WHAT’S UP WITH THAT PARAGRAPH? 

By Jeanne Marie Leach

Helping to turn writers into authors 

ACFWers have been taught the words to steer clear of. You know your active vs. passive and showing vs. telling. If you haven’t learned these techniques yet, don’t worry. You will. J That’s the great thing about the ACFW.

But have you ever come across a paragraph during the editing phase that just didn’t pack the punch you wanted it to, but you couldn’t figure out exactly what the problem was? Surprisingly, there could be several reasons for this. Let’s look at two of the most common errors you might find in your paragraph.

  1. Starting consecutive sentences with the same word — Consider the following      paragraph:
  • John watched Angela walk out the front door. He’d never heard her speak to anyone like that before. He’d always admired her for her gentleness and kindness. He wondered if he should run after her or let her cool down before talking to her about it. He decided to let her go. He loved her, but he needed to sort this out before confronting her again.

I have seen paragraphs twice as long as this, written by editing clients who had no clue this is unacceptable writing. This actually becomes a list. By cutting out everything except the noun, verb, and an adverb or prepositional phrase, this paragraph will sound like this:

John watched Angela walk.

He had never heard her speak like that.

He had always admired her.

He wondered if he should run after her.

He decided to let her go.

He loved her.

He needed to sort this out.

This is the essence of that paragraph. When broken down like this, you can see how boring it actually is, and it sounds like something a second grader might write. Adults deserve your best effort to write beautiful and exceptional word pictures.

Rewrite:

  • Angela stomped out the front door in a tempest of emotions, leaving John gaping at her lovely, retreating form. He’d never heard her unleash such a storm of angry words before. She’d always been nothing but gentle and kind—the traits he most admired about her. Should he run after her, or let her cool down before talking to her about it? John decided to let her go. He loved her but needed to sort this out before confronting her about it.

2. Step-by-step action —I’ve already mentioned that fiction writers must avoid beginning consecutive sentences with the same word because it becomes a list of actions. In that same vein, when editing your work, you must be on the lookout for step-by-step action that can occur without starting sentence with the same word.

Watch out for “after” and “then.” While these are completely innocent, they can become the bridge for another list. Consider the following scene.

  • He led her to his car parked at the head of the vehicles lining the curved driveway for patient pickup and then opened the passenger door. Helping Tessa slide into the passenger seat, he then pulled the seatbelt over her shoulder and fastened it into place. After he knew she was comfortably settled, he then eased shut the door and walked around to the other side of the car to slide behind the wheel. Placing the key in the ignition, he then started the engine, which hummed softly, and they pulled out of the parking lot, carefully merging onto the street and away from the sights and sounds of the hospital.

Do you see how this has become a list of mundane occurrences? Most of this doesn’t need to be told. We know that turning the key in the ignition will start the car. By getting rid of all the extra words in each sentence and leave the object, predicate and a prepositional phrase, here’s what this scene looks like.

He led her to his car.

Then he opened the passenger door.

He helped Tessa slide into the passenger seat.

He then pulled the seatbelt over her shoulder and fastened it.

After he knew she was comfortably settled, he then eased shut the door.

He walked around to the other side of the car.

He slid behind the wheel.

He placed the key in the ignition

He then started the engine.

They pulled out of the parking lot.

They carefully merged onto the street.

He drove away from the sights and sounds of the hospital.

Now, all those “he’s” aren’t actually in the original, but they are implied. We know “he” did all those things. So even though this section didn’t contain the same first word for each sentence, this still reads like a list and half of it can be eliminated. It could be summed up like this:

  • He led Tessa to his car parked at the curved driveway for patient pickup, helped her slide into the passenger seat, and secured the seatbelt over her shoulder. Once behind the wheel, he pulled out of the parking lot, carefully merging onto the street and away from the sights and sounds of the hospital, away from the stench of sickness and death.

Whenever possible, eliminate words that don’t add anything to the story. It tightens up the writing and helps move the story along more quickly. Your readers will thank you, and they’ll come back for your next book.

Remember to ask yourself this, “Am I writing a good scene, or am I merely writing a list?” It may help you discover just what’s up with your paragraph.

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