Paragraph structure in fiction

Today, we want to blog about something we noticed in many of the manuscript authors send us: Often, authors don’t seem to know where to start and end paragraphs—and I admit that’s not easy to learn since there’s hardly any information or writer’s guide on how to structure paragraphs in fiction.

So why do you as a writer of fiction need to worry about when to start a new paragraph?

The function of paragraphs

Paragraphs help your readers to follow your story without becoming confused. Paragraphs provide a structure and make reading easier by grouping sentences that belong together and separating sentences that don’t belong together.

Also, using paragraphs creates white space on the page, and that’s something modern readers like. If you have ever come across a text with no or few paragraph breaks, you know how intimidating long, unstructured blocks of text can look.

Guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules

There are few hard-and-fast rules for paragraphing. Often times, there are different ways to structure paragraphs, and they all might be “correct.”

However, there are guidelines that will help you to create paragraphs that don’t confuse readers. Here are the rules of thumb for when to start a new paragraph:

You might want to start a new paragraph when:

  • You change speakers in dialogue. I know I said most of these are guidelines, but this is actually the one hard-and-fast rule of paragraph structure. Never, ever mix what one character says with the dialogue of another character in the same paragraph or the reader will have trouble keeping up with who’s talking. For the other character’s answer, switch to a new paragraph. Also, keep in mind that sometimes, the other character might answer nonverbally or with an action—start a new paragraph for those kinds of answers too.

Example:

“Are you angry with me?” Jill asked.

Tina said nothing.

“Oh, come on. Don’t give me the cold shoulder.”

“Leave me alone.” Tina stormed off.

You’ll notice that correct paragraphing make the use of dialogue tags in every line unnecessary. Readers can keep track of who’s talking because every new speaker has a paragraph of its own.

  • The actions and thoughts of a speaker belong to the same paragraph as the character’s dialogue. Keep what one character says, does, and thinks in the same paragraph; otherwise, readers will think the action or thought belongs to a different character.

Example:

“When does your train leave?” Jill asked.

Tina threw a glance at her wristwatch. Damn. “Ten minutes ago.”

  • Keep the actions and thoughts of one character in a different paragraph than the dialogue of another character.

Example:

“What’s going on?” Jill leveled a hard stare at Tina. “Tell me. Now!”

Tina shook her head and backed away.

  • When you’re writing sequences of actions, it’s most often a good idea to keep the actions of character A and the (re-)action of character B in a separate paragraph.

Example:

Tina stepped on the accelerator as soon as Jill had gotten into the car. She pulled out of the parking lot and raced down the street, ignoring the speed limit.

Jill grabbed onto the armrest to keep her balance.

  • Start a new paragraph when you move forward or backward in time. Of course, that might also be a good reason to start a new scene.

Example:

“Give me a few minutes to get changed, then meet me in the kitchen,” Tina said.

Jill nodded and went back to her book.

Half an hour later, Jill still hadn’t joined Tina in the kitchen.

  • When you were describing one thing and then switch to describing something else, start a new paragraph.

Example:

Jill took in the woman’s mud-spattered pants and dirt-crusted boots. A sodden baseball cap clung to her head but didn’t manage to hide her disheveled blond hair. Her T-shirt, which said “my diet starts tomorrow” in faded red letters across her chest, was soaked through too, revealing generous curves.

Behind the woman, two little girls wearing bright green rubber boots were jumping from puddle to puddle.

  • Sometimes, you can also start a new paragraph to create a dramatic or humorous effect.

Changing camera angle

That’s a lot to keep in mind, so here’s some advice from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing that sums it up nicely: Think of your manuscript as if you were filming a movie. Each paragraph is a shot. So every time the camera angle changes, start a new paragraph. First, the camera films the actions and the lines of actress A, then the camera pans to film the reaction of actress B or to sweep across the landscape.

Paragraph length and pacing

Also keep in mind that paragraph length, just like sentence length, has an effect on readers.

Short paragraphs make the readers’ eyes move down the page faster and speed up the pace of the story. So short paragraphs are best suited for action scenes, scenes with rising tension, or snappy dialogue scenes.

Longer paragraphs slow the pace and are best for reflective scenes. 

Of course, even slower scenes will have a few short paragraphs and even fast-paced scenes might have a longer paragraph. Varying paragraph length is a good thing to avoid a monotonous rhythm.

We hope you find these tips on how to structure paragraphs helpful.

Happy writing!

The Ylva team

This entry was posted in Tips for authors and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Paragraph structure in fiction

  1. Reblogged this on erzabetbishop and commented:
    Great writing advice!

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