Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Paragraphs

When my students ask me “how many sentences should a paragraph have?” I give the standard answer, the one most people give:  as many as you need. And for most writers, as many as you need falls within the three to five sentence range, a good figure for introducing and developing a paragraph without causing eye-strain.

Pablo Picasso "Sketch of a Bull"


Most writers.


One of the most obvious features of horror writer John Langan’s style is his embrace of long paragraphs, to the extent that his work appears as long rectangles of unbroken text.


I’ve read a few stories from Langan, including his 2009 novel "House of Windows" and admire his work greatly. There’s plenty I could say about his writing technique, but “Bor Urus,” included in the Year’s Best Weird Stories anthology, displayed his effective use of extremely long paragraphs. Bor Urus explores the self-destructive quality of obsessions, in this case uncovering places where our world bleeds into others. In contrast to most writers in the anthology, Langan has no trouble filling a page or two with the same stanza. As it goes with many things, this ‘rule-breaking,’ can be instructive in understanding what a paragraph actually represents - a complete idea.


Within the story's tumult are two very distinct registers of writing. In the first we have a narrator describing the grief an obsession brings to his marriage and life, the stability of his life pulled down by his personal demons. Towards the end of the story, the metaphorical becomes entangled with the literal, as an enormous beast chases the narrator in a strange and other-worldly woods. In another author’s hands (say, myself) these two distinct agendas would be communicated through the style of writing: long and leisurely descriptions of the narrator’s life and habits at the beginning, and then short sentences, abbreviated paragraphs as the action picked up. Short punchy sentences are faster to read, and tend to bring a sense of action racing forward on short bursts of description and active, precise verbs.


That’s the model I learned in my undergrad days, at least.


Langan follows a different course. Check out this passage from late in the story:


From this direction, the edge of the grove seemed to take much longer to reach. Already too close behind me, the bull was a wave of sound, rushing to overtake me. A glance over my shoulder showed it swerving from side to side as it sought gaps among the trees wide enough to allow its horns. Had its path to me been clear, the bull would have run me down in no time. As it was, I wasn’t wild about my chances. My days of running high-school track were a quarter-century gone. If I could reach my truck, the odds would improve in my favor. But between the thunder of the bull’s hooves on the ground, and the pounding of the blood in my ears, I had yet to hear the rumble of the engine — and that was assuming it hadn’t stalled. The bull roared, and adrenaline fired my legs, carrying me out of the grove into the forest proper. To my left, my right, the scattering of the shining trees that had drawn me deeper into the woods flashed past. The ground here was slicker, slippery with storm-soaked leaves, treacherous with fallen branches, a couple of toppled trees. I hurtled a trunk thick with moss, slide under another whose collapse had been arrested by one of its companions. The first tree I had seen was ahead. Not too far beyond it, my truck appeared to be running. With a pair of titanic cracks, the bull struck and shattered the trees I had dodged over and under. I cleared the treeline. The truck was forty yards away, thirty-five. The bull’s hooves pounded the earth. The truck was thirty yards away, twenty-five. The bull snorted like a steam engine. The truck was twenty yards away, fifteen. I could hear the engine’s roll. The ground drummed under my feet; the bull was nearly on me. The truck was ten yards away, five. I could see the dome light on because I hadn’t closed my door completely. The bull was burning behind me.


Even though Langan isn’t breaking his paragraphs into smaller chunks, he’s still creating a scene of propulsive force. The bull roars, the narrator hurtles, and the trees shatter, all words that punch through the dense layers of description. He also picks out details creating questions for the reader. Will the screen of trees continue? Will the truck be running? Langan counts down the yards to the truck, which is an age-old technique embedded within a frenzied stream of conscious. Certain details glom together, the shining trees and the burning bull echoing the dome light still on. The bull thunders through the woods while the narrator longs for the rumble of a still running truck. These are details that pull together the long passage, motifs to guide the reader through the rush of words.


Try reading the passage out loud. These paragraphs contain considerable forward momentum, an undeniable rhythm. Particularly at the end the paragraph develops a panting, breathless quality.


So why does Langan end this paragraph where he does? Because this paragraph fully explores one idea - the escape from the woods to the car, the exodus from the other-worldly grove where he encounters the bull to the solid, operating reality of his pick-up truck. Embracing the long form of writing, by lumping together ideas into one enormous circus tent where others would parcel them out into discrete packages, Langan displays a clear logic to his paragraph breaks. The next paragraph after the one quoted at length finds the narrator at the truck, a clear shift in the action of the scene. The narrator has accomplished one significant goal in saving his life, so the paragraph shifts.


Is this the model for every writer then? Or even writers seeking to emulate Langan’s brand of erudite, hyper-aware speculative fiction? Of course not. Every writer has to find their own voice, and use whatever devices, tricks, and styles needed to bring that voice to life. What Langan shows is that there are many, many ways of writing strong action and compelling horror, and that an extended paragraph can be just as tense, properly crafted, as a short one.
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