Visual structure—the shape of sentences, if you will—is one of the most fundamental aspects of crafting your stories because it’s one of the main ways you keep your readers engaged.
Yes, it’s one that comes later in the game, as in the first few drafts all you’re doing is getting the story down. Verbs, adjectives, details (too few, too many), adverbs (used sparingly!), don’t really matter as much when you’re building the framework of your story. That comes first, and then you start doing “interior design” changes and edits, which has everything to do with your sentences and paragraphs.
Sure, we all know a story is comprised of sentences and paragraphs. But it’s how we present those sentences and paragraphs that either engage, or disengage, your audience.
Once, I assisted a fellow who wanted me to help him with a short story. He sent it to me and I gave him what feedback I could. His 3-page story came in the format of about four or five long, long paragraphs, making it difficult for me to read. I mentioned that he needed to first break up the long paragraphs into smaller ones so his readers could retain the information and he could keep their attention.
A month or two went by and he asked me to help him with his whole novel. I replied to send me a couple of scenes that totaled about 2-3 pages.
Again, what he sent had nothing but long paragraphs that took up about 1/4-1/3 of each page. The paragraphs were also untabbed and were indicated by spaces between each one.
How to provide feedback when I had difficulty navigating such lengthy passages and my previous comment about smaller paragraphs didn’t seem to register?
“Show, don’t tell”, I realized, as to him, he possibly thought what he sent did have smaller paragraphs. So I took his first chapter and edited it so there were smaller paragraphs, no spaces between them, and correctly tabbed. I sent it back to him explaining why I’d done so (the same information I’m including in this post), and that my changes were only for example.
Later, he would need to break up the first chapter on his own. I asked him to choose a section (like the second paragraph) and to follow my example of formatting, stating that this must be the first step before we proceeded into plot and story changes.
Online articles are written without tabs and spaces between the paragraphs, yes, but it’s not how you present books or (paper) magazines. But, no matter the source—a pamphlet, an online article, a novel—you’re still presenting information and still need to do so in a way that the human brain can absorb it.
Why is visual structure important to an author, either in the early stages or later?
For one, it also allows you to see how your story is flowing.
For another, it allows your audience to absorb the information.
(And, for another, it allows you to absorb the information. Because you start seeing holes, redundancies, bad grammar, clunkiness and so on.)
The brain is a funny thing; while it can listen and comprehend someone speaking for a long, unbroken interval, it’s harder for it to read for a long unbroken interval. I don’t mean it can’t read for hours on end (we’ve all done that), I mean long, unbroken paragraphs that look like nothing but a sea of words on a page, digital or paper.
When someone speaks, the brain perceives breaks in sentence and paragraph structures by the person’s pauses, the rises and falls in their voice as they start and end sentences. When reading, it perceives the same things with how you structure your sentences and paragraphs.
Otherwise, it looks like one long, run-on sentence.
Think of when you went to hear someone speak; could you have enjoyed the experience if the speaker presented the information in long, unbroken, monotone sentences that never had any breaks or pauses and the speaker droned on and on and on and on and kept going and going and never seemed to pause and take a breath because all they did was yap and yap and never paused and kept going and droning and you kept losing attention because the speaker sounded like they never heard of commas or periods or pauses or breaths or blah blah blah blah blah….
Hard to read, yes? Hard to understand verbally, too.
Children do have a natural tendency to do this. I’m meaning adults.
In either case, long, droning blah blah blah intonation (or lack thereof) or speaking so fast you practically get windburn from the speed at which the words exit the person’s mouth, you’re lost.
Without verbal pauses, the rises and falls of intonation, it becomes difficult to retain what’s been said. The listener becomes disengaged from the speaker as he or she is now trying to remember you said only a moment before in addition to trying to follow along.
The same exact thing happens when you write something in long, long, long unbroken paragraphs that contain a lot of information.
Your ultimate goal is to keep your reader reading from the first word of your story to the last. You cannot do this if you don’t structure your content in a way that’s visually intriguing.
If you don’t, you’ll lose your readers.
As a note here—one of the ways articles are sometimes written online is to make every single sentence a separate paragraph.
This, too, is poor writing, visually and structurally. Your audience isn’t a collection of idiots. Separating each sentence into its own paragraph is patronizing. (And, yet, it happens so often modern-day readers and “editors” don’t even realize that’s what’s happening.)
