How to Use Paragraphs

A look at how to use paragraphs in your prose.

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Paragraphs are an interesting part of writing. There are rules but, generally speaking, paragraphs are much more forgiving if you want to bend or break them. They also allow the writer to create an atmosphere, a tension or a character trait simply with your paragraph breaks.

In Dialogue

Don’t break this rule. This is there so that the reader knows who is speaking and what they are doing. In dialogue, or when you start dialogue, you start a new paragraph when someone new is talking or doing an action.

“Hi,” he said.

She blinked.

“Did you hear me?” he said.

You can also use a paragraph break to split up a sizeable chunk of dialogue. While you might want to put other characters doing an action to break up a monologue, if you have a situation where one person is delivering a very large speech, you can use paragraphs to make it easier on the reader. You don’t have to, however. To do this you don’t add closing speech marks at the end of your first paragraph, but you put opening ones on the next paragraph.

“This is a very long speech.

“I am still speaking,” he said.

New Topic or Idea

Your paragraphs should contain only one overarching point or topic; one focus. This is generally how you know to stop a paragraph and move onto the next one—if you’re making a different point. If you start your chapter describing how your protagonist has always wanted to be a vet, you don’t start talking about their side-line career as a bank robber. Two focuses, two separate points that you’re trying to make, two different paragraphs.

This rule does, largely, comes down to experience to get it right. You can very legitimately have a single paragraph that looks like it has multiple topics woven together. Ultimately, however, it will have one overall point that it is trying to make. If you can’t sum up your paragraph in a single, short sentence then you have too much in it.

New Time or Location

When you jump to a new time or place you need to start a new paragraph. If your criminal who wants to be a vet is preparing for a burglary, at their house, in the first paragraph, you will need to start a new one if they go to their local bank to complete a robbery.

This also encompasses if your point of view changes time or place. If you character starts recalling a past event or something that is happening elsewhere you will need a new paragraph for this.

Emphasis

Sometimes you want to make a point and you want your sentence to have a lot of impact. You can do this by putting it in its own paragraph.

The blood drips from the wound, pooling beneath them. The knife is still vibrating from the impact. A taste of old pennies fills my mouth.

He’s dead.

The single sentence paragraph allows for the reader to take a second to stop and reflect on what is being said. It has an impact. Like most tools in the writers’ arsenal it does lose some of this impact if it is overused. Use this sparingly and only when the narrative calls for it.

Insight into a Character

Another thing that you can do with paragraphs is use them to give the reader a bit of an insight into what’s going through a character’s mind at that time. Using a lot of short, abrupt paragraphs conveys a sense of urgency or a frantic moment for a character, whereas if you use long drawn out paragraphs you can show that the character is moving a little more slowly and is perhaps a bit more reflective themselves. Like a lot of things, this does take a bit of practice to do it well.

 

Paragraphs are more than a way to break up text. They allow the writer to tell a story without using words and enhance the words that are on the page.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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