Why We Use Paragraphs & Other Chunks
When a page filled with text has no paragraph breaks, the only way to preview its content is to scan every sentence. After all, a single sentence picked from the bunch may not represent the page well. But going through the entire text is useless in telling us whether it’s worth our energy to read the page in full – we already put in the work. That’s one reason why walls of text make us feel like they are demanding a large time commitment. Unless we’re ready to hunker down and read without interruption for a while, it’s off-putting.
Breaking the same page into paragraphs gives us a visual representation of the page’s content that we can view without much effort. The topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph also allow us to dive in a little further without a full read. Basically, they provide a table of contents for the page.
With paragraphs, we can also more easily mark the place we stopped reading, so we don’t feel like we have to read the page in one go. Reading a moderately sized paragraph requires a much shorter time commitment, and finishing a paragraph gives us a feeling of progress.
This means the shorter your chapters, scenes, paragraphs, or sentences are, the more inviting they are to readers with low commitment or short attention spans. They demand less concentration and give the feeling of a breezy read. The web in particular trends toward short paragraphs because web visitors are not expected to be very committed.* For this reason and others, paragraph size has been trending downward.
However, it’s also possible for chunks that are short enough to lower the reading efficiency of dedicated audiences. Lots of paragraph breaks means more page turning for the same content. Lots of short sentences can slow down speed readers. Someone who has carved out the time and concentration required to read at length might not appreciate being told to stop constantly.
Plus, if you make your paragraphs so short that they only contain about a sentence each, you’ll notice that the page starts to look like a uniform wall again. There may be much less text, but getting a preview of the content still requires scanning through the whole thing. It’s even harder to tell where you left off. Breaks in prose are as much about grouping similar content together as they are about creating stopping points.
So how can we tell when content belongs together? Let’s look at some guidelines and examples from the beginning of Maximum Ride. This book has so many paragraph breaks it’s almost one sentence per paragraph.
Grouping Content by Topic
First, what most of us learned in grade school about starting paragraphs with topic sentences still applies to fiction. If you find yourself elaborating on, explaining, or describing the content of a previous sentence, that previous sentence is probably your topic sentence. This principle can also apply at the sentence level. I often use a semicolon to join two short sentences when the second sentence is needed to explain the first.
While most of us are familiar with creating paragraphs this way, it can still get thorny at times. Let’s look at our first excerpt from Maximum Ride. In it, the narrating character just saw a gap in the trees ahead, and she ran for it hoping that it was a clearing.
It wasn’t a clearing. In front of me was a cliff, a sheer face of rock that dropped to an unseeable floor hundreds of feet below.
In back of me were woods filled with drooling bloodhounds and psycho Erasers with guns.
This excerpt has parallel phrasing for the sentences starting with “in front of me” and “in back of me.” This makes them feel like they should be siblings – two sentences in the same paragraph or two whole paragraphs on the same page. But “in front of me” is elaborating on “it wasn’t a clearing,” making the latter its topic sentence. That topic sentence doesn’t have much to do with “in back of me,” so they can’t all go in a paragraph together. The result is something that sounds wrong regardless of how you organize it.
To fix this, the topic sentence could be edited to say the narrator is looking around instead of just ahead. That would fit both the following sentences. But considering the context in the story, it would be easier to put a transition on the later sentence to indicate the narrator is changing focus. A simple change like “I looked back. The woods were filled…” would work.
Maximum Ride has another instance where a misplaced paragraph break causes confusion.
Then, taking a deep breath, I unfurled my wings as hard and fast as I could.
Thirteen feet across, pale tan with white streaks and some freckly looking brown spots, they caught the air, and I was suddenly yanked upward, hard, as if a parachute had just opened. Yow!
Because these two paragraphs are isolated together in this example, it may be easy to see that “Thirteen feet across, pale tan with white streaks …” refers to the wings in the previous paragraph. But on a page full of these paragraphs, they feel less related, and the second paragraph is confusing. It’s elaborating on the previous sentence, so it shouldn’t be in a new paragraph.
Identifying Transitions to Break On
Just as similar content should be placed together, any noticeable change in the prose is a likely place for a break.
Changes in time or place
A common transition in fiction is moving the place or time. If you just want to fast-forward a few minutes until your protagonist is finished chopping lettuce, that’s likely a paragraph break. If you fast-forward to the next day, that calls for a scene break. Leaping across the continent to narrate about different people might call for a chapter break.
Changes in style or tone
A change in style or tone can also call for a break. Let’s look at an example.
The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective. Take right now, for instance.
Run! Come on, run! You know you can do it.
I gulped deep lungfuls of air. My brain was on hyper-drive; I was racing for my life. My one goal was to escape. Nothing else mattered.
This is the opening of chapter 1 of Maximum Ride. It starts with what sounds like present tense, then goes into a character’s thought, then switches to first-person past tense. Even with the paragraph breaks it’s incredibly jarring, but it would be much worse if the breaks weren’t there. In fact, part of the issue is that a paragraph break isn’t big enough for what appears to be a change from present to past tense. Usually those things aren’t found in the same book. The other issue with it is that without proper context, thoughts like that need to be labeled as thoughts.
Let’s look at a subtler tone switch.
Yeah, Erasers. Mutants: half-men, half-wolves, usually armed, always bloodthirsty. Right now they were after me.
See? That snaps everything into perspective.
The “Yeah, Erasers” is the topic sentence for this first paragraph. The narrator then elaborates on what Erasers are. The “See?” actually fits into this same paragraph okay, but it has a different tone, so it feels quite natural in a new one.
