Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A few paragraphs about paragraphs

Paragraphs seem to be an issue in my world lately, at least I’ve run into a number of issues with friends and paragraphs, so that made me start thinking about them…hence….a blog ;).

First thing to keep in mind is that paragraphs are your friend.  They provide pleasing white space which allows the reader to take a breath and process your wonderful words of wisdom.

Second thing, they are not always constructed the same way for fiction, as they would be for an academic endeavor.

Third, like commas, many of the rules are optional. With the primary goals being ease of readability and maximum impact to move the story forward.

Even though many are open to interpretation, there are a few guidelines:

  • ·         You DO need them. Sorry, no way around this. Learn how to use them to enhance the reader’s experience.

  • ·         Don’t mix what one character says with what another character says in the same paragraph. This goes for action as well. 

  • One character=one paragraph, nuff said.

Bad Example: “Why didn’t you tell me you were flying the turnip to Mars today?” Stachia asked as she stormed around the mansion. “Because I knew you’d be mad,” said Kumquat. He peered around the corner at Turtledove. “I told him not to.” Turtledove said with a flip of her bright green hair.

Good Example: (Okay, good being relative ;))
“Why didn’t you tell me you were flying the turnip to Mars today?” Stachia asked as she stormed around the mansion.
“Because I knew you’d be mad,” said Kumquat. He peered around the corner at Turtledove.
“I told him not to.” Turtledove said with a flip of her bright green hair.
                        Which is easier to read and understand?

  • ·         Make sure the actions for one character stay with that character!  You never want to make the reader stop and try and guess who said what and who did what. If there is a bunch of back and forth- then yes, you will have a BUNCH of paragraph breaks. Don’t try to squish them together. Edit them down if need be. (Talking heads bad ;))

o   Bad Example:
§          Jane turned and walked away from the glowing ember of Troy. Benjamin followed along behind her, wiping down the cabinets of Troy as he did so. Turtledove wandered aimless behind them wondering what happened.

Hopefully, you wouldn’t be doing this type of writing, even broken up correctly. But yes, each action would need a separate paragraph (and you’d need an editor ;)).
  • If you start describing on thing (item, location, situation) and switch to another thing, you must start a new paragraph.

  • ·         If there is a gap in time-start a new paragraph (I usually have a space or break).

  • ·         Paragraphs can be used for humor (think the pause before a punchline) or dramatic impact (the pause before the “Oh shit!” moment). Setting a single line separate from the paragraph can make the reader mentally add an OMMPH to line.

o   Example: (not great, but it makes the point ;))

§        I made one more check of the house. I knew there was no one there. I’d checked every window and every door twice. The noises I was hearing were just the house settling. My husband was right, just because he wasn’t home, there was no reason for me to worry.

So then why was the backdoor wide op-?

Yes, that last line could fit logistically with the paragraph above it--but it makes more impact set apart.

  • ·         Like sentence length, paragraph length can speed up or slow down the pacing. Short paragraphs move fast (think action or a faster paced book) whereas longer paragraphs slow the reader, longer descriptive sections, a deliberate slowdown of action. But make sure, regardless of the type of scene that your paragraphs aren’t all the same length ;). variety is the spice of a good book.

 Paragraphs are far more than just something you were taught to use to separate the sections of your essays in school.  Have any favorite rules? Peeves?


  1. Seems like those writing rules we were taught in high school still apply! But it's amazing how many writers still don't get that.

    1. Very true! At least for me, the school rules were far more stringent than for fiction. But it is jarring when they are out of whack!

      Marie- at day job ;)

  2. I think length is the primary thing that bugs me. When I see big blocks of text, I think "this is a wall blocking my reading." The multiple dialogue in the same paragraph also disturbs me, but the action ones don't bother me as much.

    I'm not great at paragraphing, so I don't have much room to talk. :D

    1. Same here! I am so bad- even if it's a big chunk of text for a blog, or an article-I think twice about reading on :). Almost want to find the person and say, "seriously, white space is your friend!".

      Marie- at day job

  3. Parceling out paragraphs can be a trick. The old adage never shorter than three sentences kills me. Loni says the action example doesn't bother her as much and I have to agree, somewhat. I don't believe you should start a paragraph with one person doing something and then insert actions done by another without letting the reader know who is doing what. The same as speaking paragraphs.

    However, it seems to me if you are writing an action scene and one person does something and another person responds to it, in say a fight scene, I can't think of a way I would break everyone's action into separate paragraphs. But, I could be one of those people who is doing it wrong.

    1. I think any time you make a reader go, "waitaminute...who was that again?" it's a problem. If it doesn't make them do it, no problem! :)

      Marie- at day job