“Paragraphs help readers make sense of the thousands of pieces of information a writer folds into a story.” —Beth Hill
Does your editor or critique partner often suggest breaking up your paragraphs?
After researching online articles, I found:
- One hard-and-fast rule and 12 guidelines as to when to start a new paragraph.
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- Fiction paragraphs are less structured than those in non-fiction.
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For fiction, you’ll construct your paragraphs for setups, punches, and other desired effects. For example, the one-word paragraph.
THE RULE: Always start a new paragraph when you switch speakers in dialog.
GUIDELINES: Start a new paragraph when
- a new character reacts or does something,
- a new character thinks something,
- a new idea enters,
- a new event happens,
- a new setting occurs,
- the reader needs a break from a long paragraph,
- the “camera” moves. Ray Bradbury suggested, as in movies, every time the camera angle changes, start a new paragraph,
- a portion of information isn’t closely related to another and needs to be distanced,
- a change in emphasis or tone is needed in a topic,
- the time moves forward or backward,
- a description of one thing ends and something else is described,
- a special effect is needed to add humor or drama.
EXAMPLE USING TIPS (Tip numbers in parentheses)
“How are we going to handle this one?” Jack said. (1, Rule)
Sandy nodded toward him. “You’re the expert.” (2)
When had he dealt with similar situations? How about the Haiti op? (10)
The pompous Haitian general had questioned Jack’s men. Jack had stuck up for his men’s reason for disobeying orders, but he’d conceded the general’s wisdom for questioning them. The general had respected that, and he’d sent Jack’s team away unharmed. (10)
If they were caught today, would that tactic work on the warlord? But Sandy wasn’t one of his men. (1, 7)
Sandy snapped her fingers in his face. “So, what’re we going to do? The warlord knows me.” (2, 7)
He couldn’t take Sandy out of the op. She was the only one who knew what to look for inside the warlord’s files. (3, 8, 11)
Sandy’s mother had told him about Sandy’s photographic memory. If he could get Sandy inside to scan the pertinent files in the warlord’s underground cave, that could give him all the information he needed. (4)
Rat-tat-tat. (9, 12)
The sound was close. (1, Rule)
Sandy grabbed his arm. “Was that gunfire?” (Rule)
“Yeah. We gotta put distance between the warlord’s goons and us.” (4, 7)
They swept up their gear and moved out. (5, 7)
On the other side of the village, Jack scanned the area. They needed a hiding place. (9, 12)
Do you have other tips for when to start a new paragraph?
Here’s my 2 cents to go with guideline #6, Zoe. When I wrote for the local newspaper in northern New York, I was taught to keep paragraphs short – 1-3 sentences if possible. The reason was that when they are printed in column form, even 3 sentences can appear quite long. They need to be broken up to keep the reader from feeling overwhelmed. Sentences within the paragraphs should also be shorter and more direct for the same reason.
Another tip is similar for writing on the Internet – such as in blogs. Keep paragraphs short and have white space in between. It acts as a rest for the eyes and helps to keep the reader reading.
Bonnie, so nice to have some real life examples. Thanks.
Chiming in on #6: Even in novels, many readers skip over long paragraphs. Breaking long ones into shorter paragraphs keeps things “hopping” visually, and leads the reader forward, generating a sense of action or building tension. The days of lengthy, descriptive paragraphs, a la Charles Dickens, are long gone. We love our words, but have to continually cut out extra modifiers, tighten writing, shorten sentences and paragraphs. This is an example of how hard that is to do!
Jane, your last sentence made me laugh. Thanks for your comment and the chuckle.