Compressible Paragraphs

Martin’s paragraphs are like Jenga towers: you can pull out quite a few sentences before they start getting wobbly. To some that will be a marker of the narrative’s richness; to others, its flabbiness. For me it’s either, depending on the chapter, but I think it’s a pretty fascinating feature.

Let’s take a look at a set of paragraphs from Dany’s second chapter in AGOT. Think about how many of these sentences you could omit before the paragraph stopped making sense.

The ceremony began at dawn and continued until dusk, an endless day of drinking and feasting and fighting. Viserys was seated just below her, splendid in a new black wool tunic with a scarlet dragon on the chest. Dany had never felt so alone as she did seated in the midst of that vast horde. There was no one to talk to. So she sat in her wedding silks, nursing a cup of honeyed wine, afraid to eat, talking silently to herself. The sun was only a quarter of the way up the sky when she saw her first man die. The warriors were watching too. Dany looked away from the coupling, frightened when she realized what was happening, but a second warrior stepped forward, and a third, and soon there was no way to avert her eyes. It ended as quickly as it began. Magister Illyrio had warned Dany about this too.

As the hours passed, the terror grew in Dany, until it was all she could do not to scream. I am the blood of the dragon, she told herself again. When at last the sun was low in the sky, Khal Drogo clapped his hands together, and the drums and the shouting and feasting came to a sudden halt. And after the gifts, she knew, after the sun had gone down, it would be time for the first ride and the consummation of her marriage. Her brother Viserys gifted her with three handmaids. Ser Jorah Mormont apologized for his gift. Magister Illyrio murmured a command, and four burly slaves hurried forward, bearing between them a great cedar chest bound in bronze. “Dragon’s eggs, from the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai,” said Magister Illyrio.

“I shall treasure them always.” Dany had heard tales of such eggs, but she had never seen one, nor thought to see one.

The khal’s bloodriders offered her the traditional three weapons, and splendid weapons they were. Other gifts she was given in plenty by other Dothraki: slippers and jewels and silver rings for her hair, medallion belts and painted vests and soft furs, sandsilks and jars of scent, needles and feathers and tiny bottles of purple glass, and a gown made from the skin of a thousand mice. And last of all, Khal Drogo brought forth his own bride gift to her.

She was a young filly, spirited and splendid. Hesitantly she reached out and stroked the horse’s neck, ran her fingers through the silver of her mane.

“She’s beautiful,” Dany murmured.

“She is the pride of the khalasar,” Illyrio said.

What’d you notice about those paragraphs? If you just glanced at them, probably not much – a typical passage from Martin. If you looked a little closer, you noticed a hitch at the end of the first paragraph, something about a coupling, and that was the trick of the exercise:

Those seven paragraphs, totalling 427 words, are actually built from the first sentences of 26 different paragraphs, totalling 1,897 words. But don’t they read smoothly?

Okay, so AGOT is easy to abridge. What’s that mean?

Maybe Martin takes his topic sentences seriously. I know I haven’t thought about them since the 5th grade, and probably he hasn’t either, but in a series that features lengthy menu and travelogue sequences, there’s got to be something beyond the plot that’s contributing to the series’ propulsiveness, something mechanical – could something as simple as topic sentences be a part of it? Or this is an epiphenomenon, and the real driver is a short average paragraph. (Martin has a fair number of one-lines.) Maybe it’s paragraphs that focus mostly on static information, like the placement of characters, or their mindsets; or modular sentences that can snap together like LEGO and don’t rely on information in their predecessors, thereby reducing the reader’s cognitive burden.

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