While many writers have no trouble creating effective paragraph breaks, this is an area in which others truly have difficulty. Often it is hard to tell just where a new paragraph should begin and the current one end. This struggle can show in a final work as hundreds of tiny two-sentence paragraphs or page after page of page-long paragraphs. As a writer, you want to avoid using these super-short paragraphs that cause your writing to seem choppy or really long paragraphs that cause readers to lose interest. Effective paragraph breaks move your piece forward and provide a nice rhythm for the reader. Today we would like to address five occasions when you should create a new paragraph that will help your writing both stylistically and grammatically.
1. New Topic
Back in your days of writing essays for school, you probably heard time and again that each point needed its own paragraph. You would take your main idea and list of three supporting ideas and smash them into a nice introduction. Then you would take each supporting idea and write a paragraph. Finally, you would re-address them all in your conclusion. It was a nice, neat, easy-to-follow set-up for a well-constructed paper. This process works great even for research papers or other nonfiction pieces. What happens with fiction, though?
With fiction, the same type of rule still applies. Let’s say you are writing a story about Bob and Nancy going to a dance. You start the story talking about how much Bob likes Nancy and wants to ask her to the dance. You mention how he likes her hair and her smile. He even likes her scuffed Mary Janes and bobby socks. Then you want to talk about how Bob is a really great guy. This would be a great time for a paragraph break. While Nancy’s shoes are different from her hair and smile, all of these things are based on the idea that Bob likes Nancy. Bob being a nice guy, however, is a new topic. Thus, a new paragraph is started.
2. New Place
When you move from one place to another in a piece, it is a good idea to start a new paragraph. Moving from one place to another is basically scene change, and starting a new paragraph is a great way to indicate such a change. Many people these days like to add in an extra line with some cute, centered picture or hash marks to show a scene change, but changing paragraphs is the simplest, most widely accepted way of showing this kind of change. These types of paragraph breaks help move your piece forward. Going back to the story of Bob and Nancy, let’s say Bob was at home when he was thinking about how much he likes Nancy and you were describing bow nice Bob is. Now he has to go to school. This would be an appropriate place to insert a paragraph break. It would let the reader know you have moved on to a new place
3. New Time
Just like a new place, a new time requires a paragraph break. Start a new paragraph whenever you use phrases such as: later that day, the next morning, a few hours later, time passed slowly (or quickly, for that matter), or a little while later. When you look at these words on their own, it is pretty easy to tell that time has passed between whatever was last written and whatever is about to be written. Seeing this break while writing is not always as easy. One way to think of it is that the empty space left by the new paragraph indentation is a little time warp that somehow can carry anything from seconds to eons of time. Although it seems like a far-fetched idea, readers understand and take for granted this very concept. Don’t be afraid as a writer to use what readers already accept.
Let’s go back to Bob and Nancy. Bob gets to school and runs into Nancy before class. He is nervous and can’t find the words to say what he wants to say. He goes on to his class, and she goes on to hers. Here you can write about each class passing and what Bob learned in each class. OR you could start a new paragraph. Even if you start a new paragraph using a phrase such as after school instead of one that directly states time has passed, the new paragraph allows the reader to know that somehow you have moved time forward. Using your paragraph break effectively just saved you from writing paragraph after paragraph about what Bob did or didn’t learn in his six to seven classes. This not only saves time in writing, but it also keeps you from losing your readers’ attention. After all, they are reading your story to find out about Bob and Nancy, not what Bob studied in school.
4. New Person
The next type of paragraph break you should pay attention to is created by a new character. This type of break can work two ways, in narration and in dialogue. In narration, you can add a new paragraph to show that you are addressing a new character. This is particularly useful when you are writing in third person and writing about two characters separately. Be careful with this, though. Every time you talk about a different character is not call for a new paragraph. If they are in the same time at the same place carrying out actions together, a new paragraph isn’t always needed. Use the other guidelines to make a good judgment call.
In dialogue, however, a new character paragraph break is always used. When you move between characters in dialogue, you always start a new paragraph. Bob and Nancy cannot carry on a conversation in the same paragraph. It is grammatically impossible, and I have yet to find a time when this type of break did not apply to conversation. Always start a new paragraph when a person has finished what they need to say. If Bob says hello, then you need a new paragraph for Nancy to reply with hello. These breaks create a flow between speakers and help the readers bounce back and forth between speakers so that they can follow the conversation. Here is also a good time for me to add that you should also start new paragraphs for any narration included in your dialogue. Narration is separate from the conversation, and you can think of narration as a separate topic from the dialogue itself. This will help you remember to have narration separate from dialogue.
5. Adding Impact
Using paragraph breaks effectively for impact is probably the hardest thing to master when it comes to paragraph breaks. Many writers throw in one-line paragraphs throughout their writing to try and spice it up. What actually happens is that the writing seems broken and choppy, and readers begin to read those single-sentence paragraphs without any impact at all. This means that when you really need that one-liner to work its magic, it may fall flat. Save the one-line wonders for when they are really useful. Often writers think this has to happen at the end of a story or chapter. That just isn’t the case. This type of paragraph breaks actually works best when used abruptly, just as it should be read. Going back one last time to Bob and Nancy, a good time to use a paragraph break to add impact would be to describe Nancy’s reaction to being asked out by Bob or perhaps to describe the scene surrounding the big moment.
Hopefully these guidelines will help you as you write your next piece. Please be sure to drop in and let us know if they were helpful. We look forward to hearing from you!