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As a novice writer of fourteen, I've tried a few attempts at science fiction (military science fiction, to be specific), and of course my writing's got HUGE mistakes and shortcomings. But the most obvious one is the fact that I end up with massive paragraphs that are most likely have too much unnecessary detail or have to be plowed through to read. What's a few ways to cut down on the lengths of paragraphs while keeping precise detail or making it an enjoyable read? See:

Martin Sinclair

The thick forest near Lake Baikal, Russia

January 25th, 2068

03:26:49

A Pilum rocket found its explosive mark on the ice-encrusted slab of stone Sinclair was using as cover, with the resulting fulmination violently throwing the Assault Legionary four meters backward with an invisible fist of heated, compressed air. Sinclair landed on his back with a loud clang, on impact his head whipped backwards so sharply a great spike of protest drove up his neck that nearly blacked him out from the pain and sent him into an incapacitating daze – the trees all around him spun like he was being held before a monstrous cobalt turbine of whirring scarlet blades from the radiant flashes of gunfire and missile trails both the struggling troops and the tentacled ghouls exchanged bullets and warheads, neither willing to give ground in their ferocious firefight. Sinclair’s head throbbed with pulsing intensity, his hearing only a faint, distant ring, and his vision streaked with shimmering, shifting splashes of color even when he shut his eyes tight. Giving all his effort not to utter so as much as a moan from his agony, he gave himself three seconds of reprieve…

Sure enough, in three seconds the mental assault subsided, if only to a tolerable level. Exerting strenuous effort, Sinclair rolled onto his chest, the ground below him uttering grinding cracks of protest, and his upper body burned likewise, then stood to one knee as he braced one forearm to rise up to full height, for a split-second watching as the Lutetian soldiers continued to valiantly hold off another flurry of the infernal hellspawn, then swiveled on an armored boot, retrieved his railgun rifle laying askew several centimeters away from where he crashed.

The next ten seconds, Sinclair sent three slugs bolting clean through more of the demonic menagerie, of spider-women bobbing and weaving through the net of bullets, of regurgitators unleashing more of the vile, bubbling acid as lead and iron sank into them without effect, and of ghouls blanketing the camp with their own relentless counterfire, only diminishing when the creatures needed to reload their captured guns.

Switching on his re-activated communicator, which Sinclair had forgotten to reactivate and had been somewhat damaged-but-still-functional by his proximity to the rogue missile’s detonation, he almost coughed out a small gob of blood from biting his tongue before swallowing it.

“Solace! God damn it, Solace, where are you?!

Still the Lutetian forces fought them back, backwards into the unnatural forest they came from, even though Sinclair knew from too many operations this light and unprepared that the defenders were running dangerously low on ammunition – some of the soldiers that were not killed or grievously wounded were now using their handguns, but they might as well have been hurling pebbles for all the damage it did.

Well, we all knew we’d die someday, wouldn’t we?

The Mantises would not be able to sustain their osmium barrages for long, nor could their ammunition-chewing machine guns, likewise for the Scorpions – their seemingly endless torrent of grenades (and autocannon shells, in the case of Thomas’ Scorpion) would have to halt sooner or later, and then their defences would collapse and the camp overrun.

Hell, personally I’m surprised I made it this far...

And now they were doomed. To be slaughtered, or consumed, or converted to one of these abominations, Sinclair didn't know. All that rushed through his mind, no longer caring about where his railgun slugs hit, was that he failed. He had led both his team, and dozens more soldiers to their deaths in a futile mission.

We'll all be paying for this in hell, I know it...

“Solace-One! Assist!” a hoarse, panicked cry with hints of barely-concealed relief reached Sinclair’s communicator headset speaker, echoing in his ear.

A simultaneous rustling noise, thunderous crashing, and the rumbling of engines alerted the battling forces – and with a headturn, double-take, and the elating feeling of a great burden lifting off his chest, Sinclair once more turned to the cratered, scorched front with a returned, rising, resurgent feeling of hope and gratitude as behind him, the lumbering, titanic adamantine monstrosity that is the C-88FV Scarab arrived (with some Courser members firing from a makeshift balcony while tossing ammunition crates atop the Scarab’s turret, Sinclair saw with another surge of relief) and immediately accomplished in two minutes what the entrenched Lutetian troops could not accomplish in the past two hours – the oncoming creatures were decimated by the tens and twenties from the deafening, earsplitting blasts that came with every slug the Scarab’s twin coilguns fired. An independently piloted laser cannon atop the Scarab fired sudden, radiant beams of red fury that incinerated any mutant unfortunate enough to enter its gunner’s crosshairs. Just in bloody time! Sinclair mentally snorted.

