Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
The paragraph is one of the basic building blocks of writing, of both fiction and non-fiction. Both words and sentences are even more elemental, but paragraphs allow us to string a narrative together, to create chunks of information or story that we can discuss and study and work on as a unit.
Most of us know what a paragraph is, those sentences joined into clusters and separated by line spaces. They’re groupings of words that separate sections of narrative and join similar thoughts or assertions or dialogue or actions.
Paragraphs are visual cues to writing, cues for keeping the reader on track.
If you’re writing a novel or short story, you’re well beyond this definition:
A paragraph consists of a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a concluding sentence.
Yes, there’s more beyond this simple advice we all got back in school when we first met the mysterious essay.
We still write in paragraphs, grouping and separating information chunks, but we know there’s more to paragraphs than what we learned in middle school. Let’s examine the elements of a paragraph, the elements that help you craft enticing paragraphs that can be connected into scenes and chapters and ultimately into a complete manuscript.
How to think about a paragraph
Consider a paragraph as a frame for a specific amount or section of information. In fiction this may be description, dialogue, action, exposition or any combination of these elements. The paragraph acts as a boundary or fence for related items.
This frame or boundary can be expanded to add more related information or contracted to limit the information it contains.
A paragraph is a link, a connector, between the sections of information that come before and those that come after. Paragraphs look back, connecting logically to what has already been presented, and they look forward, preparing the reader for what’s to come.
On the flip side of link, the paragraph serves as a separator, keeping at a distance sections of information that aren’t closely related. Paragraphs help the reader separate topics or sections of a story; they prevent different groupings of information with only nominal connections from running up into each other.
Paragraphs help readers make sense of the thousands of pieces of information a writer folds into a story.
Paragraphs joined to one another make up scenes. These scenes, with each paragraph pulling its own weight, contribute to conflict, character revelation, description and setting, and advancement of plot.
Paragraphs are the blocks—along with scene and chapter—that build story.
1. Blocks on the bottom, those that form the foundation of the story, must be strong enough and wide enough to support what is placed on top of them.
2. Blocks can be removed, added, or rearranged. But the writer must realize that a change in a single block might necessitate changes in adjacent blocks. And a single change can send ripples through every block in the story.
3. Some blocks—paragraphs in our example—are a better fit between two blocks than another block would be. They allow for a tighter fit, with fewer opportunities for unexpected and unwanted shifting.
4. Moving blocks around to create a stronger, firmer, and more cohesive story is a necessity for creating stable stories, stories that don’t fall apart.
Specifics about paragraphs
A paragraph can be as short as one word or can run for pages. In fiction, the paragraph, as does any other element, must serve the story. If the style of the story calls for long paragraphs, write them. Keep in mind that long paragraphs can be hard on the reader, can confuse the reader with their twists and turns and digressions. But if you can write a long paragraph that the reader can follow—and long paragraphs fit the scene and story and characters and the moment—then write it. You can always edit if a long paragraph doesn’t work.
Sometimes the only editing required is the simple insertion of a line space.
A paragraph of only a single word, whether dialogue or narrative, is often more powerful than five paragraphs filled with action or detail or emotion. Consider using extremely short paragraphs to jar the reader or to make an unmistakable point.
A series of short paragraphs with either only a few words or sentences speeds the pace of a story. Short staccato paragraphs can indicate a character’s frame of mind or attitude or personality—tense, terse, worried, short-tempered, a man or woman of few words. Long paragraphs—meaning many words or many sentences—also reveal character. They may say that this character is someone in no hurry (or pretending not to be), someone who talks a lot, or someone of great self-importance.
This revelation of character happens whether or not the paragraphs are dialogue, whether or not the character is overtly revealing himself. If the reader sees through the eyes of a character, that character can be portrayed by the type of paragraphs used for his viewpoint. Thus, a writer can use different paragraph stylings for each viewpoint character.
A paragraph is used to hold information together, to let readers know that sections of text belong together. To help readers follow the meaning of the text without becoming lost or confused.
Paragraphs are facilitators and signposts. Their format is traditional and understood by most readers. So when a writer uses them incorrectly, readers will notice and can be pulled away from the fictional world. They may respond by putting down the book.
Paragraphs add to scenes and contribute, with other paragraphs, to conflict, character development or character revelation, setting, and advancement of plot.
Information revealed by paragraphs, especially in fiction, is typically presented chronologically; stories begin at one point in time and move forward. Flashbacks and flash forwards are exceptions, and experimental fiction may purposely mix up the order of scenes.
Concurrent scenes may have to be presented one after the other, even though their times overlap, but the diligent writer makes sure readers understand the order of events and the timetable.
Still, most story events unfold one after another.
In fiction manuscripts, the first line of a paragraph is indented (half an inch is standard). A line break between paragraphs mirrors the break in thought. (And allows the reader a moment to catch his breath.)
If paragraphs are not separated by a scene or chapter break, a paragraph should have a logical connection to the one it follows. The first sentence in successive paragraphs should connect to the prior paragraph or set up a contrast to it.
The new paragraph may refer only obliquely to the prior one, or it can repeat words, phrases, or thoughts from the other paragraph.
Paragraphs can reveal new information about revelations from paragraphs that have come before, they can expand on those paragraphs, and they can approach the same information from another angle.
Begin a new paragraph, in fiction, with a change of speaker. Each time dialogue switches to a different character, start a new paragraph.
Begin new paragraphs with a change in thought or to change direction, to delve deeper into the same subject, to sum up, to change emphasis or focus, or to change tone.
Sentences and phrases within paragraphs should be logically related.
In dialogue, however, a character might jump from subject to subject in the same paragraph. (Dialogue allows for many exceptions to writing rules.)
Paragraphs can consist of full sentences or phrases or a combination of the two. You don’t always need to write a complete sentence.
The two most important places in a paragraph are the opening and the closing sentences. Information presented in these locations is the most readily noticed, and remembered, by readers. If you want the reader to note something, place it at the beginning or the end of a paragraph. (The last words of paragraphs that end scenes or chapters are especially remembered by readers.)
If you want to include information but also want to hide it—perhaps clues to a whodunit—write that information into the middles of paragraphs with other attention-getting phrases both before and after it.
A quick search of information about the paragraph repeatedly turns up the advice about including opening and concluding sentences with supporting sentences in between. But writers should know more about paragraphs than that.
They should know that short paragraphs can create and convey tension, that they can speed the pace of story, and that a lot of white space on a page is more appealing to readers than pages of dense text would be.
Writers should know
that a short paragraph, perhaps a sentence of only one or two words, dropped into the middle of a series of long paragraphs can have the effect of an exploding bomb.
that information can be both revealed and hidden inside paragraphs.
that paragraph style can influence the tone and feel of a story for the reader.
that variety in paragraph length and in sentence construction within paragraphs can create a better reading experience for their readers.
that crafting paragraphs requires both skill and art.
Play around with paragraph lengths to see what effect they have on the tone of the story, on its feel. On the pace.
Try breaking paragraphs in different places to change their impact. Study the differences and see which arrangement better serves the story.
Eliminate entire paragraphs if they don’t advance the plot; reveal character; elicit reader emotion; establish, change, or maintain tone; or portray setting.
Use paragraphs to strengthen story, to reinforce the other narrative elements. Don’t be satisfied with paragraphs only doing a small percentage of what they can do for your writing. Call on them to support and build strong, rich stories.
Demand more of paragraphs than what you did as a student just learning the craft of writing.
Demand that paragraphs serve your purposes and your stories.