What is a paragraph?
m-w.com defines a paragraph as 'a subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line'. While these things are all very true, the most important thing to remember when making sure your paragraphs are complete, is that a paragraph will always be a self-contained piece of writing that handles one complete point.
When you first start taking composition classes in school they teach you to construct the perfect paragraph, the one that will gain you much appreciation from your teachers and disdain from your peers. What they don't teach you is that, like the rules of piracy, this is more of a guideline. Let's start by taking a look at the guideline.
Topic Sentence: This will be the first sentence of your paragraph. Ideally, for learning purposes, you will use the topic sentence to introduce the main idea of your paragraph by summarizing it and using the summary as a device to introduce your main idea to your reader.
Brendon didn't know what he was going to do about the mess.
In this sentence we are introduced to the main subject of the paragraph, Brendon, and his conflict, keeping the bus clean.
Supporting Sentence: These make up the body of the paragraph. The supporting sentences will develop and support the main idea by giving supporting facts, details, and examples.
Jon had a habit of leaving his boxers crumpled up outside of the shower where he took them off. Ryan left bits of paper crumpled everywhere he had been with a notebook, which was all over these days while he dealt with his self-prescribed block. Spencer was cleaner than the other two, but that didn't mean he didn't squirrel away empty SweetTart wrappers everywhere but the trash.
These sentences show us why our subject is in conflict and give us the details of the situation.
Closing Sentence: A closing sentence will be the last sentence of your paragraph. It basically restates the main idea of your paragraph using different words.
Brendon was never going to get this cleared up in time.
Our closing sentence here reiterates the subject and his dilemma, as well as adding a little more detail as to why he's conflict—there is a time limit on the picking up.
That's lovely and structured and all, but what is a paragraph really?
The above example, while a bit rigid, works well for non-fiction essays and papers in which you are dissecting a topic where you will need to show a definitive knowledge of the subject and back it up with facts. For fiction however, it is best to remember this structure as a guideline and pay the most attention to the fact that a paragraph should deal with only one subject. This avoids confusion and helps the author present the information to the reader in a clear and concise manner.
A paragraph can be any number of sentences as long as there is a central theme. The intent of the idea will often dictate the length. A philosopher may use up half a page before taking a break between ideas, and therefore leave the reader with large blocks of text to chew through. A writer of fiction may want to emphasize a specific instance and do it one or two sentence paragraphs that stand out from the rest of the narrative text.
It is important to know your audience. Someone opening a text by Heidegger will be prepared to find full page paragraphs. Your average fic reader however, or even mass market fiction reader, will tend to skim over large blocks of text. Keep an eye on these as you work your way through your narrative. One paragraph shouldn't have more than one focus, but it's perfectly fine for several paragraphs to have the same focus.
The long and winding road:
Nicholas heaved the bag off his shoulder and it clattered and crashed as it hit the ground. He'd taken every empty bottle he could find from the bar at the inn and not given anything by way of answer when asked why he wanted them. He pulled six from the bag and lined them up along a fence rail. He walked away from them, and at fifty paces turned back around and gave his eyes some time to adjust to the small figures in the semi-darkness. Just the lips of the bottles, where the glass flared and reflected the moonlight, were visible. They were impossible targets. He lowered the hand gun and aimed. Fired. There was the loud shattering noise of breaking glass and the lip disappeared and left the empty black behind. One down, fifty-six to go.
The point of this paragraph is to explain what Wolfwood is doing with the bottles, as well as using them as a device to illustrate his state of mind at the beginning of the scene. To use a paragraph in this way generally calls for a longer and more open structure which leaves room for exposition and internal monologue.
Short, fast, and sometimes loud:
The book shifted forward, completely ignored now that Aziraphale's attempt to catalogue it had been interrupted by Crowley's hand down his trousers.
The book leaned over the edge and appeared to be eyeing the action below it and deciding whether or not it liked the view.
The book decided to make its escape and leapt off of its ledge, bouncing off of Crowley's head before finally hitting the floor.
