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