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by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
June 6, 2013
In English, at least, the paragraph is a group of one or more sentences, best recognized by its physical appearance. In most published pieces a paragraph is signaled by a new line and an indentation at its beginning and by trailing spaces at its end. Or, more frequently these days, particularly in letters of business or on the Internet, paragraphs have no indentation at their beginnings. Instead there is a break between blocks of text.
No matter how paragraphs are formatted, the fact that they are formatted is essential. It is this formatting which creates a bridge between shape and meaning. Paragraphs and the breaks between them are important for your readers. Paragraphs help your readers keep their place in the story -- both in terms of where they literally are on the page, and where they are in terms of the action.
You can make paragraphs either long or short. Long paragraphs -- especially pages without any paragraph breaks whatsoever -- can intimidate readers browsing through your book and may be especially difficult for those using e-readers. Many people will put a book down if confronted by huge, unyielding blocks of text, or simply get confused if they can't follow the thoughts because the paragraph is on several screens. Too many short paragraphs in sequence may also lose your readers, in that they will not be able to keep their place with those either.
The lengths of paragraphs create a rhythm for your story. Longer paragraphs usually signal that the story is slowing down, while shorter ones indicate that the pace is quickening. Longer paragraphs are also a place to develop intricate action, detailed description, or even profound, complicated thoughts. Short paragraphs are where exclamations and rapid delivery of important information occur -- but if you have too many in a row, your writing may seem staccato and your ideas shallow.
When Do You Start a New Paragraph?
When should you start a new paragraph, and when should you continue the one you're in?
The easiest answer comes when you are writing dialogue. When you change speakers, you nearly always begin a new paragraph. In fact, the word paragraph comes from the Greek word paragraphos, a line marking a change in the speakers of dialogue (classical Greeks were famous for their plays, so this would be very important).
However, unless you are also writing for the theatre, many of your paragraphs will contain no dialogue. In this situation, determining where to end and start paragraphs is more difficult.
A paragraph means a switch in the focus of your story. Here are some situations when you might want to end one paragraph and start another:
Note that you may occasionally start a new paragraph within a character's speech. This doesn't happen all that often -- usually people aren't allowed to speak without being interrupted or they are engaged in give and take -- or when they have come to the end of the paragraph, there's a natural pause. However, it is possible that a character will continue speaking in such a way that he should be given more than a single paragraph. In this case you should change paragraphs using the same rules as above -- the character has shifted to another topic.
So far this article has concentrated on what you should consider when separating your paragraphs. But there is another important consideration regarding the structure of paragraphs for your story: how do you order your sentences within each paragraph?
For non-fiction, theory seems better developed. In non-fiction, you often begin a paragraph with a topic sentence, i.e. a sentence that explains what you are writing about. The sentences that follow are detail sentences supporting the topic sentence. For example:
Notice how the last two sentences go into more detail about the weather, supporting the assertion in the first sentence in the paragraph.
This technique can help with your fiction writing, but it may not be enough. In fiction, your paragraphs also need to move your story along. So, even when you begin a paragraph with a strong lead sentence, you may want to end with a bang as well.
Here's an example from our novel, Children of Tantalus:
In the paragraph above (shown from Pelops' point of view, a character whose incipient madness makes him believe that the floor is swaying rather than that his gait is unsteady), the first sentence tells us how Pelops is feeling. The next two sentences show him in motion but also attempting to control his emotion. The fourth sentence is a transition sentence, which the reader needs in order to follow the action of the story. The fifth sentence in the paragraph ties back to the first, as Pelops' statement makes clear why he is so angry: that he hates having what he interprets as religious experiences questioned. And the sentence, "Just because the gods have never spoken to you does not make it impossible" is delivering its own wallop, as the readers sit up and think, hey, does this guy really think that the gods are talking to him?
We've covered two different ways of organizing paragraphs. The first contains a lead sentence and is followed by sentences that support it. The second develops action or thought and moves the story along. There are probably other good ways to organize your paragraphs, but these are two I have found useful.
The Order of Your Paragraphs
The order of your paragraphs is another part of the structure that you need to consider. Which information should come first, which second, third, and so on? Here are a couple of suggestions:
Mastering the art of the paragraph takes many writers a long time; I still have to put effort into making mine work. I hope these thoughts help you to organize yours.
A version of this article appeared at the Coffeehouse for Writer's Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.