(Image credit: Allie Brosh.)
This is a wall o' text without paragraphs, and how the reader feels about it.

A paragraph is a unit of writing that deals with a particular point or idea, consisting of one or more sentences. Paragraphs are good, and you should use them along with proper spelling, punctuation, grammar, and capitalization in your fanfiction.

However, paragraphing in narrative prose is a tricky subject. Unlike academic writing, story-writing has few rules about how creating paragraphs should be done. The only really solid rule is that a story should be organized into paragraphs, because discrete units of text are more approachable and easier to follow than a single, unbroken wall o' text (see image). How to offset each new paragraph and when to start a new paragraph, though, is subject to variation depending on the medium and the author's style and purpose.

How to Offset Paragraphs Edit

Paragraphs are typically offset typographically in one of two ways:

  1. Indenting the first line, typically by a width of one em (i.e. hitting "Tab" on the keyboard; or, your word processor may add a first-line indent automatically when you hit "Enter").
  2. Inserting a line of whitespace by means of a hard return (i.e. hitting "Enter" twice on the keyboard).

The former is preferred in printed works, but the latter is preferred in digital word processing and online. You must use one, whichever you choose, if you don't want your readers to run screaming from your story. You can also combine the two, but this is unnecessary and not commonly done.

When to Start a New Paragraph Edit

By Purpose Edit

Stories utilize different styles of prose for different purposes. There are roughly five styles commonly used:

  • Narration - details the events of the story, showing sequences of cause and effect.
  • Dialogue - details the verbal and non-verbal communication between characters.
  • Action - details fast-paced, tightly focused events, sometimes with dialogue, such as in a fight scene or sex scene; typically uses shorter sentences.
  • Description - gives sensory detail about an important subject, such as a character or setting.
  • Exposition - gives facts about the setting, characters, etc., that cannot be shown otherwise, such as historical information.

Narration, dialogue, and action are dynamic elements that show the events of the story and (when used properly) move the plot forward. Description and exposition add depth and context to these events, but they are static elements, so focusing too heavily on them will bog the story down.

You should almost always start a new paragraph when you switch to and from dialogue. This is so nearly a hard rule that you will rarely find exceptions to it.

It is usually a good idea to start a new paragraph when you switch between any of the other styles, too, though the static styles may appear in a paragraph largely focused on a dynamic style. Weaving descriptive details throughout the story is generally considered more elegant than dumping them all into one paragraph and leaving the rest of the text barren, and background exposition on the characters and setting may be more palatable sprinkled throughout the story than dished out in heaping infodumps.

By Subject Edit

Even if you maintain the same purpose, it is usually a good idea to start a new paragraph when you switch to a new subject. Often this will be a character or group of characters (because stories are about characters, after all), but not necessarily. Whatever the subject, having a clear sense of what a particular paragraph is about will help you stay on topic and give you a sense of when one should end and the next begin.

In narration, the subject of one paragraph may be a single event or a closely related sequence of events, i.e. the cause (or causes) that lead to a particular effect (or effects). When you begin a new sequence, begin a new paragraph. The same goes for action scenes, which must also follow the rules for dialogue if your characters are talking while doing other things.

Always begin a new paragraph when you begin a line of speech or switch between one speaker and another in dialogue. Note that this includes non-verbal communication, such as gestures, facial expressions, and other physical acts a person can use to express oneself. In a dialogue sequence, you'll usually want to group one character's speech and actions together, separate from each other character. Inserting one character's actions into another character's paragraph of dialogue can lead to confusion about who is doing and saying what, so it is best avoided to ensure that your writing is clear.

You may wish to start a new paragraph when you begin to describe a new character, item, or setting (in space or time), or a new feature of the same if you're going into great depth about it. If doing so would result in lots of short paragraphs, though, it may be best to group them together.

Stand-alone paragraphs of exposition should be used sparingly, if at all. However, if you feel the need to emulate the likes of Frank Herbert or Victor Hugo, and go off on long digressions about the history of the spice trade or the layout of streets of Paris or whatever, definitely break your exposition into smaller chunks to avoid frightening your audience off before they even start reading.

Paragraph Length Edit

Paragraphs may consist of any number of sentences—you don't have to agonize over sticking to the "three to five" rule you might have learned in school—and may be short or long. Short or one-line paragraphs may be used for dramatic effect to emphasize a key point, get a laugh, mark a transition, or quicken the pace of the narrative. Too many of them, however, makes for choppy reading and may indicate a lack of development. Long paragraphs may suggest seriousness and depth, but paragraphs that are too long start to look like walls o' text and may not hold the reader's attention. Paragraphs that discuss a single subject in great detail may need to be broken down into component parts for easier reading.

External Links Edit

If you know of a good resource for help with paragraphing in narrative writing, please add it here!

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