In this example each sentence is a complete paragraph which outlines the action being affected on the book as Aziraphale and Crowley push up against the book shelf. It is punctuated by the actual action and gives the narrative the feeling of being quick and choppy, like the action.
Reading between the lines:
The phone stopped ringing and there was fifteen seconds of peace. It was just enough time for him to release his death grip on the pillow before the phone let out a high pitched beep that cut through sleep and all reason.
Voice mail. Something had better be on fire.
Brendon rolled over the edge of the bed and flipped catawampus so that his feet would hit the floor. He pushed his knees against the mattress in a Herculean effort to make his legs work and stretched his arms up over his head, trying to remind his muscles how to work. The alarm clock on his night stand glowed a steady, blue, 7:15AM.
Something had really better be on fire.
Short paragraphs are most effective when they're used to punctuate an idea or action in the middle of longer, more elaborate paragraphs.
But how do I know when to start a new paragraph?
There are four general indicators that it is time to start a new paragraph.
1. When you move from one idea to another. The new idea should be placed in a new paragraph.
2. When you want to contrast one idea against another. The contrasting idea should be placed in a new paragraph.
3. When you want your reader to have a pause. Paragraphs can work toward making narrative long and flowy or short and quick, which will effect the overall feel of the story.
4. When you are ending an introduction to the narrative, or beginning a conclusion.
Ok, I think I've got it. One idea, one paragraph. But what about dialogue?
callistosh65 asks: In dialogue, when do we start new paragraphs?
As far as I can tell, the only specific rule for dealing with dialogue in paragraphs is that EVERY time you have a new speaker, you start a new paragraph.
It doesn't matter how short the sentences are or whether or not the action between the dialogue involves all parties. A new person speaking equals a new paragraph.
“We're in!” Patrick doesn't bother with a preamble, and Brendon can hear Pete, who had yet to go back to Chicago, hooting and laughing in the background.
Brendon holds the phone away from his ear. “I thought we were in anyway.” He's standing in front of a refrigerated case debating whether or not to buy half a gallon of milk, since he's not sure he'll use all of it.
“Well, yeah, we were always gonna do the movie, but the movie wasn't always going to be picked up by one of the major studios.”
Brendon breaks into a grin. “Oh, that's great! Especially for your friend. Congratulate him for me.”
“Congratulate him yourself! We're going to celebrate tonight.”
“I don't think that's what advances are for.”
“Bah,” Patrick says. “That doesn't sound like the Brendon Urie I know.”
In this simple example there are two people speaking, and some minor action in the middle. Each time the dialogue jumps, there's a new paragraph. This helps your reader understand who is speaking, even if the dialogue is not always coupled with tags or action, and helps to keep pace and flow smoother.
However, it is sometimes a little trickier when dealing with a single speaker. haldoor asks: Is it more correct to start a new paragraph every time someone says something new (ie different subject, or clear full stop), or is it acceptable to continue the paragraph and add more speech to it when the speech marks close and the speaker is doing something, and then speaks again?
What you want to be careful of, like in paragraphs that are strictly narrative, is that you start a new paragraph with each new idea or shift in movement.
"Don't try to deny it, Spikey," Nicholas said. He tilted his chair forward as he stood up and let the back legs bang back against the wooden floor before he dragged it over to the table and straddled it backwards. He opened the bottle of liquor, poured one of the glasses full to the brim, and pushed it across to Vash. Then he took a long swig directly from the bottle. When he finished he wiped the back of his mouth with his left hand. It was forgiven. "You and me, we're the same."
In this paragraph Wolfwood's actual speech is broken by several sentences of action, but because the second piece of speech is a continuation of the first it only warrants one paragraph.
”That is not—Crowley!” Aziraphale swatted at Crowley's hand as it crept up his thigh. It was decidedly unblessed of Crowley to try and use guilt against an angel, especially when he knew it would work. It shouldn't, that wasn't something that was inherent in being an angel, it's just that Aziraphale had spent so much time on Earth that some things were beginning to wear off on him. “Would you please pass the tea?”
