Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Punch It Up

We all know the “rule”—that the last sentence of every scene, like the last sentence of a chapter and the last sentence of a book—needs to be powerful. This is a concept my writers group has been kicking around for a while, and we’ve realized the same thing is also true of paragraphs. The more wallop packed by the last sentence of every paragraph, the more effective the writing.

And then we noticed something else—the last WORD in each paragraph needs to carry a punch. We looked at a poem written by Charles (which happened to be handy at the time we were discussing this). The last words in his stanzas were evocative words like misery, peril, aura. Then we looked at a poem by another writer. The last words in his stanzas were pedestrian words like it, them, then. The difference was startling. It might be more noticeable in poetry, but the same principle applies to prose.

Yes, there are times the humdrum word choice can’t be avoided, or when the flow and cadence require the invisible “said.” But glance through a few novels, just looking at the final words in the paragraphs, and you’ll quickly notice the difference. I pull SUNSET LIMITED by James Lee Burke from my shelves and I see paragraphs ending with words like fingers, skin, heat, stars, breathe, glow, porch, bone, scrawl. I look at a bestselling thriller written by a former romance writer and see sentences ending with words like him, it, is, to, out, up, out, here, well, that, on, down, had.

This is something the best writers do instinctively. But it doesn’t hurt to be aware of this concept. It’s one more tool that can be brought into play at the revision stage, when you know a passage doesn’t “feel” quite right or lacks the necessary punch. Look at the last words in your paragraphs.

13 comments:

Farrah Rochon said...

Sound advice. I'll have to keep it in mind as I rewrite my WIP.

Lisa said...

This is something I'm working hard to incorporate into my scenes, but certainly holds true for the paragraphs too. The concept that each word written should serve a purpose is so obvious when I read it, and yet so consistently difficult to achieve! Thanks for the great post.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've been looking at a lot of comparisons on my own this way of late too. I've found that my first Taleran book is certainly not as punchy at the ends as I'd like. It really is a good thing to think about.

Steve Malley said...

Oddly, I was just thinking about this last night. The Tiny Dynamo was eating a plum, and I had to get the William Carlos Williams off the shelf:

THIS IS JUST TO SAY

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


The last words on each line practically tell the story. And the last word of each stanza packs its own unique punch.

And Williams went out on one of the most evocative endings in modern poetry. I can't always remember the whole poem (hence, the looking-up), but man, does that ending haunt. I can't *see* a plum, or hear the Dynamo bitye into one, without thinking 'delicious, so sweet, and so cold.'

If the ending of the novel is where we sell our next one, and the ending of each chapter is where we 'sell' the reader on starting the next one, it only stands to reason that every paragraph is a chance to get the reader excited about the words that follow.

And if our Gentle Reader does mark their place, close the book and (reluctantly) turn out the light, those last words may haunt them through the restless, dreaming night.

Kate S said...

Great stuff, Candice. I'd read once that not just each scene or chapter, but each paragraph should end on a "hook." I thought that was a bit of overkill - thought it would potentially speed up the pace *too* much.

However, ending a paragraph on a "punch" word makes the more sense to me. It keeps the reader engaged, but doesn't necessarily mess with the pace.

I was so excited by this idea, I pulled down a Terry Pratchett from the shelf and randomly flipped to a page. Last words were "poisonous, expensive, awkward, bigjob, chestnuts, expression, grievin'."

Then I picked up another that I'd never been able to finish, and the words were "her, down, said, much."

Must add this to list of things to watch out for. Thanks! :)

avery said...

I wandered over here from Charles' blog. What an interesting technique. I'm curious to review my work and see how well I fare with ending my paragraphs.

Bernita said...

Thank you.

spyscribbler said...

Oh, dear. Looking over my first page: her, worry, limbs, have, like, adventure, excitement, eyes, pick.

Me thinks I need to work on this. On the next page I have two more forms of like of all words. I guess I'm moving to California!

Rachel said...

I never thought about that! Thanks for sharing. I'll try to keep that in mind while I'm writing.

Emily said...

I'm in Candice's writing group, and I want to add that Laura Joh Rowland is most responsible for discovering that the last word of a paragraph is the grabber/pusher.

Laura was checking the last words of paragraphs in order to choose novels that she'd be interested in reading. So I call it "Laura's Punch Test," the looking at the last word of each paragraph to see if the writing will grab you.

I agree it's one of the best pieces of writing advice I've ever gotten, and thanks to Candice for sharing it with a wider audience. We'll all have better things to read because of it.

Emily Toth

liz fenwick said...

Thanks......off to look at current work :-)

Jon said...

This is kind of a big deal. It sounds like a very useful tool, but one that could easily sway style away from the intended tone if it's overused. I really don't want (another) voice in my head forcing form over flow. I just reread my last posted story and it's disappointing by this standard. But I like it.
Still, this is certainly worth considering.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Good call. Fascinating.