We need to divide the text on a page somehow, or it’ll congeal into a single, impenetrable block. But how should we divide that text? Enter the humble paragraph and its often unappreciated battle to keep our writing legible! This week, we’re talking about all things paragraph: history, purpose, length, you name it. Do we figure out the perfect formula for how long a paragraph should be? You’ll have to listen and find out! But the answer is no.
Generously transcribed by Viviana. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. With your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes, Matlock and Chris Winkle.[Opening Music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is-
Chris: Now, I think it’s important that we give listeners a break from our voices once in a while. so we don’t just have one huge wall of voice. So, after we save you things, we’re just going to take a pause and then just start talking again. I think that will improve things. Raise engagement.
Oren: That’s called dead air, Chris. It’s not great. [Laughs] Nobody wants that. This is one of the advantages of editing your podcasts and not doing it live is that you can edit out the parts where no one is saying anything for several seconds.
Chris: So awkward! But, having done some narration editing, some audio. It is interesting though, that you do want pauses in your audio, but they have to be the perfect length. And that’s the trick. How do you get them long enough to do a little bit of separation, but not so long that it’s awkward.
Oren: If you ever figure it out, let me know.
Wes: Well, you have to think about it in terms of breaths, right. You know, it could be like (Inhales sharply), Or it could be like (Inhales). Too short and too long is just horrible.
Chris: I like the idea that from now on, whenever we take a break, like a pause when talking we’ll just put in a breath sound effect (Laughs).
Wes: Yeah (Laughs) it’ll make everybody more relaxed. It’ll be fine.
Chris: It is interesting though, when you look at- when you listen to audio narration, you realize, especially if it’s not professional audio narration, you realize how many visual things on the page have to be somehow represented through voice changes or pauses and what have you. And there’s a number of things like paragraphs, which may or may not be the topic today, who knows.
Oren: We’ll get there.
Chris: We’ll get there, eventually. Again, paragraphs are usually a visual thing. And so when you don’t have them, there are some things that can become more confusing. If the narrator isn’t very careful about putting in pauses.
Oren: Especially when you’re doing audio narration, when you get to a paragraph break, if the paragraph break is to separate two different speakers, that’s when it gets particularly confusing to me.
Chris: So, I was gonna go into the purpose of paragraphs, but apparently I’m podcasting with a couple of history nerds.I didn’t notice everybody else had history stuff in their notes, so…
Oren: I got history of the paragraph! It used to be bad! It used to be very bad. We’ve improved as a species (Laughs)
Wes: Really you opened the floodgates when you gave us the opportunity to bring the pilcrow into the conversation.
Oren: Yeah, our good friend the pilcrow, everyone knows about the pilcrow.
Chris: It’s that weird paragraph symbol, right? I didn’t know iIt was called a pilcrow.
Oren: It is “Sir Pilcrow” to you.
Oren: According to the history that I looked up, and this was some casual Googling, I did find a 216 page book on the history of the paragraph, and I did not have time to read it. I’m sorry. But according to some articles that I looked at, the history of how we separate text on the page is pretty interesting and used to be that we just kind of didn’t. Every written document was just a wall of text. And this is specifically the history of English and to another extent, Latin. And then we started coming up with little markers to try to give the eye something to see to break the text into blocks, but we still didn’t make a new line. So, I have this hilarious image that I’ll put in the show notes, some old Latin, using like an old pilcrow paragraph marker. And its just, Sentence, text, text, text, pilcrow, text, text, text, pilcrow. There’s no line break. It’s just all there. It’s all one block. And it’s terrifying.
Chris: Hey, like- paper parchment was expensive.
Wes: Exactly. I mean, I think that had to be it. When things really started changing and we started spacing things out more that really came with the advent of like, printers. And then suddenly they’re like, “Oh wait, we can do these things, and actually we need to have more space for the printers to work correctly. So that’s what we’re all doing now. Oh, it looks like it’s easier to read, too. Who’d have thought?” (Laughs)
Chris: Overtime paper just became cheaper. It became easier to produce, and we’re all seeing the same pattern with the internet. So, the reason now why paragraph style on the internet is to use a completely blank line is because we don’t have to worry about paper usage anymore. Because even with a novel, if you were to put blank lines between every paragraph, that’s still going to add up to the number of pages and that is going to make the book heavier and is going to increase shipping costs when you’re doing mass-printing. Right? That blank line can make a difference, whereas in the internet, it doesn’t matter. Space is cheap. Vertical space, specifically. Um, when you’re not in the top area that’s super high priority, it’sreally cheap. Cause you can always just scroll further.
Chris: As a result of that, I think there’s now more print materials again that are picking up the blank line. I think it’s better! Once you get used to it, the extra space, it’s hard to go back.
Oren: It’s certainly easier for me to read. I can read a manuscript that uses indenting instead of blank line, but the blank line is just much easier. It’s easier for my eyes to focus on the page, to see where the paragraphs are.
Wes: Certainly styles matter, right? And this is something that a publishing house or a good editor will call out for you. If there is going to be a proper full space, in some stories that denotes a change in speaker or a change in scene. So, being judicious with those and using them appropriately is very important, because I think, by far and large, most printed books are still doing indents.
Oren: Yeah, mostly.
Wes: I think comfortable line spacing goes a long way instead of just full breaks. I think it is evolving like you guys are talking about.
