The science of paragraphing

How’s that for nitty gritty?

Usually in school, when we learn what a paragraph is, it has a fairly standard definition: three to five sentences, the first being a topic sentence and/or thesis, and the others relating to that topic. The last sentence should usually offer some sort of segue into the topic of the next sentence to show the logical structure of the overall essay. (In the first paragraph, the last sentence is the thesis of your work.) And that’s a great structure—for non-fiction.

In fiction, paragraphs are still important, but unfortunately they’re not quite as easily defined. We aren’t simply relating information or crafting a persuasive argument—we’re trying to make a cohesive narrative come to life.

There is at least one hard-and-fast (mostly) rule for paragraphing in fiction: when you change speakers, change paragraphs. Beyond that, we’re left with . . . more like “guidelines.”

One of those extremely important guidelines is clarity—break paragraphs to make your meaning clear. Breaking a paragraph between speakers is one reason why we do this. We might also break a paragraph to better illustrate the relationship between the character’s actions: showing cause and effect, for example.

Also, breaking a paragraph can help keep POV clear. I thought it was rather clear whose POV we were in in one scene that I wrote, so the POV character could comment on other characters’ dialogue in the same paragraph as the speech. My CPs found paragraphs like the made-up one in bold below confusing POV:

Lisa leaned back in her seat, trying not to look like she was eavesdropping. They were talking about her—again.

“Well, we were going to tell her.” Oh, really? Like when?

As we read, we need white space to help our minds psychologically space out information. We can use this to great artistic effect (as we’ll talk about tomorrow!).

What do you think? How do you paragraph? How would you paragraph this example?

Photo by Xosé Castro Roig

5 thoughts on “The science of paragraphing”

  1. Paragraph divisions are tricky, to be sure. It’s easy when there’s a lot of dialog, because each time a new person speaks, they get their own shiny new paragraph. Now that I think about it, that’s kind of the strategy I use. If a paragraph gets to be more than about 5 sentences, it’s time for someone else to say something.

    1. Oh yeah—length is definitely a consideration for me, even without speech. (Like in a silent scene with one character, not just paragraphs and paragraphs of thought.)

  2. I’ve been looking a lot at paragraphs lately.
    I’ve been breaking them between characters, but not between dialog/action of the same character.
    I came across an interesting case. I found that when I separate inner dialog onto separate paragraphs it really becomes much clearer.

    1. I like paragraphing inner monologue—it can really help shape the meaning and the pace of the scene. (Something else I talk about next time.)

  3. I’ve crit’d so many new writers who make the mistake of including one character’s dialogue with another’s action in the same para. It’s only after reading the next few paras that I realize they’re talking about two separate characters. I suggest separating these only to find the same mistake in their next draft. I’ve even seen experienced writers make this mistake. The whole point is to make the reading experience easy for the reader.

    John collapsed into the chair. “How are you?” She reached out and touched him.
    “I’m doing without. And you?” She wondered if he knew how pathetic he looked.

    I’m sure the reader has no idea who’s saying what.

    You’re so right, Jordan, no one ever addresses the issue of paras in rule books. We need a whole section on this point.

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