ISO: Rules of thumb for paragraph breaks.

msstice

200 words a day = 1 novel/year
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Ever since someone here pointed it out in a critique (and ever since I've mostly been revising) I've become paranoid of my paragraph breaks. I feel that my paragraphs are too short. I've gotten a little better at consolidating them, and I find that this also helps me reorder the sentences in them (I seem to have a peculiar way of ordering sentences in a paragraph), but do you all have any pointer to rules of thumb for paragraph breaks? Thank you.
 
Ever since someone here pointed it out in a critique (and ever since I've mostly been revising) I've become paranoid of my paragraph breaks. I feel that my paragraphs are too short. I've gotten a little better at consolidating them, and I find that this also helps me reorder the sentences in them (I seem to have a peculiar way of ordering sentences in a paragraph), but do you all have any pointer to rules of thumb for paragraph breaks? Thank you.
It's so funny that you post this today. I just finished reading Self-editing for Fiction Writers** by Renni Browne and Dave King, and they have a dedicated chapter on exactly this topic called "Breaking up is easy to do."

In a nutshell, their advice is that a variety of paragraph lengths is best, and, ideally, paragraphing can be used to manipulate pacing. If you want the scene to unfold slowly, or lull the reader into a relaxed state, use less frequent paragraphing (but try to avoid anything longer than half a page.)

If you want to build tension, pick up the pace, or give some “snap” to dialogue, use more frequent paragraphing. More white space on the page generally translates into a faster read. Every time a speaker changes, that should be a new paragraph.

And if you want to draw attention to something, put it in a shorter paragraph between two longer ones.

They also recommend flipping through your manuscript to get a sense of how many "walls of text" there are, vs how much white space. If a scene is dragging on, paragraph a little more often. If you have scene after scene that races by with lots of short paragraphs, try to combine a few to slow things down where the action settles down.


Hope that helps!

**btw this is my new favorite book. The checklists at the end of every chapter are particularly handy.
 
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I'm not all that familiar with your work or the critique thereof.

However, you might be overreacting or possibly misconstruing what the critique was trying to express.

What I mean by that is that a paragraph should be the expression of a topic: an idea, a thought, a premise, or argument, etc...

That then is followed by supporting material or explanatory material--basically expansion upon the original thought. This could go on for one sentence or several or a whole page full until you complete the thought. Possibly ending with a conclusion.

See this article:

It could be that someone thought you were either breaking up your topics supporting material or even may that you were munging new ideas into the previous topic; things that should go into a new paragraph. The point being, you have to consider often what the critic is trying to say as opposed to what they said or worse yet where their words drew you.

The main idea is that you start with topic and move on with each sentence going forward--avoid circling back to previous points--and eventually reaching that moment of conclusion where you've exhausted the topic for the moment and it's time to go onto the next.

However. that doesn't really express all that you might do with a paragraph when it comes to creative writing. There might be a conclusion that you want to highlight to the reader and this you might do by removing from the paragraph and it its own paragraph of one sentence.

This way the reader might guess that this line is important.

Anyway, read the link I posted above--it should help.
 
Appropriate paragraph sizing depends greatly on the context of the writing. Descriptive paragraphs in a fictional setting will be different from paragraphs in an essay, which will be different from dialog. I'll assume the context is descriptive text.

The one thing I recommend avoiding is having a series of one or two sentence paragraphs. As a reader, I feel like I am going through a series of bullet points rather than a flow text. A writer should not let a fear of info dump cause him or her to provide terse scene setting. I would use sentence length to convey mood rather than paragraph length. A description using longer sentences will convey a more languid tone while a paragraph of short, choppy sentences might convey a feeling of chaos. I also prefer to have all descriptive text presented at the start of a section rather than having just in time details scattered throughout.

If the editing process is allowing one to consolidate paragraphs and reorder sentences, then I feel it is helping form one's own feel for better paragraph formatting. Each paragraph should fully address one thing and the following paragraph should address a different aspect. Given that 'one thing' and 'a different aspect' are pretty subjective, I'm not sure how well this conveys a rule for paragraphs. I do feel it is true, nonetheless.

Trust your instincts in the editing process. There is no need to feel paranoid; you will continue to learn and evolve your writing technique as time goes on. From what I am reading in the original post, I believe you are on the correct path.
 
For genre ficiton -- written for mass readership -- paragraphs have become shorter over the past several decades. The assumption is that readers either are too impatient or lack the intellect to deal with longer paragraphs. The same has happened to sentences. They've become shorter, too.

And now, in popular fiction, incomplete sentences have become acceptable. Like this one.

Shorter paragraphs are certainly useful in certain genres. For example, quick staccato paragraphs amp up the excitement in an action or suspense-driven novels.

For more literary works, a mix of paragraph lengths often appeals, just as do different lengths and constructs for sentences. In literature you're often writing for the intellect, or beauty, or other goals. You're not just driving reader emotions by your words.

Bottom line -- there is no "single answer"... it all depends on what you're trying to achieve.
 

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