Ever so often I get a story from a student that reads like one long run-on sentence… A James Joyce special of stream-of-conscious… In fact, what the writer had done is write many sentences without breaking up the narrative into paragraphs. You might be laughing at this point. “I don’t do that,” you might be saying to yourself. “I haven’t done that since high school!” But go take a look at that first draft you’re working on; there it will be: a page-long paragraph. Oops.
We can’t help ourselves. When immersed in the creative process, we often don’t think about structure. That’s OK; that kind of thinking is more appropriate during the second draft revision process, when you are more objectively assessing the “storytelling”. That’s when you want to pay attention to storytelling devices like paragraph breaks.
Paragraphs are defined by a main point or expression or an idea, not by any specific length. Strong paragraphs contain a sentence or several sentences that are unified around one central, controlling idea. A paragraph may be a single sentence or occupy half a page of sentences.
What a Paragraph Does
Paragraphs do several jobs in stories. They: 1) provide a break from long stretches of text both in content and in space on the page, and 2) they help clue the reader in to key changes in your story. The second point is often subtle and can be assigned almost arbitrarily if the need of the first point must be met. This is because the rules are not hard and fast and, ultimately in fiction, an author can “break” them according to their judgment of style and flavor.
Before you start “breaking” rules, you need to understand what paragraphs are meant to do. They:
- Introduce something new
- Define a shift in something already there
- Mark a movement in a sequence
Each of the above is definable and interpretable in many ways from very subtle alterations to very obvious changes. Because of this, it is important to pay attention to the visual role of paragraphs; that is, how they create a more attractive and easeful text for readers. There’s nothing more “slowing” than seeing a page of narrative without any breaks.
Fiction writers use paragraphs much like punctuation to create a visual flow of narrative that varies in cadence, tone and flavor for readers. This is accomplished in several ways.
Vary Paragraph Lengths
Varying paragraph lengths in text provides diversity in the narrative that adds interest for the reader. Long paragraphs unify a more ponderous and serious mood in a reader. Interspersing these with short paragraphs will break up the reader’s tendency for complacent reading and livens the narrative. The short paragraphs, by default, provide areas of emphasis within a sea of longer text. The fiction writer may use these to make a subtle point.
Dialogue effectively breaks up paragraphs and provides a lot of open white space that is attractive to readers and increases pace of narrative. However, even dialogue requires variation. Variation can take on the form of 1) dialogue interspersed with descriptive narrative vs. the use of straight back and forth dialogue, and 2) one-line dialogue vs. dialogue containing several sentences (the one line dialogue serves to punctuate).
In their 2008 book, The Little Brown Handbook by Pearson Longman (Toronto), H. Ramsey Fowler, Jane E. Aaron, Murray McArthur, Deane E.D. Downey, and Barbara H. Pell provide a general checklist for revising paragraphs that is adapted here for fiction writing. This consists of asking the following questions:
- Is the paragraph unified? Is it tied to one general idea or narrative direction?
- Is the paragraph coherent? Are the sentences linked and do they follow a clear and consistent sequence?
- Is the paragraph developed? Is there a logical beginning and end that “frames” a whole idea or thought?