Paragraphs are, next to the words imprinted on the page, one of the most beautiful things about a piece of writing. They provide clarity, allow the reader to tell the difference between who is speaking, who’s perspective that scene is being told from, it breaks up the story and allows for enough white space that it is easy on your eyes and gives you a chance to put the book down and find your spot easier.
Paragraphs are shown through either a new line and a substantial indentation or a line space. The line space looks neater and allows for better presentation on line through blogs and fan fiction stories or similar. And is often found in text and reference books. The indentation is found in fiction books and novels.
One of the most important things about paragraphs is that they flow. So that the reader can move easily from one block of text to the next and not feel like they missed a whole section of work, or wondering where Sally went who was there taking with Bob only a moment ago.
As a reader scans through your work, and some will while others read each word you write down, the main things they notice is the first and last word in each paragraph. Make them count. Draw them in and have them captivated enough to read the rest.
How long should each paragraph be? This varies. It really does depend on what needs to be said in each block of writing. But ideally, according to the Style Manual, for authors, editors and printers (I use the sixth edition) paragraphs should range from three to five sentences. Much more and your reader will find it hard to follow, get lost in the abundance of text and struggle to follow what is happening.
A classic example of this is the old stories such as, Dante’s Devine Comedy.
The above image came from another blog History of Visual Communication Blog
As you can see it would be hard on the eyes to read and follow. As with any kind of media, be it posters, advertising, writing, white space is your friend.
When should a writer start a new paragraph?
When a new person speaks. Always without any doubt or hesitation. New person, new line.
If your stories involve jumping through time, if you are going back or forward in time. Each time change requires a new paragraph.
The setting changes. Are you now outside? Did Fred just walk into the room and join the discussion.
A new event happens. Has your character heard a noise? Are they running away? Have they stopped running and are they now fighting?
Someone’s brought in a new idea. Tori’s just thrown in a suggestion or something has happened that has caused Mike to go off into thought or required an explanation.
When the camera moves. You know how in TV shows and movies, the camera goes from Ben to Jack and you are seeing that they do. Change your paragraph then.
You change perspective. This is vital when you are using Omniscient Narration. We will discuss this further later. But it means that when you allow for all character’s thoughts and and multiple perspectives. It works the same as speech new character, new line.
Heart Song (an extract)
I watched as his face changed, the man I once knew so well, my best friend, the one constant in my life growing up. I just caused his world to fall apart. It confused me. I knew he missed the friendship, the support, the comfort I gave when he needed it but we both looked at each other a different way.
Derrick was my everything, he was my heart song, my other half, my reason for living. I was his best friend, wingman, company when there was no one else, confidant and the one who set him straight, taking no bullshit from him.
‘I’m not leaving that easy. We need to talk. Hell, we needed to talk since you left. It’s been three years and I am still waiting on an explanation.’
‘I wouldn’t be feeling too hopeful about getting that today,’ I muttered. I watched as his jaw tensed. ‘Derrick, look it was…great, I guess… Seeing you and all, and to be honest I am not entirely sure what happened last night. I can’t believe I let you talk me into Tequila shots. Lord knows I wouldn’t do it voluntarily. But I have a life to get on with and don’t have time for this.’
‘Firstly Princess, last night your words were “Holy shit Derrick? I am way to sober for this crap,” and you did Tequila all by yourself, all I did was say hi.’
I got a flash of last night and groaned, yes I did that to myself. This horrible cotton-wool head, the jackhammer pounding into my skull, the lack of memories was all on me.
I had forgot about his side of Derrick. I had forgot about this side of me. The sides that always challenged each other that pushed each other’s limits. It came out when one of us was annoyed and escalated from there. I took several deep breaths before following him. I considered leaving, just walking out but he would follow.
We headed back to my place. I refused to speak to him for the remainder of the trip. I felt his eyes on me often. I watched as several times he went to talk but stopped himself. I watched the sadness in his eyes that grew with each passing minute.
As he pulled the charger into the driveway, I said a silent goodbye to the car I once called home.
Above is two extracts from my short story Heart Song which I’ve linked in if you want to read it. As you can see I have used indentation for my paragraph style, new lines for each new speaker and as her thought process changes I changed paragraphs. Then in the second extract you will see how as the scene’s change I once again moved to a new paragraph.
Below is an extract from a Supernatural fan fiction I wrote, called Thanks for the Memories. You can see how I changed paragraphs with new scenes, as I switched from Dean’s to the reader’s perspective (for those who read the story, I have changed Y/N = Your Name for the reader insert to Lana for ease of reading) The italic represents flashbacks and the bold text messages.
Memories of their first time together filled her mind. It was beyond amazing, beyond anything she had ever thought it could be.
Three weeks later, Lana woke to a text message from Dean. She smiled as she opened it. The happy feeling soon fading and making way for tears.
“Sorry Baby. I don’t have a choice. Dad said something’s come up, we need to head out. I never wanted to say goodbye.”
That was it, the final message.
Lana wiped the tears, she hadn’t realized were there. That man still haunted her, his green eyes still watched her in her sleep. She saw them most nights. She couldn’t get them out of her mind. It was still the best summer of her life. He was still the best summer of her life.
Dean looked around the small town, memories came flooding back. He never wanted to leave in the first place. But now, coming back, he never wanted to be here. He’d promised her he wouldn’t ever hurt her and he knew he did. He thought back to summer he spent here, such a bitter sweet time.
She walked through the door of the diner with a group of other kids her age. Dean watched as she shifted her hair off her face and rolled her eyes at some joke. Gorgeous was an understatement. Someone said something else and she laughed. He frowned it was musical but didn’t sound quiet real. It was more forced.
Her blue eye’s caught his and she smiled at him. Dean grinned, a genuine, happy, grin. Not something he did often.
He watched as she went to the counter to order and he followed her up.
‘So, what’s the pie like here?’ he asked.
‘Depends on who made it. But the cherry pie looks nice and sweet today,’ she smiled.
As you can see when paragraph’s are put into place correctly it does leave a lot of white space. But this is your friend as it’s kinder and easier on your reader’s eyes.
Good luck. Any questions shoot me through a message and I will try and answer them. I have also attached a couple of short cut/cheat sheets for your wall. One plain black and white PDF and one a little bit fancier as a JPEG.
The Art of Paragraphs (PDF version)
Do you have something you want help with? Or would like to see on here. Feel free to contact me and request it. You can find out how here on my contact page.
Please note that the link for the book is an affiliate link. If you purchase through it I do earn a small commission. But I will not recommend a book that I do not use myself or deem worth it. I am in no way paid to advertise the book itself.