A while back I was working as a substitute teacher. I remember that at every elementary school they always had these posters that described how to write a good paragraph using a sandwich as a metaphor. I really hated those posters. The idea behind them was that the topic sentence at the beginning and the summary sentence at the end both served as the sandwich’s “bun.” The paragraph’s three or four supporting details then formed the metaphorical meat and the condiments.
There are higher things to aspire to in the writing of paragraphs than sandwiches. Many authors say they write fiction as an excuse to craft sentences. But isn’t it the context surrounding those sentences that really give those sentences their power? If sentences are, in fact, fueled by not only content but context, then dazzling paragraphs must play a big part in dazzling sentences. If a writer only has one metaphor for a paragraph, is that writer not limiting him or herself?
Here’s a question a writer might ask: How long should my paragraphs be? Hmmm…. A while back I wrote about circumlocution, or the stretching-out of sentences with additional words for suspense and impact. Like many things, the principle of superposition or self-similarity also applies here, i.e. just as sentences can be lengthened for added effect, so too can paragraphs. But, still: how long?! how long should a good paragraph be? Answer: As long as one dares. Paragraph length operates on a risk-versus-reward basis. Longer paragraphs are “headier,” they require more thought and participation from the reader and they also pay-out bigger rewards to that reader for that reader’s efforts.
But what if a writer wanted to be sneaky or savvy? Shouldn’t every writer want this? Then that writer might, ever so gradually, increase and decrease the length of their paragraphs in a manner somewhat akin to boiling a frog in hot water *ha-ha-ha, wrings hands.*
It might be an interesting exercise to glance over the first several chapters of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In the opening chapters it’s apparent that he is gradually making us accustomed to his longer paragraphs (technically speaking, he is fractionating us toward the unwieldy length of his paragraphs). He does this so he can free himself up to write those page-long paragraphs. And, to understand those paragraphs, we must call upon more of our inner resources to form new metaphors for his paragraphs. His Crime and Punishment-paragraphs are no “sandwich-paragraphs.” Does he mean “this,” or does he mean “that?” On a subconscious level, we may decide that both things are meant. This is very hypnotic. We believe Dostoyevsky is great because he encourages us to become great in order to meet his greatness. And isn’t that cooler than watching TV?
So, when we write, we must not be afraid to write villainously–sneakily! Our readers will paradoxically thank us for it. And there are big ideas, big new themes to be attacked and tackled out there.