How to Write the Perfect Paragraph

I’m re-reading P.G. Wodehouse’s Something Fresh. Wodehouse is best known for the Wooster and Jeeves stories, somewhat madcap comedies of manners and excellent writing to boot, but he has created other characters and places that readers love to visit and revisit. Something Fresh was his first novel in what became a multi-volume series of the adventures and misadventures of bunglers, imposters and aristocrats at Blandings Castle.

Wodehouse can make me laugh out loud more often per chapter than any other writer I’ve read. He’s also a master at constructing outstanding prose and every time I read him I find something – a sentence, some dialog, a chapter – that catches my breath, even if it’s in a book I’ve read before.

This time it was a paragraph in Something Fresh, a description of the protagonist when she answers her door to a man of questionable character:

Joan Valentine was a tall girl with wheat-gold hair and eyes as brightly blue as a November sky when the sun is shining on a frosty world. There was in them a little of November’s cold glitter, too, for Joan had been through much in the last few years; and experience, even though it does not harden, erects a defensive barrier between its children and the world. Her eyes were eyes that looked straight and challenged. They could thaw to the satin blue of the Mediterranean Sea, where it purrs about the little villages of Southern France; but they did not thaw for everybody.

I read this paragraph and it just about floored me in its power of description. Later I thought back on it and realized it could as easily have been placed in a mystery, a thriller, a romantic drama, or any other type of story; it’s that good.

So if you came to this blog post hoping to learn how to write the perfect paragraph, I have to break it to you that I have no such advice. All I have is the example from Wodehouse of what a perfect paragraph looks like.

It looks like Joan Valentine.


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10 Responses to How to Write the Perfect Paragraph

  1. Jeannie says:

    That IS a great paragraph, Tim. To be honest, when I read the first sentence, for an instant I wondered whether it was overdone (like in that Bulwer-Lytton contest where you have to write the worst sentence ever: “Her hair hung like strings of spaghetti except without the meatballs” etc.) — but the next sentence just makes it perfect, by relating the coldness to her character. And the bit about experience creating a barrier between “her children” and the world says so much in so few words.

    • Tim says:

      And I love how he uses the phrase “and experience, even though it does not harden”. He’s not saying that experience can’t harden people, but that in those times it doesn’t it still can erect a barrier of protection. It’s one of those word choices that makes the whole paragraph sing like choir of voices.

  2. Laura Droege says:

    I really like that last sentence. The word “purrs” wasn’t one I would’ve thought about using for sea sounds, but it makes sense and fits the description that Wodehouse is building of Joan V.

    I read Stanley Fish’s “How to Write a Sentence” a few weeks ago. He tells writers (or anyone interested in sentence structure) to take a famous sentence, figure out how the various parts relate to one another, and then construct a sentence of one’s own using that same construction. For example, I could use the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice and substitute my own word choices to fill in the key points, as long as I kept the same construction of “It is a truth universally acknowledged that (someone) in possession of (something) must be in want of (something else).” (I came up with “An old woman in possession of a hundred cats must be in want of a mind.” Not exactly Austen!) This paragraph from Wodehouse begs for the same treatment on a slightly larger scale. Sorry . . . rambling!

    • Tim says:

      I thought the same thing about “purrs”. It works, and one reason the paragraph is outstanding is that type of unexpected but completely fitting word choice.

      • Laura Droege says:

        I almost salivate over unusual (and fitting) word choices. I keep a little notebook beside me while I read, just so I can write down especially vivid words and phrases. It’s helped improve my writing a lot.

  3. Mary Anne says:

    I think the only thing Tolstoy tells us about Anna Karenina’s looks is that she was beautiful and could see in the dark like a cat. Scant description, yet it gives me an instant mental picture of her.

  4. ashokbhatia says:

    He has created ‘n’ number of female characters, and Joan’s happens to be one amongst the most admired by yours faithfully. Sally is another. Alice Faraday is yet another!
    Permit me to share this post with you:

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