Have you thought about paragraphs lately?
If you’re a blogger or a copywriter, chances are good you think about them regularly. One, two, or three sentences—four is stretching it. And if you believe all blog post “paragraphs” should consist of one sentence only, you don’t have much to think about.
If you’re an essayist or academic writer, on the other hand, you probably focus on topic sentences, supporting evidence, and final sentences that serve as transitions to the next paragraph.
What about paragraphs in fiction?
If you’re like a lot of creative writers, paragraphs are the least of your concerns, at least early on. Maybe you start a new one by instinct or because it feels right. Or you might make a conscious choice, knowing that a change of location, time, or a new focus character needs a new passage.
But there’s more to paragraphs in novels than that.
Keep in mind that fiction writing is creative writing, and that means art more than science. So there really are no rules. But by getting a better understanding of the history and purpose of paragraphs and how to craft them for the effect you want, you’ll improve your writing. And what writer doesn’t want that?
Paragraphs are tools
Long blocks of text are difficult for most readers to manage. But by breaking up text into sections with closely related ideas, readers are alerted to a shift when they see a paragraph marker—an indentation or a double space between paragraphs in many non-fiction articles, especially online. And as readers, our brains are trained to know that something will be different in a new paragraph, and we anticipate the change with little effort.
Paragraph markers are like stop signs; in fact, they’re considered punctuation just like commas, semi-colons, and periods. And they used to have their own symbol: the pilcrow (¶). It was used before indentation became a paragraph marker back in the 1600s, when the printing press was invented. And before that, sentences just went on and on.
We still use pilcrows behind the scenes in word processing software. Editors and proofreaders use them, too, for indicating a new paragraph is needed when marking a document by hand.
Paragraphs control the pace
Pacing refers to how quickly or slowly a story moves forward. It’s about the speed and rhythm of the storytelling and crafting each sentence, paragraph, and chapter for the desired effect. Pacing is also about the reading experience: Is it so slow that readers get bored? Is it so fast that readers get exhausted after a few chapters?
Let’s take movies as an example. Most start on the slow side so you get the information you need like the setting, characters, and main conflict or problem to overcome. Novels are the same way.
Now think of an action or fight scene. The pace picks up because the camera doesn’t linger in one position for long. Instead, the shots shift rapidly from one character to the next, or they zoom in and out for close-ups of characters and specific moves.
Imagine an entire movie paced like that.
In Atomic Blonde, notice the slow build-up in this fight scene. Picture it as a few paragraphs that describe the setting and provide dialogue. Notice how it’s evenly paced and relaxed with just a hint of suspense.
Then, suddenly, the camera delivers a burst of quick shots like short sentences. Pow! Bam! Wam! All the bad guys—down.
Short, choppy shots (and short, choppy paragraphs) convey action, excitement, or danger. Viewers or readers take in quick bites of information, and the fast pace amplifies the emotional reaction. Sentences are short. A few stand alone.
“Off with his head!”
In a novel, as the action winds down and the scene ends, longer sentences, longer paragraphs, and more description let readers catch their breath.
Paragraphs convey information that drives the plot
Paragraphs are categorized by the purpose they serve, but what they’re called depends on the authority you consult. Here are the most common types of paragraphs.
Expository paragraphs or exposition
The expository paragraph focuses on setting, characters, and mood.
In All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, page after page of exposition greets us. In the paragraph below, notice the setting description. A single-sentence paragraph sets the mood, and the next paragraph introduces a character.
Beneath the lobby of the Hotel of Bees, a corsair’s cellar has been hacked out of the bedrock. Behind crates and cabinets and pegboards of tools, the walls are bare granite. Three massive hand-hewn beams, hauled here from some ancient Breton forest and craned into place centuries ago by teams of horses, hold up the ceiling.
A single lightbulb casts everything in a wavering shadow.
Werner Pfennig sits on a folding chair in front of a workbench, checks his battery level, and puts on headphones.. . .
The sentence concerning the lightbulb could be part of the longer paragraph, but separating it adds impact, don’t you think? And notice that the character introduction starts a new paragraph.
Narrative paragraphs tell the story from the narrator’s point of view (POV): 1st person (I, we), 3rd person (he, she, they), and occasionally 2nd person, in which the narrator addresses the reader (you) directly. These paragraphs tell the story and move it toward the ultimate challenge or battle: the climax.
Narrative paragraphs are also called “action paragraphs,” although action, in this case, doesn’t mean fights or battles.
Here’s an example of a narrative paragraph from All the Light We Cannot See.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc stands alone in her bedroom smelling a leaflet she cannot read. Sirens wail. She closes the shutters and relatches the window. Every second the airplanes draw closer; every second is a second lost. She should be rushing downstairs. She should be making for the corner of the kitchen where a little trapdoor opens into a cellar full of dust and mouse-chewed rugs and ancient trunks long unopened.
You might think dialogue hardly counts as a paragraph, especially when it’s short. But conversations between characters can form the bulk of a novel, and the way you manage dialogue is important.
Dialogue paragraphs have three parts: the words spoken (or the quote sentence), the dialogue tag (he said, she said), and the unspoken actions or thoughts that add meaning to the quote.
In this example, once again from All the Light We Cannot See, there is no dialogue tag since it’s already clear who is speaking.
The guide hangs his cane on his wrist and rubs his hands together. “It’s a long story. Do you want to hear a long story?”
Here are two successive dialogue paragraphs that include tags but no additional information.
“Are you sure this is true?” asks a girl.
“Hush,” said the boy.
And here is a dialogue paragraph with all three elements:
“I think,” Werner says, feeling as though some cupboard in the sky has just opened, “we just found a radio.”
Sometimes dialogue is lengthy, with only one character speaking. In this case, you can break up long paragraphs at strategic spots for easier reading.
Browse through a few of your favorite novels and see if you can spot different paragraph types.
When to start a new paragraph
You could consider writing an entire novel with only one long paragraph as David Albahari did in Leeches. But most of us will do much better sticking to tradition.
Here are some common reasons for starting a new paragraph:
- Something changes or a new topic is introduced
- Time or location changes
- A character enters a scene
- Break up a lengthy speech or monologue (including interior monologues)
- Create emphasis
Paragraphs might not seem like a big deal as you draft your story. But if you think about it, you build an entire novel with paragraphs. It’s like a movie that readers see in their minds, and if you don’t shoot each scene well, you won’t have the blockbuster, er, bestseller you’re hoping for.
Questions and comments are always welcome!