Guest Post—Frank Ball “Point of Focus”
Rules have changed.
At one time, authors were respected for their long sentences and paragraphs that consumed half the page. Not anymore. Today, we want the picture in as few words as possible, with shifts of dialogue and observations put into separate paragraphs.
In school, you may have learned that a paragraph begins with a topic sentence followed by explanatory sentences, each requiring a subject and verb. Those rules have changed as we’ve become comfortable with sentences and paragraphs sufficient if they communicate a complete thought.
No longer are we required to have several sentences to make a paragraph. We can have just one sentence. Even a single word.
You just read a single-word sentence and paragraph.
What is “Point of Focus”?
“Point of View” (POV) may be likened to a person holding a movie camera, restricting all that can be said to what the lens can see, frame by frame. Extending that analogy, we can liken “Point of Focus” (POF) to wherever the camera is aimed. When another person acts or talks, the camera shifts and we start a new paragraph, even when the action or dialogue is just one word.
How easy is that?
Even the bestselling novels have room for improvement.
Let’s see if we can make make some great writing more readable by creating a new paragraph with each shift in the point of focus.
From The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins:
Another heavy sigh. “I’m surprised you remember anything at all, Rachel. You were blind drunk. Filthy, stinking drunk. Staggering all over the place.” My throat starts to close up, hearing him say these words. I’ve heard him say these sorts of things before, in the bad old days, the very worst days, when he was tired of me, sick of me, disgusted by me. Wearily, he goes on. “You’d fallen over in the street, you were crying, you were a total mess. Why is this important?” I can’t find the words right away, I take too long to answer. He goes on: “Look, I have to go. Don’t call anymore, please. We’ve been through this. How many times do I have to ask you? Don’t call, don’t leave notes, don’t come here. It upsets Anna. All right?”
Apply the shifts in focus and we have five paragraphs instead of one.
Another heavy sigh. “I’m surprised you remember anything at all, Rachel. You were blind drunk. Filthy, stinking drunk. Staggering all over the place.”
As I hear him say these words, my throat starts to close up. I’ve heard him say these sorts of things before, in the bad old days.
Wearily, he goes on. “You’d fallen over in the street. You were crying. A total mess. Why is this important?”
I can’t find the words right away. I take too long to answer.
He goes on: “Look, I have to go. Don’t call me anymore, please. We’ve been through this. How many times do I have to ask you? Don’t call. Don’t leave notes. Don’t come here. You’re upsetting Anna. All right?”
Here are more areas where we can improve the text:
- “My throat starts to close up, hearing him say these words” has a dangling participle. Who his hearing him say the words? What we have in the sentence is “my throat,” but that can’t be right. Better: “As I hear him say these words, my throat starts to close up.”
- “In the bad old days, the very words days, when he was tired of me, sick of me, disgusted by me” is overdone. Sometimes more words dilutes the effectiveness instead of increasing it. In this case, by deleting the last three phrases, we strengthen the phrase “in the bad old days” and put more emphasis on the dialogue.
- “You’d fallen over in the street, you were crying, you were a total mess.” Here, we have three sentences spliced together with commas. We should either use periods or begin the last clause with the conjunction “and.” Let’s go with three sentences and simplify the last clause to: “A total mess.”
- “Don’t call, don’t leave notes, don’t come here” is three sentences spliced together with commas. Periods are better.
- “It upsets Anna” is weak, beginning with “it,” which burdens readers with figuring out what “it” is. Better: “You’re upsetting Anna.”
For ten years, Frank Ball directed North Texas Christian Writers to help members improve their writing and storytelling skills. In 2011, he founded Story Help Groups and joined the Roaring Writers ministry seven years later to encourage and equip all Christians to tell their life-changing stories. He has taught at writer’s conferences and churches across the U.S. and Canada. Besides writing his own books, he does ghostwriting, copy editing, and graphic design to help others publish high-quality books. As Pastor of Biblical Research and Writing for three years, he wrote sermons, teaching materials, and hundreds of devotions. He coaches writers, writes blogs, and is a panelist on The Writers’ View. His first book Eyewitness: The Life of Christ Told in One Story is a compilation of biblical information on the life of Christ in a chronological story that reads like a novel.
December 5, 2018 @ 8:26 am
Great post, Frank. As always 🙂
Nancy Ellen Hird
December 11, 2018 @ 10:36 am
I’m just getting around to reading this. (Don’t ask.) It’s quite thought-provoking. However, I’m not sure that I agree with your analysis.
I think first person, present tense is a very different animal than say third person, past tense. The “rules” (conventions) may of necessity be different.
In this particular novel the narrators are somewhat unreliable. (I’m being generous.) The grammar problems, etc., may cue the reader subliminally that the reader is in a world which is out of control and where things may not be what they seem. These “less than” forms of speech may contribute to the tension and suspense of the novel,
However, you raise some very interesting points that we writers should talk about and consider.
Thank you, Kathy, for including this post on your blog.