

    Do you want to segue into "not using standard punctuation - what's it all about?" Do you have an answer for that beyond "it's that author's style of writing"?
    Aha! Believe it or not I actually own two of her books but in this case snatched the excerpt off a website where it was listed as Robb Putnam. I thought it didn’t seem right but thank you...

    Anyway: No it’s not her style. I can say this because the excerpt in question was actually of three chapters, two of which were written conventionally and one in this way. Does it matter? Not really. This isn’t a critique of her writing which is fine. Maybe she had her reasons for changing it up that would be revealed if I re read the bigger picture. I doubt it, but it’s possible. You are asking why I am bringing this up. I suppose because the bigger issue is attitude toward style generally. Style, in my opinion, is supposed to have a purpose beyond itself. The purpose is supposed to be linked in some way to making the story better. Saying “it’s just the writer’s style” as an explanation for why a writer does something stylistically unusual is, for me, a cop out on a similar level to saying “that’s just how it is”. Yes but why is it the writers style? And once we asses why (based on the responses here it appears to be related to emphasis and/or some notion of an awesome moment - which sounds like pure applesauce to me) then it might be useful to look at whether it works. So that’s “where we go from here” I suppose.

    The reason I am identifying this specifically is not because it’s a particularly big deal or anything but rather because I think there’s potentially a good discussion to be had (if anybody is interested in having it) about the relationship between stylistic choices and the power of the narrative. You mentioned McCarthy and punctuation, apparently to prove what a dead end trying to figure it out is. Ironically I don’t have nearly as much issue with McCarthy’s work. That is even though I simultaneously recognize that his style is loathsome to at least half the population and even I as a fan of his work don’t like it sometimes.

    So why is that more okay than this? Simple, actually. I think McCarthy’s stylistic choice is the best way to tell his kind of story. I think a lot of the way he writes to be tailored for his subject matter. His stories tend to revolve around a certain stark, harsh environment with stark, harsh characters. The lack of punctuation lends itself to a distancing, a sense of unfamiliarity which works with the stark and the harsh and the kind of story he is telling. For example, without usage of, say, exclamation points suddenly one must assume everybody is yelling or nobody is, and it is that lack of certainty about how a piece of dialogue is being delivered, the tone and therefore the mindset of its speaker, that carries effect. I actually as an experiment when I was younger rewrote two chapters of Blood Meridiem as conventionally as possible (more or less the same words but full SPAG) and suddenly it read like a Louis L’Amour - just kind of ordinary.

    Honestly I could go on all day as an apologetic for McCarthy’s insufferable writing habits but I’m sure nobody wants that. You may not buy it anyway and you don’t have to. The main point is that stylistic deviations from the norm do not have to be beloved by all, but they should carry some sort of reasoning that proves even if they fail that they try to make sense. Otherwise what’s the point?

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