There were times, as a life coach, I used single-sentence paragraphs, though for a very specific reason.
Why would I do this when I just said doing patronizes your readers?
Because it forced my clients to stop and read (and absorb) information I kept trying to impart and they kept ignoring. Structuring my email as such was a last resort—generally when someone kept replying I hadn’t given them information they wanted when I had…several times.
(An extreme case of this was one client who was so unfocused, my single-sentence paragraphs didn’t register. Even if I replied with only two or three sentences the information he wanted, and I gave still didn’t register. In these cases, I made him read my responses out loud to himself. Then it clicked. Oh! What an idea for a character!)
As I’ve said before, your audience is smart. Patronizing your readers right off the bat is a sure way to lose them, whether it’s a news article or a story. So is presenting he information in one humongous chunk.
There are two separate, yet equally-important, types of structure for writing: visual structure and story structure. However, they directly influence each other.
Visual structure is achieved through your paragraphs and sentences. And you want them to have varying lengths. (Go through my posts here and you’ll seen this is exactly what I do; some sentences are long (longer than recommended, but, then, I have faith in my audience). Some are short.
So are my paragraphs.
(See what I’ve done here?)
You could have the most amazing story, but without an engaging, attention-keeping visual structure, you won’t have anyone reading your story.
I like to encourage writers to think of themselves as architects.
You design it, you plan it out, you build it. And, like an architect who builds visually engaging bridges and houses and skyscrapers, you, as the author, want your readers just as visually attracted and engaged. Visual structure of a story is how the words look on the page, digital or paper. Having really long, unbroken paragraphs don’t create the kind of visual engagement you want your readers to have.
(Think of how hard it would be to absorb the information in this post and others if I presented it all in one HUGE paragraph.)
Sentence structure and paragraph structure are what keep your reader visually engaged, just as a speaker’s rise and fall of their voice, the pauses, keep a listener auditorily engaged. you create visual flow in two main ways:
- Having multiple paragraphs of varying size and length
- Having sentences of varying size and length
Doing this makes it so:
- Your reader’s brain remains engaged and able to take in all the information
- You create something that’s visually pleasing to your reader’s eyes
- You can see your story how it would look as an actual book
- You create fear, anxiety, the sense of pacing you want (short sentences and paragraphs generate action; longer, languidness. Too long and you get boredom.)
This is done by:
- Using tabs
- Not having a space between the paragraphs
- Knowing what the information is you want to impart to your reader in each paragraph (each paragraph should answer who, what, when, where, why and how. At least, to an extent.)
Very often, structure is lacking in my early drafts, too, as I’m fleshing out the story and characters. Then it becomes time work on the visual structure, because it’s at this point I’m having difficulty seeing the flow of the story…how it looks from line to line and paragraph to paragraph, page to page.
Working on the visual structure helps me see what’s confusing, what’s redundant, if one paragraph needs to either come fully out or read in a different part of the book, if my information is clear, what’s missing…and so on.
Just as an architect knows the landscaping that surrounds the house, as well as its exterior, is what will draw in future buyers, so is how your book looks.
See what I mean?
Next Post: Story Structure
1) Take a look at this PDF; it’s a selection from a chapter in Coming Home and I’ve taken out all paragraph formatting (I did nothing to the sentences). I want you to do your best to read it all the way through without going back to reread parts.
Note how hard it was to follow the text, follow my plot for the chapter, follow Lana’s thoughts.
2) Now, take a look at this PDF; it’s the same section, but with the formatting. Notice how much easier it is to read and retain the information, to follow the flow.
3) Exchange similarly-unformatted scenes with a fellow writer friend. Attempt to read through the sections, then try to summarize to each other what you each think you gathered from the scenes. Now exchange formatted versions and notice how much easier it is to follow.
4) Additionally, though this is optional, have your friend try to format your scene and vice versa. You can either keep or delete their changes, of course. I’m suggesting this as it’s an excellent way to discover what you each perceive as the best flow and breaks. It also helps illustrate your own style by contrast.
Questions? Comments? How do you create dialogue? How do you show, rather than tell with your characters? Leave a comment below, or email me using the “Contact” link, or at heather (at) heathercurryselfbooks (dot) com. You can also follow me on my Facebook page and on Twitter (@HCSBooks). I’m also on Instagram (heathercurryself). Also, do leave me feedback about this post!