Within minutes, the camp, now having been relieved of intense pressure, reorganized its defensive pattern. Riflemen who had any ammo in their assault rifles left, both on the breastworks and some emerging from within the Scorpions, arranged into two rows, in the process flicking a pin on their rifles so that they fired only in three-round bursts – the phalanx formation used so commonly and effectively by Lutetian ground troops, as Sinclair had witnessed and participated in so many times in his many tours. Bombardiers, those given the task of wreaking havoc on enemy vehicles, stood behind the two rows of riflemen and aligned themselves like the riflemen, their Spiculum missile launchers held high and launching their deadly warheads. A trio of grenadiers capped the formation on both ends, spraying shards of shrapnel wherever their canisters detonated. Two snipers and their accompanying spotters positioned themselves within the Scorpions and picked off what they could, with the occasional crack as their precision aims sent tungsten rounds with pinpoint accuracy.

Thank you for bearing with me, and for your time to type a potential feedback.

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3 Answers 3

I hope this explains what's been said as opposed to reiterating it.

-ing phrases slow the pace. Subsidiary clauses slow the pace. You're writing action. Don't slow the pace. Modern middle school English teachers ask students for sentence variation. -ing phrases are a common result. These phrases may sound scholarly, but they do not work in fiction.

If you introduce on an -ing phrase, you introduce simultaneity. All actions that follow must occur at the same time. Rearrange your sentence and the law is obvious: He coughed blood while switching his reactivated communicator. If you introduce the sentence on the -ing phrase, you keep the reader reading for the payoff; when will I know what is happening simultaneously? I have ADD. I can't pay attention until I know. The reader cannot even begin to understand the sentence until the subject shows up. Who is acting the action? Without the actor, our minds are blank. Introductory -ing phrases encourage the reader to read over those initial words. If you rearranged them, the reader would keep at it linearly.

One way to envision the process: Write as if you were your character in that moment. Don't write as if you are your character retelling his war story. Example:

Giving all his effort not to utter so as much as a moan from his agony, he gave himself three seconds of reprieve…

Sure enough, in three seconds the mental assault subsided, if only to a tolerable level.

If you were Sinclair in the moment, you'd say:

He needed to moan. He shouldn't. He gave himself three seconds reprieve. The mental assault subsided, if only to a tolerable level.

Is that no fun? Does that take away the poetry of authorship? The voice of distance? No. You inject the voice subtly. Your voice merges with Sinclair's. The word reprieve? I doubt Sinclair has thought to himself: I will give myself three seconds reprieve. He might say rest. He might say, "I'll give myself a fucking break." You say reprieve. The reader understands the merge between voices, and you are allowed to make Sinclair's profanities into poetry. Understand, however, that in this complex relationship, Sinclair's voice is more immediate and more enticing than yours. In the action plot, stick with his voice as much as possible. That beautiful word choice? You can get away with it. But only so long as it is not the entire foggy lens through which the reader has to muck in order to get to the good stuff--the plot. Make that lens as clear as possible. I hope this description helps.

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I supposed this would've worked if it was a journal-sort of story, but since I'm trying to tell it how it is at the moment, I think this, inching slightly closer to first-person view, works much better. This helps a lot, thank you. –  JasonV Aug 25 '12 at 19:07
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All around, it's actually not too bad. Some tips:

The natural tendency when you're writing action scenes is to over-describe -- so start cutting bits. Look for things that are redundant, and especially look for things that are over-specific with limbs (hands, legs, etc.), and with measurements. The readers don't need to know where all the limbs go unless it's relevant to the story.
For instance, compare what you had here:

Exerting strenuous effort, Sinclair rolled onto his chest, the ground below him uttering grinding cracks of protest, and his upper body burned likewise, then stood to one knee as he braced one forearm to rise up to full height, for a split-second watching as the Lutetian soldiers continued to valiantly hold off another flurry of the infernal hellspawn, then swiveled on an armored boot, retrieved his railgun rifle laying askew several centimeters away from where he crashed.

To the same sentence as I've edited it:

Sinclair rolled onto his chest. The ground below him crackled under his grinding weight and his arms burned as he pushed himself up. But he stood up anyway, rising to his full height for a split second -- just long enough to see that the Lutetian solders where valiently holding off yet another flurry of the infernal hellspawn -- before he snatched up his railgun from where it lay when he crashed.

Better? I think so. I cut out the bits about forearms and knees, and armored boots a-swivelling and several centimeters away a-laying.

This also turned out to illustrate several other points:

Cut the sentances down. I turned that one sentence into three, and it could have easily been five instead. That's a bigger problem for you than the overall lengths of your paragraphs. Action is, well, active, so short, tight sentences work well.

Sentences should generally start with the subject. This is especially true at the start of a paragraph. We don't need to know about "exerting strenuous effort" until we know who it is that will be exerting that effort.

And finally, beware "-ing" words. Sometimes they are necessary, but they should only be allowed in your fiction under grudging duress. "-ing" words tend to weaken writing -- and they also lengthen it. You're doing better than most with not having "-ing" words, but there are still plenty to cut. You'll find your writing becomes much stronger, and tighter, when you re-write the "-ing" words away.

