This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

The Paragraphs of the House of Usher

You can find a copy of “The Fall of the House of Usher” here, on Project Gutenberg.

Today, we’re going to look at paragraph lengths.  A note of caution here:  as with his sentence lengths, Poe’s paragraph lengths are extremely long for modern sensibilitites to cope with.  I would seriously think twice about writing paragraphs this long unless you feel a sort of calling for it, deep in your soul.  (I, myself, sometimes do.)

How long should a modern paragraph be?  I mean, the honest answer is, “As long as it needs to be,” but how does that even help, if you’re not at the point where you have a good feel for pacing?

I’m going to say that you should be able to fit five medium-length paragraphs on a standard book page.  Most book pages will have about 25 lines or so–a reasonable amount before your brain goes, “Hurrrr” and needs a tiny break when you look to the next page.  If you check most paperback and most hardcover books, they will have about 25 lines per page.  Mostly.  I have an edition of “Seven Gothic Tales” by Isak Dineson that I’m trying to read right now, and my print copy has 34 brutal lines per page.  I’m thinking about giving up on it and switching to digital.  It is sooo hard to read.

But, if I were to skim down any normally formatted page with about 25 lines of text, and I saw five paragraphs of about the same size, I wouldn’t think they were long or short, just kind of medium.

Okay, let me just completely derail this week’s post for a short discussion on book formatting, now that I think about it:

  • Physical books are formatted to certain dimensions because they help readers pay attention better.
  • Most physical books are formatted to be about 25 lines per page.
  • Most lines are formatted to have approximately 65-70 characters per line, which works out to about 10 words per line.
  • Most pages have about 250 words per page, barring chapter art and such.
  • Standard manuscript format will leave you with about 250 words per page so that a manuscript will have approximately the same page count as a formatted book.
  • All formats of book, from mass market paperback to hardcover, tend to have these same rules of thumb, even though they don’t have to.

Your brain needs a brief reset in order to process information.  In a print book, those resets occur invisibly:  the ends of lines, every point of punctuation, every page turn, every scene break, every chapter break.

In a properly formatted print book, that is.

It is 100% a benefit if you, as a writer, find out what basic book design looks like.  You don’t have to keep it in mind as you write, but once you know it, you can’t not know it.  Readers can’t really read as fast as they seem to read.  The time they spend reading is packed with little invisible pauses.

Honoring that can only help you be a better writer.

Wikibooks’ Basic Book Design is a good starting reference on basic book design.  I’m not joking.  I go back to it all the time.  If you are an indie publisher, reading this will make your books, both ebook and print, easier to read (and classier looking) as well.

Back to our regularly scheduled post.

Five paragraphs per page works out to about five lines of ten words each, or fifty words per paragraph.

One paragraph that takes up the whole page would be a very long paragraph, at 250 words.

A paragraph that took only one line would be a very short paragraph, at 10 words or fewer.

So let’s say:

  • One line: a very short paragraph.
  • 2-3 lines: a short paragraph.
  • 4-6 lines: a medium paragraph.
  • 7-10 lines: a long paragraph.
  • 10+ lines: a very long paragraph.
  • 25+ lines: a wall of text (as in, there are no indents or paragraph breaks in the black marks on the page).

Now, I personally would say paragraph lengths should be determined, at heart, by the content of the paragraphs, but again, that doesn’t really help if you don’t have a sense of how to match up form and content yet.

So let’s rephrase that:

One paragraph = one element gets described or one action taken.

Now, paragraphing is more complex than that, but that’s the essence.  You get to do one thing in that paragraph, and then you have to hit the return key.

But…!

Yes.  Some authors put more than one thing in a paragraph.  But mostly, in modern fiction, they don’t unless they’re lying to you about something.

One of the best ways to fool a reader is to put something in plain view, but don’t put it as the first or last sentence in a paragraph with more than three sentences.  Our brains are like, “Um.  This too many things, la la la,” and drifts a bit, because it needs to be reset.

The reader’s brain gets reset at the ends of lines.  It gets reset at every punctuation mark.  That’s still not enough.  It needs to be reset at the end of a paragraph, too.

So:  If you see a long paragraph in modern fiction, you can assume that the author, either deliberately or accidentally, is now lying to the reader or has some other mysterious purpose.  They’re letting the reader’s attention span strain a little farther than it should, and hoping that the reader will miss important points among all the other little distractions going on.

It’s just like a magic trick, really.

As we established, Poe likes to deceive the reader, and, in fact, he does so in the first paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Here’s the first paragraph, once again, for your perusal:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

This is a 400-word paragraph that, in a print book, would occupy 40 lines, or about 1.5 pages.  It is a “wall of text.”

We established last week that Poe misleads the reader by focusing on the details about the house, when really the narrator is really in denial about what he expects to find when he  sees his friend again.

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Ostensibly, this paragraph is a description of how unsettling the House of Usher is.  It covers one thing.  It describes one thing.  The narrator doesn’t really take much of an action here; he arrives and looks at stuff.  (He doesn’t, say, engage in a sword fight.)  So we’ll ignore the extremely minor action he takes and focus on the house.

The reason that Poe goes on and on about the house here is to screw with your brain and put it slightly to sleep.  Your brain goes, “Blah blah blah, house, blah blah.”

But tucked in that is the narrator going, “By the way?  I’m not actually reliable.”  He doth protest a little too much.

And please note that the major points of the paragraph–and its major deceptions–are not in the beginning, or at the end, of this massive wall of text.

And that’s enough for today, I think.

Next time: We’re going to look at other paragraphs.  Zowie!

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!