by Rhonda Browning White
In the chapter titled “Paragraphs” in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them , she suggests that some paragraphs can “be understood as a sort of literary respiration . . . Inhale at the beginning of the paragraph, exhale at the end. Inhale at the start of the next” (Prose 66). “The drama,” she tells us, “peaks in the center of the paragraph” (Prose 71).
I’ve thought of this often since reading Prose’s book, and when I come across a paragraph that really grabs me in a story, I examine it carefully, and I’ve discovered in many cases that the paragraph indeed has that feeling of a literary respiration.
For example, Richard Ford’s short story “Optimists” from his collection titled Rock Springs contains a paragraph that I feel concisely offers the first-sentence inhalation and last-sentence exhalation experience that Prose discussed. Ford writes,
The most important things of your life can change so suddenly, so unrecoverably, that you can forget even the most important of them and their connections, you are so taken up by the chanciness of all that’s happened and by all that could and will happen next. I now no longer remember the exact year of my father’s birth, or how old he was when I last saw him, or even when that last time took place. When you’re young, these things seem unforgettable and at the heart of everything. But they slide away and are gone when you are not so young (Ford 187).
This inhalation and exhalation of a paragraph is also found in Katherine Anne Porter’s short fiction titled “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” found in the collection by the same name. The selection that follows also serves as fine example of how to end a paragraph with what Prose calls “greater weight than what appears in the middle” (Prose 76).
He really did look, Miranda thought, like a fine healthy apple this morning. One time or another in their talking, he had boasted that he had never had a pain in his life that he could remember. Instead of being horrified at this monster, she approved of his monstrous uniqueness. As for herself, she had had too many pains to mention, so she did not mention them. After working for three years on a morning newspaper she had an illusion of maturity and experience; but it was fatigue merely, she decided, from keeping what she had been brought up to believe were unnatural hours, eating casually at dirty little restaurants, drinking bad coffee all night, and smoking too much. When she said something of her way of living to Adam, he studied her face a few seconds as if he had never seen it before, and said in a forthright way, “Why, it hasn’t hurt you a bit, I think you’re beautiful,” and left her dangling there, wondering if he had thought she wished to be praised. She did wish to be praised, but not at that moment. Adam kept unwholesome hours, too, or had in the ten days they had known each other, staying awake until on o’clock to take her out for supper; he smoked also continually, though if she did not stop him he was apt to explain to her exactly what smoking did to the lungs. “But,” he said, “does it matter so much if you’re going to war, anyway?” (Porter 156-7).
Just when we are lulled by this rhythmic list of Miranda’s and Adam’s busy activities, Adam’s declarative question leaves us breathless with its weight. The pressure the characters face of trying to fit so many experiences into time shortened by both illness and the fatal risk of war are impressed upon the reader by the ticking-clock rhythm of the paragraph, as well as the jarring mental alarm sounded in its final sentence.
Do the paragraphs you write breathe? Consider beginning an important paragraph with a sentence that sets up the reader or foreshadows a crucial moment to come (inhalation), then ending it with a sentence that takes away the readers breath (exhalation). Perhaps it’s the technique you need to breathe new life into an airless story.
Ford, Richard. Rock Springs: Stories. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.
Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1990. Print.
Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. Print.