Here Aziraphale is the only person speaking, but the final bit of dialogue is an abrupt shift in tone and does not follow along with the subject of the rest of the paragraph. It is passable, and would probably be overlooked in an otherwise well written piece of fiction, but little mistakes can add up quickly. In this instance, if you weren't going to add another paragraph, but just pull the second bit of dialogue away, be sure to tag it so that the reader does not automatically assume that the speaker has changed just because the paragraph has. It would look something like this:
”That is not—Crowley!” Aziraphale swatted at Crowley's hand as it crept up his thigh. It was decidedly unblessed of Crowley to try and use guilt against an angel, especially when he knew it would work. It shouldn't, that wasn't something that was inherent in being an angel, it's just that Aziraphale had spent so much time on Earth that some things were beginning to wear off on him.
“Would you please pass the tea?” Aziraphale said with as much dignity as he could muster.
Ryan cracked an eye open and rolled his head across the back of the couch until he was looking in Brendon's direction. “It's not the type of thing you leave on someone's voice mail. Hey, how are things? I'm basically miserable and avoiding all my favorite places for fear of seeing the woman who just tore my heart apart. And you?” Ryan closed his eyes again and they sat in silence, the occasional car adding a rush of sound straight to Brendon's head every time he'd come up with something intelligent to say, knocking it back again. “Spencer asks about you.”
This paragraph lacks focus and is needlessly confusing. Ryan is the speaker, and the subject of the beginning, but somewhere in the middle it jumps to what's happening from Brendon's point of view. The last piece of dialogue is Ryan as well, but there is nothing to indicate that it is other than the fact that it's the same paragraph. Otherwise it's a toss up. It is also a shift in the focus of the dialogue. The second spoken part could be a paragraph of its own.
It is important to note that when fixing paragraphs that lack focus but have the same speaker throughout, it is ok to have a second paragraph with the same speaker. Just remember to tag the dialogue or action so that the reader does not automatically assume that the speaker has changed.
And that tricksy, tricksy exposition within dialogue.
Deciding when to break up dialogue that bounces around from topic to topic can be tricky. It's easiest to pinpoint where the threads break off and just start a new paragraph there. But if there is no action, and the character just talks and talks forever like he's doing his best impression of an elf from Lord of the Rings, how do you handle that? Well, the best way is to use punctuation like this:
Brendon bounced onto the bus and dropped onto the couch next to Ryan. He had that gleam in his eye. That gleam the belied too many Red Bulls, and maybe a piggy back ride from Zack. Ryan tensed, his pencil poised over the paper, trying to chase down that brilliant lyric before Brendon opened his mouth and—
“So I’ve been thinking about this whole concept thing. I mean, we could totally do it. We did the short story thing before right? We know you can write the words and I can sing them. And maybe this time we can all write the words. I’ve been looking for a reason to use ‘deus ex machina’ in my every day conversations and it just never comes up. You’d think that something so awesome would be more useful, I mean really. And we wouldn’t even have to rhyme it! And like, we have Jon now, who is totally helpful and way more into the band and the writing than Brent was. And the whole thing could be based around why a raven is like a writing desk. I mean, I know you really like Alice and fairy tales and stuff right?
“And oh, oh! Like American McGee, that game! Do you remember that computer game? Maybe you never played it. It was really dark; twisted the Alice setting right around on its head. And then you could make important statements about war by using metaphors about cards and painting roses red. Why is a raven like a writing desk anyway? Is that what those tattoos are about? You never really said.”
Ryan pressed the tip of his pencil into the pad until it broke.
Here you can see how the quotation marks are missing from the end of the first paragraph. This is to signify to the reader that the speaker has not finished, but that there has been a change in topic, or a pause is necessary.
Paragraph break for conclusion.
Knowing when to break for a new paragraph is a fairly simple thing if you keep the one idea rule in mind. Every time you change subjects, every time you change speakers, and every time you feel your reader or character needs a pause, change the paragraph. Don't let the length of the paragraph worry you. A paragraph is merely a vehicle for a complete thought. As long as you have a cohesive thought, you've used the paragraph to its purpose.
Writing Den Writing Tips: Paragraph Builder
University of North Carolina Paragraph Handouts
Purdue University OWL Materials: Paragraphs and Paragraphing.