Today, I’d like to talk about something few writers ever seem to think about: paragraphs.
Most authors start new paragraphs completely by instinct instead of making conscious choices, and that usually wastes a lot of potential and can even lead to confusing readers.
Often, authors don’t seem to know where to start and end paragraphs—and I admit that’s not easy to learn since there’s not much information on how to structure paragraphs in fiction.
So why do you as a fiction writer need to worry about when and where to start a new paragraph?
The function of paragraphs
Paragraphs help readers to follow your story without becoming confused. Paragraphs provide structure and make reading easier by grouping sentences that belong together and separating sentences that don’t belong together.
Also, using paragraphs creates white space on the page, and that’s something modern readers like. If you have ever come across a text with no or few paragraph breaks, you know how intimidating long, unstructured blocks of text can look—especially on small-screen devices such as e-readers or phones.
A rule of thumb for when to start a new paragraph
There are few hard-and-fast rules for paragraphing, but there’s a useful rule of thumb that will help you decide when to start a new paragraph.
|Paragraph breaks are little red flags that alert readers that something is about to change and will be different in the next paragraph. As a rule of thumb, you should start a new paragraph whenever a change occurs.|
Start a new paragraph when the speaker changes.
Never put dialogue from different characters into the same paragraph; otherwise, readers will have trouble keeping up with who’s talking. For the other character’s answer, switch to a new paragraph. Also, keep in mind that sometimes, the other character might answer nonverbally or with an action—start a new paragraph for nonverbal answers too.
“Are you angry with me?” Sue asked.
Bethany said nothing.
“Oh, come on. Don’t give me the cold shoulder.”
“Leave me alone.” Bethany stormed off.
You’ll notice that correct paragraphing cuts down on the number of dialogue tags we need. Readers can keep track of who’s talking because every new speaker has a paragraph of its own.
Start a new paragraph for the actions and thoughts of different characters.
Keep not just the dialogue, but also the actions of different characters in separate paragraphs.
As soon as Sue had gotten into the car, Bethany stepped on the gas and peeled out of the driveaway.
Sue grabbed onto the armrest to keep her balance.
Don’t start a new paragraph for the actions, dialogue, and thoughts of the same character.
Keep what one character says, does, and thinks in the same paragraph; otherwise, you are signaling to readers that the action or thought belongs to a different character.
“When does your train leave?” Sue asked.
Bethany glanced at her wristwatch. Damn. “Ten minutes ago.”
Start a new paragraph when the time or location changes.
If you move forward or backward in time or move to a new location, start a new paragraph. Of course, that might also be a good reason to start a new scene.
“Give me a few minutes to get changed, then meet me in the kitchen,” Bethany said.
Sue nodded and went back to her book.
Half an hour later, Sue still hadn’t joined Bethany in the kitchen.
Start a new paragraph when the focus shifts to a new topic.
When you were describing one thing and then switch to discuss something completely different, start a new paragraph.
Sue took in the woman’s mud-spattered pants and dirt-crusted boots. A sodden baseball cap clung to her head but didn’t manage to hide her disheveled blond hair. Her T-shirt, which said my diet starts tomorrow in faded red letters across her chest, was soaked through too, revealing generous curves.
Behind the woman, two little girls wearing bright green rubber boots jumped from puddle to puddle.
Start a new paragraph to add impact.
Sometimes, you can also start a new paragraph to create a dramatic or humorous effect. Putting a sentence in a paragraph of its own makes it stand out and adds impact. Don’t overuse this technique, though, or it’ll lose its effect.
Changing camera angle
I realize that’s a lot to take in, so here’s another rule of thumb that sums up those guidelines:
|Think of your manuscript as if you were filming a movie. Each paragraph is a shot. So every time the camera angle changes, start a new paragraph. First, the camera films the actions and the lines of actress A, then the camera pans to film the reaction of actress B or to sweep across the landscape, so we start a new paragraph.|
Paragraph length and pacing
Also keep in mind that paragraph length, just like sentence length, has an effect on your story’s pacing.
Short paragraphs make the readers’ eyes move down the page faster and speed up the pace of the story. So short paragraphs are best suited for action scenes, scenes with rising tension, or snappy dialogue scenes.
Longer paragraphs slow the pace and are best for reflective scenes.
Of course, even slower scenes will have a few short paragraphs and even fast-paced scenes might have a longer paragraph. Varying paragraph length is a good thing to avoid a monotonous rhythm.
I hope you find these tips on how to structure paragraphs helpful.