Changing between characters during dialogue
Besides transitions in time, place, and style, where you place paragraph breaks during dialogue is critical for clarity. I’ve described my recommendations for breaking during dialogue elsewhere, but in short, you want to group content by the person speaking or taking actions. If one person speaks and then a different person nods, break between those sentences. Here’s an example from the book Crescent City that creates confusion because it doesn’t do that.
“It’s not that, dumbass, though again: fuck you. That was my lunch for today.” Danika chuckled. “This tattoo hurts like Hel,” Bryce complained. “I can’t even lean against my chair.”
That’s all Bryce speaking, not Danika.
Breaking for story rhythm
Last, story structure is also a good guide for how to group narration. This is particularly relevant for larger chunks like chapters, but paragraphs often also have miniature hooks and resolutions in them. For optimal tension, a paragraph states a problem or raises a question, provides a potential answer, and then briefly mentions the next issue. That issue is then explained in the following paragraph.
For this next example, I’ve grouped some lines from Maximum Ride together to better show this off.
I was racing for my life. My one goal was to escape. Nothing else mattered. My arms being scratched to ribbons by a briar I’d run through? No biggie. My bare feet hitting every sharp rock, rough root, pointed stick? Not a problem. My lungs aching for air? I could deal. As long as I could put as much distance as possible between me and the Erasers.
Yeah, Erasers. Mutants: half-men, half-wolves, usually armed, always bloodthirsty. Right now they were after me.
The first paragraph above brings up the question of why the narrator is running for their life. It ends by bringing up the Erasers, but that raises the questions of what Erasers are – creating a hook. The hook is addressed by the next paragraph, which ends by emphasizing the problem that the Erasers are chasing the narrator.
If you’re not sure where to break your paragraph, look for a place that will end on a tense note or bring up an interesting question.
Using Breaks for Emphasis & Pacing
The placement of breaks alters the pace of the narration and draws the eye to specific passages. Longer chunks of content slow the pace down. They are ideal for reaction scenes or places with lots of detail and description. Of course, lots of detail and description is also a common reason that sentences and paragraphs are longer.
This means that larger paragraphs make content feel less essential. A passage is more likely to be ignored if it’s buried in a long paragraph. For descriptive detail, that’s often fine. Bigger chunks encourage readers to relax and enjoy the lyrical flow without worrying about the destination.
Conversely, shorter chunks are better for increasing the pace during tense scenes. The story will feel like it’s moving faster. Because keeping chunks short often means trimming excess words, sentences, and paragraphs, it usually is moving faster.
Smaller chunks also place more emphasis on content. You can make a sentence stand out by putting it in its own paragraph. This is a good choice for particularly tense and impactful lines. As an example, I’ve edited a previous excerpt from Maximum Ride to group sentences together, but left the next sentence of the book on its own.
I looked frantically for a means of escape. In front of me was a cliff, a sheer face of rock that dropped to an unseeable floor hundreds of feet below. In back of me were woods filled with drooling bloodhounds and psycho Erasers with guns.
Both options stank.
The last line above could also go in the previous paragraph. Leaving it on its own emphasizes both the tension and the humor of the line.
However, people are often tempted into emphasizing every piece of content this way, and that’s not how that works. Variability is required for this technique to have impact. That’s because things stand out when they are emphasized in comparison to your other content. The more one-sentence paragraphs you have, the less it means.
When a bunch of one-sentence paragraphs do all succeed in emphasizing content, it starts to look melodramatic. And when the writer goes overboard in emphasizing a passage that doesn’t seem to justify it, it can come off as pretentious.
Let’s take a couple examples from I Am Number Four, starting with a tiny chunk that has been emphasized to the point of absurdity.
In the beginning there were nine of us. We left when we were young, almost too young to remember.
A single-word sentence will always make an impression because it’s only one word long. Putting it on its own paragraph and italicizing it is practically screaming. This word isn’t important enough for that. For one thing, it’s merely repeating something the reader has already heard. For another, the revelation that the protagonist still remembers their homeland is not particularly earth-shattering.
This next example from the same book has a melodramatic air.
In the beginning we were a group of nine.
Three are gone, dead.
There are six of us left.
They are hunting us, and they won’t stop until they’ve killed us all.
I am Number Four.
I know that I am next.
The above may look fitting for the back of the book, but it’s actually the ending lines of the first chapter. While most of these sentences are impactful enough to justify being in their own paragraph in isolation, together the drama feels forced. Let’s look at it again, edited to add variability.
In the beginning we were a group of nine. There are six of us left.
They are hunting us, and they won’t stop until they’ve killed us all. Three are gone, dead. I am Number Four.
I know that I am next.
The last line stands out more than it did in the version where every sentence was on its own line, and the drama doesn’t feel so forced.
Variability in chunk size is less essential as the chunks get larger. Sentences with no variability will create either clunky or tedious prose that is unpleasant for readers. At the chapter level, however, I think dramatic variations are less called for.
Readers often use chapters to judge how much to read in one session, so having some consistency in chapter size sets expectations for time investment. This is particularly true since, in a typical book, readers can only tell how long chapters are by looking at the page numbers on the table of contents and doing math. A chapter that is dramatically shorter or longer than others will take many readers by surprise when it ends early or just keeps going. That said, a little variation in chapter length is generally okay, and shortening a tense chapter can still be helpful.
Experimenting can help you get a feel for how breaks affect the narration. Take the text from a page of your favorite book, remove all the paragraph breaks, and then judge for yourself where you would put them. Then compare your choices to the author’s. Review your own work, and ask yourself if you could have put your breaks in other places instead. The results may surprise you.
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