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.

A paragraph develops a single idea. In persuasive writing, that idea is often stated as a topic sentence (typically the first sentence of the paragraph), followed by sentences that explain or expand or sharpen that idea. Within a paragraph, it should feel obvious that all of the sentences relate more or less directly to the same idea. 

That’s about as good a definition of a paragraph as I can give. I suspect, however, that Aaron has heard definitions like that before. I also suspect that some of his frustration derives from the questions that the above paragraph doesn’t answer. For instance, how do you know if your paragraph is the right size for your idea (or your idea is the right size for a paragraph)? What’s the difference between expanding on one idea and expressing new but related ideas? And even if it seems obvious to you that sentences belong together, how can you be sure that it will seem obvious to the reader?

If you find yourself overthinking what constitutes a paragraph, here’s a tip: try focusing instead on the paragraph break. I appreciate that Aaron framed his question in terms of “when to hit the enter key.” That’s not a bad way to think about it at all.

The paragraph break introduces movement into your writing. The block of a paragraph says to your reader, “Stay right here. Let’s look at this one thing.” The paragraph break says, “Now, let’s go look at this other thing.” When you look at a page of writing, the number of paragraph breaks begins sets your expectations even before you start reading. If the paragraphs are long and the paragraph breaks few, you know to expect slow, ruminative writing that camps out in one idea and is loath to move on to the next idea. If the paragraphs are short and the paragraph breaks many, you expect writing that moves much more quickly from idea to idea or from image to image.

Think of your prose as a garden. Each idea is a flower. You are a bee. Sometimes you linger at each flower, getting all the goodie out before moving on to the next flower. And sometimes you flit from flower to flower. Both ways, I’m sure, have their pleasures for the bee. As I said above, in every paragraph you’re saying, “Stay here. Look here. Check out this flower.” And every paragraph break is a zooming away to the next flower. How long should your paragraph be? Well, how long do you want your reader to look at the flower?

I know that’s not a very technical answer to Aaron’s question. I offer it for those writers for whom the technical answer hasn’t been much help.

Aaron was specifically asking about paragraphs in fiction. The same principles apply in both fiction and non-fiction: a paragraph typically situates the reader in one moment, and the paragraph break ushers the reader into a new moment. “Look at this thing. [Paragraph break] Now look at this other thing.” In fiction, you’re mostly just showing one concrete thing or action, then another concrete thing or action, until your story is over.

In fiction especially, you might find it helpful to think of a paragraph break as a kind of camera cut. In those moments where the camera would move from one character, say, to another character, insert a paragraph break. This “camera-cut” concept is especially useful in dialogue, which Aaron also asked specifically about. Insert a paragraph break every time the speaker changes; in so doing, you signal to the reader whom she’s supposed to be looking at.

Consider the following bit of dialogue. I have numbered the lines for the sake of reference:

  1. Cindy was looking out the window, her back to Leonard. “That alligator is climbing the fence again.”
  2. “Again?” said Leonard.
  3. “Yes, again.”
  4. “Why does that still surprise you?”
  5. “It surprises me because one never gets used to the idea of alligators climbing into one’s yard.”
  6. Leonard returned to his crossword puzzle.
  7. Cindy sighed and pulled on her boots. “There was a time, Leonard, when you would have done something about it.”

Notice that the line breaks help the reader keep straight who is speaking even without attribution. We establish the speakers in lines 1 and 2, and the line breaks help the reader keep the speakers straight in lines 3-5.

However, I do want you to notice something about lines 5-7. Cindy is the only speaker in those lines, yet I inserted a couple of line breaks. Why? I inserted them on the “camera-cut” principle. Cindy speaks in line 5. In line 6, Leonard doesn’t speak, but we are supposed to look at him. So the “camera” cuts to him for a line, then cuts back to Cindy in line 7, where we see her sigh and speak her doleful words to a man who doesn’t seem to be listening.

This practice of inserting a line break every time the speaker changes isn’t quite universal; I sometimes see published fiction in which lines 5-7 wouldn’t be broken up the way I broke them up. But I think the “camera-cut” approach is a good practice and helpful to the reader. I commend it to you.