Pace Your Prose With The One-Sentence Paragraph

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Search for “one-sen­tence para­graph” on the In­ter­net and you’ll mostly find ques­tions about whether writ­ing them is even an ac­cept­able prac­tice. The one-sen­tence para­graph is not only legal, it’s a use­ful and pow­er­ful lit­er­ary de­vice for writers and speakers.

One-sen­tence para­graphs are com­mon when short pieces of di­a­log are being ex­changed, but con­sider the ef­fect of se­r­ial one-sen­tence para­graphs in other con­texts. The fol­low­ing ex­cerpt from The Blue Monk de­scribes an ocean cross­ing in a small wooden boat:

The sun marches over our heads through a field of blue, burns the horizon beyond our wake, yields to the stars, purples the east, and rises before us again.

We are aground in a river of time.

We eat.

We sleep.

With the wheel, we turn the ocean round our boat.

Days pass like silken threads on hidden currents of wind.

Hours hover like dust revealed by a sunbeam.

Forever collapses into a moment.

There can be no other side, no destination.

There is only here, only now.

The wind falls light again.

We motor over calm, shimmering seas.

 

The nar­ra­tive re­flects on the pas­sage of time at sea. Though it could have been writ­ten as a sin­gle para­graph, con­sider how iso­lat­ing each thought af­fects the pac­ing. This is a mar­riage of prose and po­etry, de­signed to be “read aloud” in your head. Pause at each comma. Stop at the end of each sen­tence. Let the words ring.

And con­sis­tent sin­gle-sen­tence para­graphs are not a strict re­quire­ment. This is writ­ing, not math.

The sun falls below the pines of Great Abaco.

The wind picks up.

The temperature drops.

We drag my dinghy to the top of the beach and prop it on its oars behind us to serve as a windbreak. John had the foresight to gather dry firewood back at Man-O-War Cay. We add to his collection a few pieces of driftwood we find on the beach. Behind our dinghy shelter, a small flame begins to consume our branches and wood scraps.

Yellow sparks crackle and fly high into the fast-darkening night.

Stars gather overhead.

John points into the brilliant sky. “See the three planets grouped in a small triangle there? They’re what we’ve come here for. They won’t appear this close together again for over a thousand years.”

 

Have you ever taken a pho­to­graph of a sun­set? The re­sult­ing image in­evitably fails to cap­ture the glory of the scene; a sun­set can­not be put in a frame. Some­times, ef­fec­tive writ­ing re­quires the au­thor to cre­ate a de­tailed por­trait, but “paint by num­bers” also works. Your reader has seen sun­sets be­fore, ex­pe­ri­enced cold, and sat near a fire. Why not offer clues to help your reader con­struct his own pic­ture from his own mem­o­ries?

Short, sin­gle-line para­graphs mimic the ex­pe­ri­enc­ing mind. Ex­pe­ri­ence, in its pure form, tran­scends words. More words might con­vey the au­thor’s pic­ture of an ex­pe­ri­ence at the ex­pense of the reader’s. Why place your reader in your head when you can pull her into your scene?

As they say, “the devil is in the de­tails.”

So get rid of the de­tails.

Write suc­cinctly and se­ri­ously.

One-sen­tence para­graphs cue your reader to stop and re­flect.

Of course, Vic­to­rian ver­bosity is as valid a writ­ing style as post­mod­ernist min­i­mal­ism. Good writ­ing comes from choos­ing the right style for a par­tic­u­lar pas­sage, and not from any for­mu­laic ap­proach. The one-sen­tence para­graph is one tech­nique among many—an­other color in the ca­pa­ble writer’s and speaker’s palette.

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Dave Bricker: StorySailing®