In the March, 2005 column of Fiction Fix, I briefly described
different levels of structure in writing – letters, words, sentences, and so
on. Since then we’ve been working our way through different levels in more
detail. In this issue we tackle another level of structure, and one that is
extremely difficult to master: the paragraph.
In English, at least, the paragraph is a group of one or more sentences,
best recognized by its physical appearance. In most published pieces a
paragraph is signaled by an indentation at its beginning and by trailing
spaces at its end. Or, more and more frequently these days, particularly in
letters of business or on the internet, paragraphs may have no indentation
at their beginnings. Instead there is a break between blocks of text.
No matter how paragraphs are displayed, the fact that they are formatted
is essential. It is this formatting which creates a bridge between shape and
meaning. Paragraphs and the breaks between them are important for your
readers. Paragraphs help your readers keep their place in the story – both
in terms of where they literally are on the page, and where they are in
terms of the action.
You can make paragraphs either long or short. Long paragraphs –
especially pages without any paragraph breaks whatsoever – can intimidate
readers browsing through your book. Many people will put a book down if
confronted by huge, unyielding blocks of text. Too many short paragraphs in
sequence may also lose your readers, in that they will not be able to keep
their place, either.
The lengths of paragraphs, like the lengths of your sentences, create a
rhythm for your story. Longer paragraphs usually signal that the story is
slowing down, while shorter ones indicate that the pace is picking up.
Longer paragraphs also are a place to develop intricate action, detailed
description, or even profound, complicated thoughts. Short paragraphs are
where exclamations and rapid delivery of important information from you to
your readers occur – but if you have too many of them in a row, your writing
may seem staccato and your ideas shallow.
When Do You Start a New Paragraph?
When should you start a new paragraph, and when should you keep writing
in the one you’re in?
The easiest answer is when you are writing dialogue. When you change
speakers, you nearly always begin a new paragraph. In fact, the word
paragraph comes from the Greek word paragraphos, a line marking a change in
the speakers of dialogue (classical Greeks are famous for their plays, and
so this would be very important).
However, unless you are also writing for the theatre, you will be writing
paragraphs without any dialogue. In this situation, determining where to end
and start paragraphs is more difficult.
A paragraph means a switch in the focus of your story. Here are some
situations when you might want to end one paragraph and start another:
- You are writing about the actions of Carol in the one paragraph, and
then start writing about Jim. If you are planning to devote several
sentences in a row to Jim, you should probably start a new paragraph.
- You are changing the point of view within your story. I have thus far
avoided discussing point of view in my columns, because it is a difficult
topic. Although I believe that most scenes should be shown through a single
point of view; many writers will not agree with me. So, I say, please have a
little mercy and at least change paragraphs when you change the point of
- You are writing about one thing, and then you start writing about
another. This is it in a nutshell. But how do you tell whether or not all
your sentences are about the same thing, and not about another? Usually it
is obvious, but occasionally it is not. This is where your authority as the
author comes in; you are responsible for deciding whether the sentences
belong together or not. Do you want your readers to associate these ideas
together closely or not? Which way makes your meaning clearest?
So far this article has concentrated on what you should consider when
separating your paragraphs. But there is another important consideration
regarding the structure of paragraphs for your story: how do you order your
sentences within each paragraph?
For non-fiction, there seems to be more theory. Often, you should begin a
paragraph with a topic sentence, i.e. a sentence which explains what you are
writing about. The sentences which follow are detail sentences supporting
the topic sentence. For example:
The weather should be good for the picnic tomorrow. The temperature is
predicted to be in the eighties, partly cloudy with a slight breeze. The
humidity will be low, and the pollution index will also be low.
Notice how the last two sentences go into more detail about the weather,
supporting the assertion the first sentence in the paragraph.
This technique can help with your fiction writing, but there can be
differences. In fiction, your paragraphs also need to move your story along.
So, even when you begin a paragraph with a strong lead sentence, you may
want to end with a bang as well.
Here’s an example from my current endeavor:
His sister’s mocking tone infuriated him. Attempting to control his rage,
Pelops rose to his feet; finding that the floor had steadied itself, he
walked out onto the balcony. Looking out at the distant sea, he took a slow,
deep breath. Finally he turned and spoke to Niobe. “Just because the gods
have never spoken to you does not make it impossible.”
In the paragraph above (told from Pelops’ point of view, a character
whose incipient madness makes him believe that the floor was swaying rather
than that his gait was unsteady), the first sentence tells us how Pelops is
feeling. The next two sentences show him in motion but also attempting to
control his emotion. The fourth sentence is a transition sentence which the
reader needs in order to follow the action of the story. The fifth sentence
in the paragraph ties back to the first, as Pelops’ statement makes clear
why he is so angry; that he hates having what he interprets as religious
experiences questioned. And the sentence, “Just because the gods have never
spoken to you does not make it impossible” is delivering its own wallop, as
the readers sit up and think, hey, does this guy really think that the gods
are talking to him?
We’ve covered two different ways of organizing paragraphs. The first
contains a lead sentence and is followed by sentences which support it. The
second develops action or thought and moves the story along. There are
probably other good ways to organize your paragraphs, but these are two that
I have found useful.
The Order of Your Paragraphs
The order of your paragraphs is another part of the structure that you
need to consider. Which information should come first, which second, third,
and so on? Here are a couple of suggestions:
Whenever you can, tell your story in sequence. Readers can be confused by
flashbacks, so unless you have good artistic or dramatic reason, it’s easier
for them to understand when your story is told in the same way that things
happen. Of course there are good dramatic reasons – still, you should be
aware of what you are doing and only do it when necessary.
Put related paragraphs together. For example, if Steve is considering in
one paragraph what he should get Betsy for Valentine’s Day, maybe he should
not be thinking the same thing a few paragraphs later – unless those
thoughts need to be separated for the sake of your story. Also, it is
possible for this suggestion to lead to bad writing. For example, you might
want to intersperse description throughout your story, rather than put it in
Mastering the art of the paragraph takes most people a long time. I want
to emphasize that it is, in many cases, an art – some of what I have written
above should be considered guidelines as opposed to hard-and-fast rules.
If you’ve got comments, questions, or want to use this article, you can
contact me directly at
Grossackva at Yahoo dot com. And, a note to the
student who contacted me about the overuse of words like “would” and “could”
– I tried to write back but the e-mail bounced.
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