When my daughter was in seventh grade, the English paper she’d written was a wall of black text. Not a single paragraph break. I made a point of explaining “one topic per paragraph,” etc. I’ve had adult students who didn’t understand the idea any better than she did, with some going the complete opposite direction and having
So, what are the rules? Well, they’re “…more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” (Pirates of the Caribbean – see the movie clip here: https://youtu.be/k9ojK9Q_ARE) Especially for fiction.
Author Fred D. White says, “Remember that paragraphing is more an element of individual style than of grammar. You are in charge of what a paragraph should do or what shape it should take.”
However, paragraphing breaks with dialogue (or action) makes it easier for readers to tell who is speaking/acting.
Start a new paragraph with each speaker (or person acting). Fiction Editor Beth Hill says, “Consider a paragraph as a frame for a specific amount or section of information. In fiction this may be description, dialogue, action, exposition or any combination of these elements. The paragraph acts as a boundary or fence for related items.” (Emphasis mine.)
That frame/fence image is so helpful. When one character speaks, acts with and within his setting, etc., we usually keep it inside one box or paragraph. We get a new paragraph, when a second characters adds to the conversation with her thoughts or asks questions. And again, a new one when the first character answers. This helps create white space which makes for easier reading.
Joe stepped up to the counter and asked the woman serving coffee, “How’s it going today, Sarai?”
“Busy.” She brushed her thick black hair back from her face. “The usual?”
“Please.” Joe scanned the room. “You seen Monty?”
Sarai paused before reaching for a disposable cup. She opened her mouth, but Joe stopped her.
“Hold on. When you can’t answer right away, it’s a dead giveaway you’re phrasing how to lie to me.” His eyes narrowed. “I don’t like being lied to.”
We also start new paragraphs…
- when a character’s speech is lengthy – Say Joe in my example above is sometimes longwinded. Special punctuation would let us know he is continuing to speak in the next paragraph. (No closing quote at the end of the first paragraph of dialogue.)
- to show a physical change in location or time or both. When paragraphs of description are needed, think one paragraph per topic. For example, if a character is walking in the dark woods, in this fence of paragraphing is the description of the woods. But when she comes across the house, that would be another box opened before the reader’s eyes.
- when the subject under discussion changes – Remember the movie UP? Dug, the dog is talking along, when something catches his eye. He says, “Squirrel!” which interrupts what he was saying.
- for emphasis – Dug’s “Squirrel!” is again an example. “Sometimes starting a new paragraph or allowing a single sentence to stand on its own is a great way to emphasize a key point, get a laugh, or otherwise control the pace of the story to your advantage.” – David Cathcart
- when a new character enters the scene.
- when something unexpected happens – E.g. a horn honk, the clash of the garbage truck, the lights go out, etc.
That’s a lot for a simple indented new line to do. To sum up, these guidelines aren’t hard rules, but mostly a pattern that when followed provides clarity. If paragraphing breaks are hard for you, take a story you like and type out a few pages for practice.
Here’s an exception to the break guidelines. We don’t start a new paragraph for each person when we are summarizing the action. E.g. The final bell rang. Rachel and Milo stuffed their math books into their backpacks and dashed out the classroom door. They caught up with their friends at the bus. Rachel gave Anaya a high five.
Paragraphs also serve other purposes.
Paragraphs affect pacing. Paragraph and sentence lengths can either slow or speed the action. Long paragraphs slow—short ones speed. So, you use the former for when things are calm, but the latter in the midst of action. Here’s an interesting thought from Leah McClellan: “In a novel, as the action winds down and the scene ends, longer sentences, longer paragraphs, and more description let readers catch their breath.”
Paragraphs can show moods, too. “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,” author Jennifer Ellis says.
Back to my seventh-grade daughter. She learned paragraphing techniques and ended up in advanced placement English in high school. Writing in paragraphs is natural for her now. With some practice, it can be so for you too.