Introduction

When it comes to flexibility, Cirque du Soleil has nothing–nothing!–on that lithe and limber scaffold of writing: the mighty paragraph. Sadly, this little gem of writing infrastructure is often (too often) taught in a formulaic manner. That’s like putting the Cirque performers in shackles! For example, students are often taught that a paragraph consists of a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding statement. Or that it’s part of a pre-fab structure that, once assembled, results in the dreaded 5-paragraph you-know-what. In truth, there’s nothing pre-fab about the paragraph. It can bend, flip, twist, stretch, and shrink to suit the occasion and the message. Using several of my all-time favorite books, let me show you just 10 of the many (endless?) forms paragraphs can take. Then, I invite you to explore your own favorite literature for further examples. These are just to whet your appetite . . .

1. The Introductory Zinger

The introductory paragraph has to be a zinger. And it has to “zing” all the way through. For this reason, many such paragraphs are short–only one or two sentences long. Here’s one of my favorites. It’s from Margery Facklam’s classic nonfiction book Spiders and Their Websites (2001, Little, Brown and Company, p. 4):

People who create computer Web sites to attract attention or catch new customers are borrowing an idea millions of years old. Even before there were dinosaurs, spiders were luring insects to their web sites.

2. The Closer

If opening paragraphs are essential for pulling us into a piece, good closing paragraphsmust leave us thinking. This particular closer is from Jellies by Twig C. George–and it’s masterful. Check out the book itself (2000, Millbrook Press, unpaginated) to appreciate the gorgeous color photos that perfectly complement the text. You’ll also notice something else wonderful about this ending; it echoes the opening lines, in which George invites the reader to imagine he or she is a jellyfish, and says, “You would not have a brain so you could not decide what to have for breakfast or where to go for lunch.” That insightful and lightly humorous line perfectly sets up this memorable ending:

Someday you might be very lucky and see an ocean full of jellyfish. And, since you have a brain and a heart, you would know you were seeing something unforgettable.

3. The Lead-In

For a writer, few things matter more than keeping readers reading. That’s why some paragraphs exist just to pique our curiosity–and lead us on into the paragraphs that follow. A perfect example of this comes from Nicola Davies  book Extreme Animals (2006, Candlewick Press). In her chapter titled “True Toughness” (p. 19), Davies sets up her forthcoming discussion with this enticing paragraph:

Polar bears can keep warm in conditions that would kill a human, but in one important way, a polar bear is just as much of a wimp as we are: if its body temperature drops by more than a few degrees, it can die. The Truly Tough Animals are the ones that can let their bodies get really cold right through and still survive.

Just who are those Truly Tough Animals? Read the book to find out the details–but here’s a surprise: One of them is the hummingbird.

4. The Example Paragraph

We often think of examples as consisting of one or two sentences embedded within a “main idea” paragraph. But often it takes a whole paragraph to lay out each example. And there aren’t always three of them, either! There may be only one–or as in this case, from Sneed B. Collard’s book Pocket Babies (2007, Darby Creek Publishing), four. In the section titled “Marsupial Myths” (p. 14), Collard tells us that “People are fascinated by marsupials, but most of us have mistaken beliefs about them.” He then invites us to ask ourselves whether the following statements are true or false. Each statement is followed by an explanatory paragraph, not reproduced here:

Myth #1: “All marsupials have pouches.”

Myth #2: “The Virginia opposum is the only marsupial living outside of the Australian region.”

Myth #3: “All opposums are ugly, slow, and stupid.”

Myth #4: “Marsupials are the only mammals native to Australia.”

(By the way, if you thought these were all false, you’re right.)

5. The Implied Thesis Paragraph

How scary is it to read that some students receive low grades because their thesis statements do not fall in the “right spot” within an essay or paragraph? Who comes up with these so-called “rules”? Writing is art, not painting by numbers. So it makes sense that a thesis might sometimes come in the first line–or the very last line–or somewhere in between. And often, skilled writers never state the thesis outright at all, allowing readers to figure out the main point for themselves. This is not a flaw or oversight, but an ingenious strategy that makes reading genuinely interactive. For truly fine examples of this, see Joyce Sidman’s book Ubiquitous (2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Following are just a few lines from a much longer paragraph on the gecko (unpaginated text):

Small, nimble geckos are descendents of ancient lizards that existed on earth during the time of dinosaurs. They survived the mass reptile extinction 65 million years ago (the downfall of dinosaurs) and adapted to a changing environment by becoming mostly nodturnal–feeding on insects that are active at night.

The author goes on to explain how geckos came to inhabit so much of the earth; their eggs are sticky and can cling to floating objects, thus transporting them round the world. She also tells us how they communicate in the dark and climb walls because of hairy toe pads that allow them to cling to nearly anything–even ceilings.  The implied thesis? Geckos are master survivors. She doesn’t have to state it outright. We can draw our own conclusions because the writing is so clear. Clarity trumps formula every time.

6. The Transitional Paragraph

We’ve been taught, most of us, to switch to a new paragraph when we “change the subject.” As we discover by actually writing, however, the change is a little more subtle than that. More like a turn in the road. What changes is not so much the scenery itself (the topic) as our perspective on it. Same topic–new angle. Sometimes, all we need is a transitional phrase (On the other hand, For example) to guide the reader into new territory. But a short paragraph can sometimes provide an even stronger transition, as in this example from How Fast Is It? by Ben Hillman (2008, Scholastic). Here, Hillman is describing the streamliner, a kind of space age bicycle. He begins his article (p. 23) with a reference to conventional bikes and paper routes, then transitions into his discussion of the streamliner with this paragraph:

These bikes don’t look like the sort you can buy in any old department store. Everything about them is different.

