Back to Basics: Paragraph Breaks
When and why should you begin a new paragraph when writing? It’s one of those basic writing skills that can still be tricky off and on for even experienced writers. While the rules are fairly simple for formal writing, the added freedom when composing fiction can cause a bit of confusion.
Why do we need paragraphs anyway?
Have you ever tried reading something where the author didn’t break the text into paragraphs or wrote really long ones? Not only is a “wall of text” daunting, keeping your place within it is difficult. Paragraphs help with the pacing of writing, and they make it easier for your reader to not only get through but understand what you’ve written.
Okay, we need them, so how do I know when to start a new one?
There are some simple ideas to keep in mind when deciding when to end one paragraph and begin another one.
1. You’re starting a new idea or topic.
The most common reason to begin a new paragraph is a change in topic or idea. It’s one that works for formal, informal, and fiction writing. Any time you change topics, you need to start a new paragraph.
A similar reason used almost exclusively within fiction is skipping time or changing setting. With long form works such as novellas and novels, this is usually a good place to begin a new chapter, but within shorter works, a paragraph break can work.
2. Someone new is speaking.
Dialogue is one area where a lot of beginning writers get confused. The easiest way to do it is to break every time a different character begins speaking.
I’ll use an excerpt from the first chapter of Right of Succession to illustrate.
“You are not known here,” it said.
“I… I’m a messenger,” she stuttered. It came out as a timid squeak.
“Speak,” barked the creature.
“It’s for Count Ralic’s ears only,” Maya answered.
Each time one or the other begins speaking, a new paragraph is started. This helps your reader keep track of who is talking when.
Notice that not everything in the paragraphs is necessarily dialogue or dialogue tags. The second paragraph in the illustration contains a sentence describing Maya’s tone of voice. It could also be an action or some other description of what she is doing or expression while speaking. Such inclusions within a dialogue paragraph can help break up large blocks of dialogue and establish the pacing of the conversation.
Here’s an example from later in the chapter.
“Grand Lady Maya!” he exclaimed in surprise and motioned her toward a chair across from his desk. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked as he returned to his seat.
“I’ve come to bring a message from your father,” she answered. “It’s strange I’ve never met you before during the sixteen years I’ve lived at Reiont,” she added as she sat.
Just like you want to begin a new paragraph when a different person begins speaking, it’s a good idea to do the same when you shift your description from one character’s expression or actions to another. However, this isn’t necessarily the case if the action of one character leads directly to the actions or reactions taken by the other. You wouldn’t shift paragraphs each and every sentence during a fight sequence, for example. This is one of the places where paragraph breaks are left up to an author’s discretion, and it’s one reason this topic can become a tricky one.
3. Dramatic effect.
The last reason to create a new paragraph is to create a dramatic effect. It’s one that’s completely about style, so there are no real rules to it. More or less, if you would take a dramatic pause, say a line, and then pause again, you may want to use one of these paragraphs.
It’s a technique I’ve used several times in the Flash Fiction Friday series. In fact, I believe I used it three times within last month’s “I am Multitudes.” Let’s look at the beginning of that story to see an example.
There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.
I say someone, but that’s not the truth of it. There are multitudes. I’m lost in a sea of familiar strangers, and some days I can’t hear myself think.
I take comfort in the knowledge I’m not alone, and I don’t mean within the confines of my skull. No, there are others like me out there who hear or sometimes even feel like people unlike themselves, and they manage to hold themselves together.
Without that knowledge to hold onto, I think I might go a bit insane.
Writing helps, except when it doesn’t. Giving the others a voice shuts them up for a while, but it also encourages them to multiply. I thank God I’m not privy to whatever process that involves. Brain bleach isn’t a thing, and even if it were, I doubt there’d be enough of it to deal. No, they pop out of the shadows at random.
In this example, the very first paragraph is a dramatic effect paragraph. So is the fourth. When reading the story to record the audio, this separation gave me a cue to pause for effect. It also denotes a shift in the narrator’s thought or tone.
Paragraphs for dramatic effect can be a powerful tool when used sparingly. Overuse can make it look like you simply don’t understand when or where to create new paragraphs. As much as a “wall of text” can be daunting, an entire page of one sentence paragraphs can make your work seem juvenile or uncertain.
There you have the basics of when and where to begin new paragraphs. When in doubt, ask yourself if you are beginning a new thought. Most of the time, that will lead you in the correct direction.
If you have any questions or comments, please speak up below. I try my best to respond to every comment with in twenty-four hours.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll join me again the first Tuesday in January for our next lesson.
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A. B. England is a novelist, all around geek, avid crafter, and the home-schooling mother of two.
She is an autistic creator with a love of mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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