The other day, while discussing how to write conversations, I had the idea of viewing a paragraph as a unit of reader attention.
I’ve mused on this back and forth for a few days, but I’m still not fully satisfied with the definition. Most of all I just like the expression:
One paragraph is one unit of reader attention.
It has a nice ring to it. But what does it mean?
When growing up and learning to write I learned that one paragraph should be about one thing. If you start writing about something else, you should start a new paragraph. If not, you’ll end up with a wall of text that’s difficult to read.
I think that’s a pretty good guideline, but what if there’s a lot to say about something and you’re still talking about it even after you’ve filled the entire page?
For the most part you can probably just go with your gut instinct and chop your text up in paragraphs where it feels right. You probably shouldn’t over-think it too much, but just go with it and see what happens. It doesn’t have to be very complicated.
I enjoy musing on this kind of thing though, and I really like the idea of trying to define a paragraph as a unit of reader attention.
I’m not thinking about it as if you have a certain number of lines or words to use, but rather that there’s a finite amount of attention to be had for each paragraph. The more information you put into it, the more the attention has to split up between different things.
I think the most obvious case where this definition would be helpful is when explaining why one should avoid having more than one character speak in a conversation. If you have two characters speaking, you have two characters competing for the attention of the reader.
The character who speaks first will likely “win” as they get the reader’s attention first. The second character to speak will likely cause confusion. The reader has their attention on the first character and then when the other character speaks, it will be unexpected and not make sense and the reader will have to make a double-take to figure out what’s really going on.
Could it be that once you’ve introduced something (a character, an object, an action), in a paragraph, you shouldn’t include a new something of the same kind? You may still be able to introduce more than one thing, but only if it’s of a different kind.
When you introduce a person doing something in a paragraph, maybe you shouldn’t add another person doing something else in the same paragraph. Except, perhaps, if the second person is acting in direct response to what the first person did.
I’ll try and think more about this, and perhaps have something more coherent figured out at some later point. For now, I still like to think of a paragraph as a unit of attention, and that you shouldn’t introduce more than one actor of the same kind in paragraph.