Paragraphs on the Chopping Block

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By Power of Words by Antonio Litterio CC BY-SA 3.0

As early as elementary school, young writers learn how to construct sentences and put them into paragraphs. Throughout their education, teachers prod them to add more detail and deeper sentences. Before long, the more accomplished students can write a good academic paragraph, which often looks like this one: A good-sized block of text with very little white space. In fact, I’ve known of teachers who could predict the grade of a student assignment by just checking to see if the paper had several paragraphs structured like this one.

In fiction, the paragraph does not serve the same function. Breaks are much more necessary to keep readers engaged and to help them understand things like tone, attitude, urgency, and even which character is doing an action or speaking.

Here’s a checklist of good places to break paragraphs in a fiction scene.

1. When the acting character switches.

Example: Lainey brought Megan a piece of cake and handed her a fork. Smiling, Megan dipped the fork in the icing and licked it clean. “This icing is incredible. What kind is it?”

See the problem? Who says the dialogue? Lainey or Megan?

Now, if I move Megan’s action to the next line, it’s clearer.

Lainey brought Megan a piece of cake and handed her a fork.

Smiling, Megan dipped the fork in the icing and licked it clean. “This icing is incredible. What kind is it?”

It’s also a good idea to avoid sentences like this as often as possible:

Lainey handed Megan a piece of cake, and Megan began eating it.

One, it’s wordy. Repetition of Megan’s name kills the flow of the sentence. But also, you’ve tied two acting characters into the same acting sentence. A good story reads like a back and forth banter between characters with dialogue and action. A pattern something like this:

“Character 1 speaks.” Character 1 acts.

Character 2 acts. Maybe they don’t speak, but there’s some kind of reaction to character 1’s words.

Character 1 acts. “Character 1 speaks.”

“Character 2 speaks.” Character 2 acts.

2. When the speaking character switches.

Megan frowned. “Lainey, do you think Mark is coming?” Lainey nodded. “He should be here by eight.”

Just like the last example, this is confusing to tell which character gets the dialogue. But a simple line break makes all the difference. When I edit, I find that writers make this simple mistake all the time, and a lot of times they can see great improvement in their writing just by me going through and readjusting the line breaks.

Megan frowned. “Lainey, do you think Mark is coming?”

Lainey nodded. “He should be here by eight.”

3. When a pause in the text would increase urgency or emphasis.

Here’s an excerpt from my Christian fiction novel, Cavernous. It’s from a high-impact scene where Callie, the main character, learns that her world is about to turn upside down.

The anchorman dissolves into a photo of the US President and Vice President, which then cuts to a huge street riot. The remote slips from my fingers, and I clutch the edge of the couch. According to the caption, both men are dead.

Now, notice how breaking just before that last line increases the suspense.

The anchorman dissolves into a photo of the US President and Vice President, which then cuts to a huge street riot. The remote slips from my fingers, and I clutch the edge of the couch.

According to the caption, both men are dead.

What it does is forces the brain to pause a brief instant before reading the line, and then when you reach the new line, it places extra emphasis on the words. There you have it. Your chilling sense of urgency.

4. When there’s a transition in the type of action.

A red brick half-wall ran along the edge of the driveway, past the swimming pool, and several yards into the backyard. On the grassy side, three lawn chairs surrounded a glass patio table, which sat crooked on the uneven ground. Rain pelted the concrete drive and spotted the light oak deck.

Paragraphs like these show up often when the writer is wanting to convey a setting, and even with action verbs, they can feel a little like an info dump. Clever paragraphing can help.

A red brick half-wall ran along the edge of the driveway, past the swimming pool, and several yards into the backyard. On the grassy side, three lawn chairs surrounded a glass patio table, which sat crooked on the uneven ground.

Rain pelted the concrete drive and spotted the light oak deck.

Notice that we’re first looking at descriptive detail about a house. Then, the action transitions to the weather. Great place for a cut, and it gives a slightly shorter paragraph.

Note that you don’t want to get carried away with this. It’s great to cut back a little, but you don’t want to do this because writing in single sentences the whole manuscript would be cumbersome to read.

A red brick half-wall ran along the edge of the driveway, past the swimming pool, and several yards into the backyard.

On the grassy side, three lawn chairs surrounded a glass patio table, which sat crooked on the uneven ground.

Rain pelted the concrete drive and spotted the light oak deck.

5. When there’s a transition in the train of thought.

Lainey grimaced. She’d never make it on time. The last flight left in ten minutes, and it was a fifteen-minute drive. She could drive… It would take longer, but she’d at least make it to the wedding before it started.

See how Lainey’s mood changes in the midst of that sequence of thoughts? From defeated to hopeful. But a lot of readers will not pick up on the hopeful shift in that paragraph.

Why? Science has shown that people generally remember the first part of an interaction, and sometimes the first and last.

The popular show, Brain Games had a segment once where it showed two twins giving the same responses two an interview. One twin started with her redeeming qualities, and the other started with her flaws, ending on a high note.

It was amazing. Even knowing what was going to happen, my brain convinced me the first girl had the better personality.

The same thing will happen in your paragraphs. If you change the mood in the middle, readers will have a hard time transitioning. Better to split the paragraph at the mood.

Lainey grimaced. She’d never make it on time. The last flight left in ten minutes, and it was a fifteen-minute drive.

She could drive… It would take longer, but she’d at least make it to the wedding before it started.

6. When the location of action changes.

Yawning, Lainey climbed out of bed and slipped into her fuzzy slippers. She opened the curtains, blinking as the bright morning sun flooded her sight. As she shuffled down the hall, squeaks from the shower intensified.

Notice how Lainey starts off in her bedroom then moves to the hallway. Breaking the paragraph will help readers visualize a different place.

Yawning, Lainey climbed out of bed and slipped into her fuzzy slippers. She opened the curtains, blinking as the bright morning sun flooded her sight.

As she shuffled down the hall, squeaks from the shower intensified.

Last point–you need breaks in your paragraphs to make your writing more interesting. Perhaps this concept goes against every college or high school paper you ever wrote, but blocky paragraphs scream boring story. They just do. That’s true for blog posts, as well.

Making use of extra paragraphs in fiction is important because of something called White Space. Query agents and editors have told me that readers will often glance at a book with little or no white space and put it down. Here’s a great article from C.S. Lakin illustrating this and why it makes for better fiction. As Lakin points out, most often when you write with big, blocky paragraphs, you’re telling the story rather than showing it.

Or, better yet 🙂 :

Making use of extra paragraphs in fiction is important because of something called White Space. Query agents and editors have told me that readers will often glance at a book with little or no white space and put it down.

Here’s a great article from C.S. Lakin illustrating this and why it makes for better fiction. As Lakin points out, most often when you write with big, blocky paragraphs, you’re telling the story rather than showing it.

 

 

About monicamynk

I'm a Christian, wife, mother, and high school science teacher, and author of the Cavernous Trilogy and Goddess to Daughter Series.

Posted on June 4, 2016, in Editing and Revision, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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