How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: paragraphs


Welcome to Part Fifteen of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at paragraphs – important writing elements that apply not only to fiction, but to all good writing, so take careful note! For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Paragraphs (and more punctuation)

We’ve talked about different kinds of sentence structure, and how to punctuate a sentence. Now we’re going to look at combining sentences to form paragraphs – and a little more punctuation.

If sentences are the building blocks of prose writing, paragraphs are the panels, doors and windows in the walls of your narrative edifice.

So, what is a paragraph?

A paragraph is a group of one or more sentences, separated from other paragraphs by starting on a new line and finishing at the end of a final sentence, often in mid-line. Like a sentence, therefore, a paragraph can end with a fullstop/period, question or exclamation mark, closed inverted commas, a dash or ellipsis (three – exactly – dots)…

(It could also finish with a closing bracket, but brackets rarely have a place in fiction writing.)

In a printed fiction book, paragraphs are typically indented on the first line (except at the start of a chapter or section), have ‘trailing spaces’ after the end of the last sentence (ie, the last line is not justified to the right), but are not separated from the the paragraph above or below by a line space.

When formatting paragraphs in your manuscript, however, bear in mind that, for technical reasons, most editors and publishers prefer authors not to indent the first line of a paragraph (though if you do indent, use the tab key and not the space bar); and to insert a line spaces between paragraphs – in the same way as this web page is laid out.

What are paragraphs for?

Paragraphs have a physical purpose: they act as a visual break for readers, separating the text into distinct and variable-sized blocks, which help a reader keep their place on the page and also within the action of the story. Pages of solid text, or very long paragraphs, are intimidating, tiring to read and don’t draw the eye forwards through the story; too many short paragraphs, though, can make for a jerky and disrupted reading experience.

Just as sentences of differing lengths create changing rhythms for your narrative, so do varying-sized paragraphs. Longer paragraphs usually indicate extended action, detailed description or complex thought processes, so the story becomes slower and more measured as readers work their way through them.

Shorter paragraphs happen around quick exchanges of dialogue, rapid action and the introduction of vital information.

An occasional paragraph of a single sentence, or even one word, whether dialogue or narrative, can have a more immediate and powerful effect than several longer paragraphs. They can be used to shock the reader or to make a sharp or sudden point, but should be used sparingly so as not to dissipate their potency.

A good mix of paragraphs of different lengths keeps the reader engaged and varies the speed and tone of plot development. Look at this post and see where your eye is attracted to short, punchy paragraphs in the first instance and how, while you are reading longer ones, you are drawn in into more complex ideas and concepts.

When should you start a new paragraph?

  • medium_2288915125When you are writing dialogue. Every time a new character starts to speak, their dialogue should start on a new line and create an individual paragraph. (The word paragraph  comes from the Greek word paragraphos – para  ‘beside’ and graphein  ‘to write’ – meaning a marginal note used to indicate a change of speaker in drama.) While a single character continues to speak, even if there is action, internal thought or description alternating with their dialogue, it can all stay within one paragraph. As soon as new person starts to speak, their dialogue begins on a new line and paragraph.
  • When one piece of action, narration or thought finishes, the new subject matter should start with a new paragraph. If you are covering a protracted event or exposition, use an introductory paragraph; an ending, or summary, paragraph; and as many paragraphs as you need to delineate the stages between.
  • When the focus of your narrative changes from one character to another – especially if you are changing from one person’s point of view to someone else’s – begin a new paragraph.
  • When none of the above apply and you are in the middle of a long section, but you need to give your reader some incentives to get through it.

In the same way as you punctuate a sentence to make it easy for your reader to understand, break up your prose into logical paragraphs, manageable bites, to give flow and structure to your story, and visual variation on the page.

How do you structure a paragraph?

If you think of a paragraph as a frame for a certain amount of information, how to give it the right shape and form becomes clearer. Each paragraph is acting as a boundary for the related items within it. In descriptive writing, it can open with an introductory sentence, followed by others that expand on the opening point, and close with a sentence which sums up or completes the point. Just as a picture frame should be the best size and shape to display the painting it contains, so a paragraph should neatly contain the chunk of information being conveyed to the reader.

Read the above paragraph again and note how it is shaped in this way.

A dialogue paragraph will start with a character’s first sentence of speech. They may continue speaking throughout the paragraph; you may break it up to tag the dialogue, to describe theirs, or another character’s, internal or external responses before adding more dialogue; or intersperse their dialogue with action. In most cases, the dialogue paragraph naturally ends when another character starts to speak, but if one character talks at length, you may need to divide their speech into subject- or emotion-related paragraphs.

How to order paragraphs

Dividing your story into well-formed paragraphs gives you a great opportunity to try out different ways of organising the plot. I said at the start that paragraphs represent the panels, doors and windows of your narrative: just as an architect will design a beautiful and functional house by moving these elements around until they look and work best, so a writer can order and re-order paragraphs until they tell the best possible story.

small_127555697Often the most important thing to consider, when deciding which paragraph should go where, is the logic of the plot. What information does the reader need first – and which aspects should be held back to increase tension or build the action? In most cases it is best to tell your story in sequence. If you are experimenting with flashbacks, working with multiple perspectives or using a double time scheme, make sure that each one is internally consistent; each element of the plot progresses logically within its own development. It is one thing to intentionally mislead the reader – as is often the basis of crime or thriller fiction – but to inadvertently confuse is to risk them getting bored and giving up on your story.

Place related paragraphs together and check whether they progress logically. Try changing the order and see whether this enhances the effect you are looking for. If you have written several paragraphs of description followed by another set progressing the action, might it be better to intersperse them? Test whether your dialogue is correctly paragraphed by making sure you can tell who is speaking simply from the paragraphing of each character’s speech, without tags.

It can take time to become really adept with using paragraphs to make your fiction sing, so practise forming strong and logical paragraphs, which link to each other and/or break up sections, with everything you write. Paragraphs are a vital tool for the writer and act as signposts for the reader. Learn to use them to build scenes and action, develop and reveal character, introduce your themes and settings and control the tension and progress of your plot.

Next week we’ll look at how you are getting on with writing Act One, or the Beginning section of your story.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

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  1. Thank you for this post! It has helped to clarify paragraph structure for me. It has also helped me to build my own post on paragraph structure in non-fiction writing. I look forward to reading more of your tips! Thank you.


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