When to hit the enter key: On paragraph breaks

Aaron Nelson, a member of The Habit, recently asked an excellent question about paragraphs:

Many years ago in an undergraduate English class, a professor told me that he did not like my paragraphing choices. It’s still not clear to me exactly what he meant. I struggle with knowing when to hit the enter key when writing both dialogue and non-dialogue alike. I’m not even sure how paragraphs are supposed to function, especially in fiction.

Remember the five-paragraph essays you wrote in school? It gives us a pretty good place to start talking about paragraphs. In a five-paragraph essay, you express a big idea (a thesis statement) in Paragraph 1. In Paragraphs 2-4, the “body” of the essay, you make three points in support of your thesis (one point per paragraph). Then, in Paragraph 5, you summarize and restate what you just said in the previous four paragraphs.

I endorse the five-paragraph essay formula, but I endorse it in the same way I endorse training wheels. It’s a way for a novice to learn some of the fundamental skills of persuasive writing, but five-paragraph essays are rarely persuasive. Nevertheless, they illustrate how paragraphs are supposed to work.

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Fight, Seduction, Negotiation

In last week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, playwright Pete Peterson suggested that every scene of a play should be either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation. That sounds like the kind of oversimplification/generalization that couldn’t possibly stand up to scrutiny; indeed, I might add jockeying for position and forming an alliance to the list of available speech acts in dramatic or fictional dialogue. But I do think this rule of thumb is exceedingly helpful for any writer, for at least three reasons:

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Writing Dialogue that Doesn’t Sound Written

One of the most common criticisms of bad dialogue is that it “sounds written,” which is to say that it sounds more like the way people write than the way people talk. This creates a dilemma for the dialogue-writer, if not an existential crisis: your job is to write something that sounds as if you didn’t write it. Add to that the fact that you spent your whole career trying to learn how not to write like you talk, and you have a recipe for heartache.So how do you make the people in your stories talk the way people talk in the world God made? I have written on this topic in earlier issues of The Habit, so I will quickly recapitulate the big ideas and direct you to those letters. Then we will hunker down and talk about some practicalities with regard to sentence-structure and word-choice.

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