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I get it: leave out unnecessary details about precise areas. Keep sentences short and to the point and only show important details. Stay terse and brief on action sequences. Subject is placed first. "-ing" words are deprioritized, if that's even a word. Thank you for the help. –  JasonV Aug 25 '12 at 0:08
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Paragraph length isn't the problem here, although the paragraphs could stand to be broken up a bit. The biggest problem here is a problem of focus and organization. A paragraph should have a fairly concise point; it's not simply a container for sentences.

The main problems here are those of organization (on the large and small levels) and editing.

Focus

Writing is telling a story by giving the reader clues. It's not about telling the reader everything there is to know.

To use your the first paragraph as an example: I'm not clear on whether I should focus on Sinclair or the battlefield. Which is more important in this paragraph?

If you want to set the scene and then zoom in on Sinclair, rewrite this so you describe the battlefield and only then focus on Sinclair. On the other hand, if you want the reader to pay more attention to the character than the battle, then reverse the order: Describe the action and the character, being very sparse. Only then do you start filling in the details of the battlefield. The more important the information you're conveying, the easier it should be to absorb.

Rhythm and chunk length

I said that a paragraph isn't simple a container for sentences, and that's true. But it is made of sentences. Scenes are made of paragraphs, chapters are made of scenes. There should be a clear structure and rhythm of language, on the level of the entire book as well as the level of the individual word. Using many long, packed sentences will preclude any sort of rhythm, because there's no place for the reader to rest.

Consider breaking up your sentences into many shorter chunks. It may feel strange and staccato-like at first, but they will read more easily and your readers will thank you.

Of course, you can't have all sentences be very short; there should be the occasional longer sentence to break up the rhythm, generally when you have a complex thought or situation to convey. Establish your rhythm, but don't forget - sometimes you need to break stride to startle the reader. They'll pay attention to those outlier sentences or paragraphs.

You can count on it.

Editing and breaking things up

A few exceptional talents aside, our first drafts are always a mess; and that's okay. We go back to them and make them make sense later on. You can learn how to self-edit your writing more thoroughly.

There's no quick way to do this. Read the piece you've written, look for places that seem confusing. Your readers will look at your story with different eyes. They may need more detail than you provide in some places, and less detail in other locations.

And pay attention to pacing by looking for overlong chunks. A good way to break up paragraphs: Look for natural stopping places, places where the reader needs to take a breath. Try reading your prose out loud if need be; where would you stop and take a breath, or have a sip of water? (Reading is thirsty work, after all.)

And sentences can be broken up in many ways. Overuse of dashes, colons, and semicolons - these are often indicative that your sentences are too long.

Planning

All this will be easier if you plan your writing first.

When you're not out on a limb, writing to a plan, it's easier to write in an organized, readable way. There's no single, "correct" way to do this. You could make a detailed outline, or sketch the main points on the back of a cafe receipt; as long as you have a general idea of what the scene will cover, it'll be easier to write it. (If you already are doing this, perhaps re-examining your workflow is in order.)

And you can plan on the paragraph level, too. Decide which thoughts need to be connected to each other and in what order the reader should see them. Break up your chunks so they make more linear sense.

Conclusion (and inspiration)

The problem here is one of planning and editing. After you establish good habits, much of this will come more easily and you may find your first drafts are coming out in a more organized way.

If all of this seems difficult to comprehend, try reading books with simple language. You may be inspired by Isaac Asimov, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert A. Heinlein. Don't restrict yourself to science-fiction; writing is writing.

However, long, ornate language can be done well. You may not yet be at the point where you can pull off longer sentences, sentences where you lead the reader down the garden path, bringing them to a conclusion they didn't expect. But for examples of longer sentences done well, it's harder to to better then Gene Wolfe or Ray Bradbury. Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery is a good example of longer sentences in a pseudo-Victorian style that manage to be easy to read.

Eventually you'll find your own style, of course. Best of luck, and keep writing!

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+1 Great points, all. –  Kris Aug 24 '12 at 13:24
    
Alright, I think I got it. I'll go with the first suggestion (setting then character), so give the reader the setting (i.e. the forest) and THEN tighten the perspective to just the character. Brief, precise paragraphs with some lengthier ones. Pace them properly and add breaks. Thank you very much for your time. On an unrelated note, since this website isn't the place to do so as the FAQ tells, do you know of a forum where I can post this up or find a beta reader to help? –  JasonV Aug 24 '12 at 23:45
    
@JasonV - Actually, if you have specific questions about a piece of writing, you can indeed post it here - if you have specific questions about the work. You've done this here, with your question about paragraph length. For generalized critique, try asking in our chat room; people sometimes post links to works in progress there. –  Neil Fein Aug 25 '12 at 6:06
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