You know exactly what kind of information is coming next, don’t you? Sure–all the things that makes these bikes different. That’s the power of a good transition: It sets up what follows.

7. The Tease

First cousin to the transitional paragraph is the tease. It often comes at the end of a section or chapter, and it’s designed to make reading on irresistible. The tease says, “I challenge you to put this book down.” Here are two examples, the first from the nonfiction Down Down Down by Steve Jenkins (2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, unpaginated), and the second from Roald Dahl’s legendary autobiography Boy (Puffin Books, 1984, p. 34):

  • Soon we’ll continue our descent–we have a long way to go before we reach the deepest part of the ocean. But first we’ll investigate what looks like a city of smoking towers . . .
  • So you can well understand that we had it in for Mrs Pratchett in a big way, but we didn’t quite know what to do about it. Many schemes were put forward but none of them was any good. None of them, that is, until suddenly, one memorable afternoon, we found the dead mouse.

If you have any curiosity in your bones, you can almost feel your fingers reaching to turn the page . . .

8. The Echo

Esme Raji Codell’s highly readable Sing a Song of Tuna Fish (2004, Hyperion) is a memoir with unmistakable style and voice. The Introduction opens with the one-line paragraph “Let me tell you something,” and goes on to compare the adult brain to an attic, with “days and bones and paper” stuffed in old boxes. We have to rummage through them to call up the past. I like this comparison very much. I also like the way Codell then begins each chapter of the book with an echo of this one-line paragraph: “Let me tell you something about _________ ,” and of course, the subject changes each time: where we lived, education, the weather, and so on. These are more than leads. They’re powerful reminders that we’re still sifting through the treasures of someone’s attic, and enjoying a heartfelt, humorous conversation as we do so.

9. The Snapshot

Many paragraphs expand main ideas or examples. They provide additional information, or sometimes more technical or complex information than can be contained in an opening paragraph. The snapshot is a little different. Instead of giving us more and more, it gives us a break. Think of those moments on film when everything slows . . . perhaps almost to a stop. The focus is on the visual, the image. Here’s an example from Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (2001, Ballantine Books, p. 322). Seabiscuit, having recovered from severe injuries, is racing in the Santa Anita, carrying 130 pounds–considered an impossible weight, and far more than his opponents, Whichcee and Wedding Call. It’s generally agreed he has no chance. But there comes a moment when his jockey Red Pollard knows that against all odds, they will win. And everything else fades into background:

In the midst of all the whirling noise of that supreme moment, Pollard felt peaceful. Seabiscuit reached and pushed and Pollard folded and unfolded over his shoulders and they breathed together. A thought pressed into Pollard’s mind: We are alone.

 10. The Spotlight

At times a writer has something so powerful, so important, to say that it has to appear all by itself–like a jeweled crown in a museum showcase. Here’s one example from The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan and Peter Sis (2010, Scholastic, 222-223). In this example, Neftali (Pablo Neruda as a child) is trying to rescue his beloved swan. In a series of one-liner paragraphs, Ryan rushes us through the scene, forcing us to read quickly so our pace matches Neftali’s as he runs, heart pounding:

A cool wind gusted.

The sea grass whispered.

Neftali took one short step and then another. “Almost there . . . “

He felt a feathery coolness on his arm.

Many more short paragraphs follow, but you get the idea. Ryan could easily have put all these paragraphs together into one giant paragraph. The visceral impact would have been lost.

Here’s one final example, and it comes from the master of the one-word and one-line paragraph, Gary Paulsen. This is from the 20th Anniversary Edition of Hatchet (2007, Simon & Schuster, pp. 130, 133, 135, 136):

Mistakes.

That simple one-word paragraph opens chapter fourteen, and is repeated four times throughout the chapter. Paulsen wisely knows he doesn’t need to say anything more. We can fill in the blanks. If Brian makes mistakes, he will die. If he doesn’t, he might live. Might. In that word resides meaning, character, drama, tension–everything needed for a great story.

In the Classroom

1. Talk about the paragraph. What is it? How do you define it? Let your definition grow as you study examples because this powerful component of writing is so much more than we thought.

2. Share some of my examples and/or a few of your own. Talk about the various things paragraphs can do.

3. Have students hunt for their own examples, sharing with the class or in writing circles, showing one another the many ways paragraphs enhance our reading experience.

4. Next time your students write a longer piece, have them identify one paragraph they especially like and write a short reflection on that paragraph’s function within the larger context.

5. For additional information on resisting the allure of formula, see Chapter 8, “The Right to Go Beyond Formula,” in The 9 Rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel (2005, Heinemann). For more thoughts on using questions, not formulas, to guide student writers, as well as thoughts on not over-interpreting the State Standards, see Marshall Memo 403 (Look this up online, under Marshall Memo). We’ll have much more on the Marshall Memo in an upcoming Gurus post.

Also coming up . . .

A review of The Plot Chickens,  a humorous look at writing process and one writer’s courage. Thanks for stopping by–if you liked this blog (or others), please share with friends. We welcome you!

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