The Rules and Art of Paragraphing

It was pointed out to me by my wonderful Tails of the Apocalypse editor Chris Pourteau, that I tend to write longer paragraphs, and that particularly for ebooks, where screens can be smaller than paper books, the tendency is now to break up those paragraphs more so that the reader is not presented with a wall of text. He suggested breaking up a lot of my paragraphs in “The Poetry of Santiago” my contribution to the anthology. Interestingly enough, I had also received this feedback from an early proofreader of A Pair of Docks two years ago. As a result of Chris’s feedback, I have been very conscious of my paragraph length in A Grave Tree. In going back in to edit A Pair of Docks last week, I was stunned to see how long some of my paragraphs were. I have clearly already come a long way.

But is it far enough? I decided to check out the paragraphing style of some famous writers and see how mine measures up. But first, I wanted to review the rules of paragraphing.

We all know that a paragraph can be as short as one word or can be several pages long (right?). The critical aspect of paragraphs is that they must serve the story. Paragraphs are utilized to organize your sentences, control pacing, and give the reader a chance to pause.

There are some kind-of hard and fast rules of paragraphing (although as with anything in fiction there are those who break them). There is also an art to paragraphing.

The Rules of Paragraphing (mostly guidelines, really)

First, the rules, or sort-of rules. Generally speaking, you start a new paragraph for the following:

1. Changing speakers in dialogue.

If you switch speakers in dialogue, you always (except for the most stalwart of rule-breakers) start a new paragraph. So, you have:

Paragraph 1, speaker 1’s statement or question

Paragraph 2, speaker 2’s answer

This is true even if the other character responds with an action instead of words. This helps readers keep track of who is speaking. Correct paragraphing also helps to reduce the use of dialogue tags because readers can keep track of who is speaking based on the paragraphing. But you often keep the actions, words, and thoughts (if the character is a POV character) of one character together in the same paragraph in dialogue sections. So for example (note: this is not an actual example from one of my novels):

Caleb rolled his eyes. “Why would we do that?”
Abbey stomped her foot. Why didn’t Caleb ever listen to her? “Because it’s the only way out.”

But this last is just a guideline, and in more complex scenes where there are many people engaging in actions and longer dialogue, this is not always the case. For example, in this sequence, you can see that Abbey’s thoughts are linked to Ian’s actions and therefore are in the same paragraph:

“I somehow doubt they would forget,” Ian said. “They’re assets, and they’d be a heck of a lot safer prepared. What if something happens to you?”
“It’s not up for discussion,” Sylvain said.
“Marian isn’t always right.” A darkness crept over Ian’s face, replacing his normally insouciant expression, and Abbey wondered again if he could be trusted—and who he had been pointing the gun at that night in Abbott’s Apothecary.

Just remember new speaker, new paragraph unless you like confusing your readers.

2. Moving forward or backward in time.

This is pretty important, and borders on rule-like status. You may also, depending on the amount of time elapsed, want to start a new scene.

3. Switching from the action and thoughts of one character to the action and thoughts of another character.

This one is not precisely a rule. Obviously as per the first rule relating to dialogue, you are going to start a new paragraph when you switch speakers. You would also do this if you are switching from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another character (which means basically that you are shifting POVs and head-hopping, which as I have outlined before, is not my preference, but for god sakes if you do it, please start a new paragraph for your head hop).

But you also often start a new paragraph in non-dialogue action sequence scenes when you switch from the thoughts and action of one character to the action of another character especially when one of those characters is the POV character. So if Abbey my main character (and my POV character) is thinking or doing something and I then describe what Caleb (a non-POV character) is doing, I will often start a new paragraph.

HOWEVER, if I am doing a summary of what everyone is doing with no dialogue, I will not create new paragraphs for each new actor. I might create a new paragraph when I shift from the thoughts or actions of the POV character to the non-POV characters, but I will not create a new paragraph for the actions of each of the non-POV characters. For example:

Ian shifted his gaze to Abbey, Caleb, and Mark. Digby had emerged from Ian’s pocket and was perched on his shoulder, happily consuming a piece of filo, his whiskers twitching. Farley had taken up a post beneath Ian’s chair, his wide pink tongue hanging out of his mouth and his eyes fixed on Digby.

Digby is a rat by the way, in case you were wondering.

4. Switching from describing one thing and to describing something else.

This is a guideline only and there are often cases where this rule is broken. However it presents a good opportunity for breaking your sentences up and creating shorter paragraphs. If your paragraphs are getting long, and you need to break them up, breaking them where you switch to describing something else is a good rule of thumb. However even when you are describing the same thing, if the paragraph gets too long (e.g. over 8 to 10 sentences) you might want to break that up too.

The Art of Paragraphing

Overall, paragraphing is more of an art than a science. Although the above rules and guidelines are helpful, there are other ways of looking at paragraphs. Some of the art of paragraphing includes:

1. Viewing the paragraph as a camera scene.

Ray Bradbury suggests that you think of each paragraph as a single camera shot in a movie. Every time the shot changes (e.g. change in camera angle), start a new paragraph.

2. Setting the tempo or pacing.

At what tempo or pace do you want your character and reader to experience the events. If events are moving very rapidly and there is a lot of action, you might want to use shorter paragraphs. If the character is thinking or the action is moving slowly, use longer paragraphs. Very short paragraphs of only a few words or sentences can increase the urgency. An extremely short paragraph of a word or two placed in the middle of a series of long paragraphs can have a significant dramatic or humorous effect.

3. Revealing character and frame of mind.

Shorter staccato paragraphs can convey that a character is tense, worried, short-tempered or taciturn. Longer paragraphs can indicate a character is in a good mood, long-winded, relaxed or prone to deep and rambling thought.

4. Varying your prose and making your writing more interesting.

Writing paragraphs of the same length all the time is boring and will put your reader to sleep. Just as sentences have a rhythm and should be varied in terms of their length, so too should paragraphs.

How Established Writers Do It

It would not be me if I did not consult some of the books on my shelf to check out how these rules and the art of paragraphing are applied in practice.

I pulled five books from my shelf (two genre fiction, two literary fiction and one in between), and reviewed paragraph lengths for a two page non-dialogue scene. I chose a non-dialogue scene because if we are following the rule of starting new paragraphs for each speaker then there is not as much to be learned from dialogue scenes, but next week I may look at some of the dialogue scenes (next week is kind of like tomorrow around here).

So what did I find?

See any patterns? I do. I know it is completely unscientific. But definitely the literary fiction writers tended to write longer and fewer paragraphs. This is not a surprise. But what surprised me was how short some of the sentences of the genre fiction writers were. Look at how many one-sentence paragraphs Nora Roberts has. As always, this is just food for thought. My paragraph lengths are definitely more consistent with literary fiction writers, and since I write more genre fiction, this is something to take under consideration. I may do a more scientific survey some day (tomorrow, right?).

All right, that took longer than I thought it would, and my hair is back on fire. If you like what I have to say consider signing up for my blog mailing list. I will give you freebies, and you will never miss a post.