Organizing Paragraphs in Fiction

Let’s regroup. No, literally. Let’s take our active scene elements, which describe the viewpoint character’s internal and external experiences, and group them another way.

Motivation and Reaction

For newer writers, this is best learned in self-editing. You should ignore it in your first draft and just finish getting ideas down. This technicality will be here waiting, as technicalities do.

The more you work on self-editing this, the easier it gets. With enough practice, you can skip a whole round of drafting because these things start to be what pours from your fingertips. But learning it involves the analysis side of the brain, and switching to analysis cuts off creativity. So it’s better to wait until one day it surprises you by happening without your conscious attention.

“Practice, practice, practice!” Yeah fine whatever okay. Practice it is.

Organizing paragraphs in fiction

This is different than writing a five-paragraph report in school. Way different. For one thing, we don’t even use first, secondly, thirdly, and definitely not in conclusion. We’re constantly told in fiction that we’re not supposed to summarize, after all that grade-school practice summarizing.

And it’s bizarre trying to set out in linear fashion all the things that would actually happen at once. Actions, dialogue, thoughts, observations. The paragraphs of the story may have any or all of these. But how should they flow?

According to a slightly abstract logic. We want to focus in on cause and effect.

There needs to be a give-and-take between the viewpoint character and the surrounding environment, whether that means other characters, or the setting, or some obstacle. With each give, the character is trying to advance another step towards whatever s/he wants in this scene. With each take, the character is dealing with the fact that the world isn’t going to just play along.

Ignore plot talk. Ignore character talk. They don’t separate out in the work. You know this from reading books. When you do this instead, plot and character are organically meshed as they should be.

Motivations

Let’s call the times the world takes a turn, motivators or motivations, because Dwight Swain said it years ago and it’s since become jargon. The obvious motivators are external observations, dialogues, and events. A set of motivators gets grouped in a paragraph together.

  • Dialogue: what another character says
  • Description: What the viewpoint character sees, hears, smells, etc. Things happening in the environment. What other characters do, objects that move (landslide, giant machine, ocean waves, etc).

Less obviously, the character’s own thoughts could motivate him/her.

  • Interior monologue: The thoughts that occur to change the character’s plans and ideas.

Reactions

Let’s call the times the character gives back in return, reactions. Makes good sense. A set of reactions gets grouped in a paragraph together.

  • Dialogue: what the viewpoint character says
  • Description: what the viewpoint character chooses to observe as a result of how his/her awareness has just been influenced
  • Action: What the viewpoint character does
  • Interior monologue: What the viewpoint character thinks.

Organization within each paragraph

What order do we actually put them in? Is it random? No, not really. We’re trying to convey realistic human experience, so reactions happen in the order of reflex (action or blurted dialogue), then speech (dialogue), then more extended consideration (internal monologue, description). The same will be true of any non-viewpoint characters, except that we don’t get access to their internal experience.

Grouping paragraphs together to create flow

Something happens. The villain casts a foul taunt at our hero. The rogue wave rises above the struggling ship. Captain Emo lies awake at night under the grip of a haunting thought. Whatever happens, that’s a paragraph.

Next, the viewpoint character should react. Our hero replies with both rapier and wit. The ship’s captain lunges for the radio. Captain Emo realizes his existential gloom is the philosophical harmonization he’s always longed for. And that’s another paragraph.

New paragraph! Another thing happens. It might be in response to however the viewpoint character reacted. The villain responds to our hero’s wit and swordplay with clumsiness and sputtering. Captain Emo’s despair rises again as he realizes that joy in his own gloom is not a harmonization, but a paradox.

Or it could be unrelated to the viewpoint character’s reaction. As the rogue wave begins to tip the ship, a straining cable breaks.

For this reason, Swain discussed paragraphs as pairs that form a unit: Motivation, then viewpoint character’s reaction. In his classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer [affiliate link], he talks about motivation-reaction units.

To summary or not to summary

Small amounts of narrative summary might act as connective tissue. It can fill in essential fringe details that really don’t need the full depth of active scene elements. But the alternating pattern, filled with active elements, is what drives the scene. In addition to (or in spite of) whatever the viewpoint character wanted when he walked in the door of this scene, it provides insight into how that’s going for him, step by step, and what’s foiling or assisting him at each moment.

There’s also a bigger picture to the scene that helps us figure out whether those pairs of paragraphs are in a good order through the scene overall. We’ll get there next time, Gadget.

For now, hopefully you can see why it’s more important to write many things (build creativity) than to spend too much time revising (shutting down creativity through analysis). Stay creative or die!

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