Jack Remick on “Paragraph Breakdown”

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Hi Jack! I am honored to have you on my blog today. I was fascinated by the idea of a “Paragraph Breakdown” when you discussed it on Blogtalk Radio. I would love to learn more about letting go of the paragraph structure in fiction writing.

The idea for “dissolving the paragraph” came up when my writing partner and co-author Robert J. Ray and I taught in a screenwriting program. Screenwriters work under enormous time and space restraints. In their field, time is money so they can’t waste words. In screenwriting, every word, every sentence, every image counts when a director turns those words into movies.

We saw that scripts they turn into movies are built on Actions and Images. In other words, a movie is what the actors do and what the viewer sees. With that insight, Bob and I worked on a way to bring that precision and efficiency to novels. Novels, as you know, tend to be built on words, lots of words, lots and lots of words with the images buried in black ink gobs we think of as paragraphs and if there is action, it’s tiny and not very important unless you’re writing an action, war, drug chase kind of novel. By contrast, screenwriters understand the close link between the poetic line and the script line. They want the eye to move down the page, image to image to action, not across those black, ink-rich paragraphs thick with exposition.

This led us to the observation of the obvious: novels are stories and stories are told with Action and Image. In the process of discovering how to handle this, we came to understand that there’s a third novelistic reality—the Action-Image.
Action: He hooked his finger in the trout’s gill.

Image: In sunlight, the trout’s scales shimmered.

Action-Image: Spinning, its scales a glittery rainbow of colors, the trout sliced the roiling river…
We then asked a very hard question:

Could you lay out your whole novel in a sequence of Action and Image writings, one action per sentence or one image per sentence. We called this the One-Sentence Breakout and we discovered the inter-penetration of prose and poetry. We discovered, in a sense, the Poetics of Prose.

I tried it first in a novel called Pacific Coast Highway. I wrote that book with my writing group at Louisa’s Bakery Café in Seattle. At that time, we were writing in thirty minute segments using the timed writing technique we learned from Natalie Goldberg.

Here’s piece of timed writing—just as I wrote it for Pacific Coast Highway:
Palos Verdes Estates, everything LA is supposed to be
jacaranda in bloom,
eucalyptus lined streets that curve up and away to white Spanish Neo houses
red tile roofs and wrought iron fences.
Peacocks dance their fan dance for you
the smell of the eucalyptus is good for what ails your bank account.
Later she tells me about the peacocks —
How they were let loose and took over and now perch on rooftops
and how they breed
and how much she loves them
and if anyone killed one of them, she’d have him skinned alive.
58 Via Campesina is exactly what it should be.
A winding, palm-tree lined road
at the edge of a golf course there is a bridle path where Arabian horses are stabled
and just off the bridle path, a white Moorish castle towers right out of a fairy tale
its own shade of red tile and yard lights that turn the evening yellow.
You hear the swimming pool pumps running
and you hear the peacocks shatter the dusk with their good-night screech,
and I think about home,
the futon I sleep on,
the breakfast of raisin bran and cold coffee
I knock on the door
she opens and smiles an infectious smile and she says,
“Did it turn out all right?”

Once you make the commitment to dissolve the paragraph, you can see the images and the action. The story moves down the page instead of being clumped up into thick chunks. The writing then becomes more visual and the actions take on cleaner lines.

That’s the way I wrote it, but that’s not the way it appears in print. You don’t want all those single lines, so you find a way to meld them together, and that raises the question: What is a paragraph in fiction?

Samuel Beckett is a good writer to help us find out. In his novel, Malone Dies the first “paragraph” is 543 words long. The third “paragraph” is 837 words long. On page 108, we find this:
What tedium.

Two words.

So just what is a paragraph in fiction? It’s what you say it is. It’s a non-entity for a fiction writer. Stories are told with Action and Image. If you write the images, connect the actions then “construct” an amalgamated body, it will appear to the reader to be a “paragraph” but it will be, in reality, an example of the poetics of prose. Here’s that one line break out from Pacific Coast Highway rewritten a dozen or more times and glued into “fictional paragraphs” showing image, action, rhythm, beat, breath, cadence and more than few rhetorical devices:

Palos Verdes Estates is everything LA should be—winding hill-side streets lined with eucalyptus trees and jacaranda and on the slopes, neo-Spanish castles built of white brick and red tile roofs that glisten in the sunset melting down over the Pacific Ocean.

When you turn a close curve, peacocks with their rainbow fans screech at you like they own the place.

Later she tells me about the peacocks—How someone let them loose and how they took over and now perch on rooftops and how they breed and how much she loves them and how if anyone killed one of them, she’d have him skinned alive. I pull into the drive at 58 Via Campesina, a curved drive big enough to hold a herd of German cars and I shut down the mill of the 850 CSi and I hear the birds chittering and the peacocks call and I hear the long slow whine of swimming pool pumps and somewhere, in another universe, a crow caws and for a second I forget who I am and where I am and what I am doing because for just that second I have a feeling for what it would be like to come to a place like that every day with its peacocks on the roof and a swimming pool that hums and inside a woman who wears black and white and drives a big fast powerful rich German machine. I think about home, the futon I sleep on, the breakfast of raisin bran and cold coffee. I get out of the car.

Thanks so much Jack! It was great learning more about paragraph breakdown. Thanks so much for sharing this with my readers!

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One thought on “Jack Remick on “Paragraph Breakdown”

  1. Hello Irene: I very much appreciate you letting me post this piece here. I hope this technique brings some light to the writers who are looking for it. Thank you for all your kindness and your support for the writing community. J

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