Home : One-Sentence Paragraphs Make Powerful Prose

paragraph_dominoesSearch for “one-sentence paragraph” on the Internet and you’ll mostly find questions about whether writing them is even an acceptable practice. The one-sentence paragraph is not only legal, it’s a useful and powerful literary device.

One-sentence paragraphs are common when short pieces of dialog are being exchanged, but consider the effect of serial one-sentence paragraphs in other contexts. The following excerpt from The Blue Monk describes an ocean crossing in a small wooden boat:

The sun marches over our heads through a field of blue, burns the horizon beyond our wake, yields to the stars, purples the east, and rises before us again.
We are aground in a river of time.
We eat.
We sleep.
With the wheel, we turn the ocean round our boat.
Days pass like silken threads on hidden currents of wind.
Hours hover like dust revealed by a sunbeam.
Forever collapses into a moment.
There can be no other side, no destination.
There is only here, only now.
The wind falls light again.
We motor over calm, shimmering seas.

The narrative reflects on the passage of time at sea. Though it could have been written as a single paragraph, consider how isolating each thought affects the pacing. This is a marriage of prose and poetry, designed to be “read aloud” in your head. Pause at each comma. Stop at the end of each sentence. Let the words ring.

And consistent single-sentence paragraphs are not a strict requirement. This is writing, not math.

The sun falls below the pines of Great Abaco.
The wind picks up.
The temperature drops.
We drag my dinghy to the top of the beach and prop it on its oars behind us to serve as a windbreak. John had the foresight to gather dry firewood back at Man-O-War Cay. We add to his collection a few pieces of driftwood we find on the beach. Behind our dinghy shelter, a small flame begins to consume our branches and wood scraps.
Yellow sparks crackle and fly high into the fast-darkening night.
Stars gather overhead.
John points into the brilliant sky. “See the three planets grouped in a small triangle there? They’re what we’ve come here for. They won’t appear this close together again for over a thousand years.”

Have you ever taken a photograph of a sunset? The resulting image inevitably fails to capture the glory of the scene; a sunset cannot be put in a frame. Sometimes, effective writing requires the author to create a detailed portrait, but “paint by numbers” also works. Your reader has seen sunsets before, experienced cold, and sat near a fire. Why not offer clues to help your reader construct his own picture from his own memories?

Short, single-line paragraphs mimic the experiencing mind. Experience, in its pure form, transcends words. More words might convey the author’s picture of an experience at the expense of the reader’s. Why place your reader in your head when you can pull her into your scene?

As they say, “the devil is in the details.”

So get rid of the details.

Write succinctly and seriously.

One-sentence paragraphs cue your reader to stop and reflect.

Of course, Victorian verbosity is as valid a writing style as postmodernist minimalism. Good writing comes from choosing the right style for a particular passage, and not from any formulaic approach. The one-sentence paragraph is one technique among many—another color in the capable writer’s palette.


One-Sentence Paragraphs Make Powerful Prose — 10 Comments

  1. There’s a place for Victorian detail and minimalism, I think. Both and. I think of Richard Flanagan who “let’s the detail slide elegantly into the pause” (Jan Hawke), and of William Trevor; his sharp sparse prose conveying what he wants to in a sentence of carefully chosen words.

  2. I do agree that one line paragraph is an effective literary device. I was reminded of this one from Conrad; “And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.” (From Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”) Interestingly, this one is placed between two long paragraphs.

  3. I agree. From UNTOLD FRONTIER: And they grooved through the grove heartbeat in hand, as one with the wind as were their kind, and they came to a place where Yupa warrior guards spun round from behind trees with great big knives and slapped high fives as the three passed by, swiveling like that periodically right on up to the twenty-four foot square pit wherein a one-eyed black bear with mange sat on its vaguely gray and pinkish mottled haunches looking up at the moneyed mitts of the ravenous spittle-spewing crowd which consisted of screaming pink-skinned white men, many of whom wore bright white powdered wigs and said things like, “You filthy sons of whores!” and, “Kill! Kill! Die! Die!” with such furious exertion–doubly resounding on the appearance of the astonishingly scantily clad Sacajariton–that it was a matter of some several moments before every man there felt fully the presence of Danyul Bune among them, and subsequently shut the fuck up.

  4. I explicitly recall those passages from your book, Dave. Memorable: isn’t that one thing we’re hoping for?

    There are plenty of one-sentence paragraphs in my books. Thanks for clarifying reasons they work.

  5. One’s writing style should reflect who the author is….generic rules should not apply….if a writer thinks lush and green, then the writing should reflect that….minimalism is not for everyone….the writers world is as vast as the cosmos and should not be reduced to a few rules….your article is great because it shows one way to do things…but it does not have to be the way everyone does it.

    • Thanks, Mira. I believe a re-reading of my last-full paragraph before the one-liners at the end will overcome your objections. This is my reward for attempting to be cheeky and starting a paragraph in an essay about minimalism with a sentence like, “Victorian ver­bosity is as valid a writ­ing style as post­mod­ernist min­i­mal­ism.”

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