Oren: Indents are still mostly fine. As long as your line spacing is decent and you’re not just stacking one line of text touching the next line of text, that’ll probably still be fine. The two things that I will absolutely not accept and that I will fight to the death on is, do not mark your paragraphs on the right side of the page. Don’t do it. It’s like a thing that some people do, they send me like a word document where on the left side, it’s all flush. And I’m supposed to tell where the new paragraphs are by looking on the right side and seeing that one line has ended early.
Wes: That’s horrible.
Oren: And it’s like, nope. It is torture on my eyes and I hate it. And I wish people wouldnt do it. And the other one is that sometimes I get people who put in the blank line, but instead of just leaving it blank, they put in like a symbol. Like an ampersand, or a hash mark, or a fancy little leaf.
Chris: Between every paragraph?
Oren: Yeah, yeah! Between every paragraph.
Oren: I’m asking you, please don’t do that. What the convention is that if you put a symbol between paragraphs that indicates that you are shifting scenes.
Chris: Yeah. It’s the end of the section.
Oren: And the most common way to do that is with the three asterisks. But like, any symbol that you put between paragraphs makes it look like you’re doing that. And, I can get used to it. I can eventually learn that the scene’s not over, but it’s really disorienting (Laughs).
Chris: Ah, the dark ages before paragraphs
Oren: Just either indent or line break, either of them is fine. So we’ve covered “What is paragraph?”. Why is paragraph?
Wes: .Well, I think we’ve mostly covered, “What is paragraph look like?”
Chris: I like to think of paragraphs as part of a system of breaking up a big work into manageable pieces that happens at multiple levels. At the smallest level, we have the sentence. And then at the slightly bigger level, we have the paragraph, and then we’ll have, oftentimes, kind of a section where the scene breaks, or might be the place that we have that missing line in the novel. And then we have chapters, and then sometimes we have the confusing sections called books (Laughs) inside a book.
Oren: Yeah. I would also like people to not do that, but I feel less strongly about it.
Chris: And to some degree, they share a similar purpose, which is to group similar things together and also make it so that you can see your progress, and you can take on one section and choose to just read that and then see that you’ve made progress and then mark your place. They all have kind of a similar purpose in that way, just at different scales. So, this does mean, if you have a larger paragraph, It’s almost like asking for a bigger time commitment. Which, I think, is why people are like, “Oh no, the wall of text”.
Oren: I don’t know if this is just a dyslexia thing, but in really big paragraphs, it does become harder for me to keep my place. This is less of an issue with audio, so this is primarily a text thing, but if I’m reading text and the paragraph goes on for more than seven or eight lines, at that point, it starts to feel like I can’t remember where in the paragraph I was. And God help me If I have to blink.
Oren: And I don’t know, maybe that’s just a dyslexia thing. Other people who are dyslexic, please come back me up.
Chris: I mean, I do think it’s going to be harder for anybody to keep their place, but it may be harder for some people than others. Usually with these kinds of things, especially if we’re talking about accessibility, what’s accessible is easier for everyone. It may be disproportionately easier for a group of people who struggle with certain things, but it’s better for everyone involved. The other thing I like to think about is the fact that typically in a paragraph, you start with a subject sentence. And so, if you can actually scan the page and you see where all the paragraphs are, you can actually kind of get a sense of the content by looking at those subjects sentences and not by trying to pick off individual random phrases.
Chris: Whereas if you have a giant wall of text and you want, “Is this where I left off?”, for instance. Or, “Is this part of the unpleasant stuff I want to skip?” (Laughs). That’s another example. Seeing paragraphs allows you to just look at the subject sentence, which is going to give you a much better idea of what the topic is and what the focus is of the text, than if you’re trying to randomly pick out phrases
Oren: Plus it will usually be good for a B minus on the test.
Wes: I’m glad you brought up the subject or kind of topic sentence stuff. I have a few excerpts from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.
Oren: Ooh, the shrunken white elephant of style (Laughs).
Wes: Yes (Laughs). They had a section in there about kind of two purposes, specifically with fiction on the purposes of paragraphs. And, I liked both of them for kind of getting at what Chris is exactly talking about. They say that in narration and description, the paragraph sometimes begins with a concise, comprehensive statement serving to hold together the details that follow. And, they give an example. “The campaign opened with a series of reverses.”, “The breeze served us admirably,”, basically, just like if you were to describe things in a short, hopefully a short paragraph of exposition, that first sentence, it says, “The breeze served us admirably.”, which is a hilarious sentence. That primes me to say, “Okay, we’re getting into the weather”.Nice and concise. I know what’s going on. They continue to then say that- actually this little bit right after the examples is hilarious- but when this device or any device is too often used, it becomes a mannerism.
Wes: Okay. Thanks, guys.
Chris: What is the definition of mannerism here? A contrivance, or a-
Wes: They use it throughout the book as kind of like, a bad habit.
Chris: Okay. We should all strive to not have mannerisms.
Wes: No mannerisms (Laughs).
Chris: No mannerisms!
Chris: I do think that, when it comes to subject sentences, a lot of people learned them when it came to writing essays in grade school. And so, it can be kind of hard when you’re writing fiction to figure out how that maps over. And, I would just say that if you find yourself stating something and then describing it, explaining it or elaborating on it. The thing that you started with that you’re describing, explaining or elaborating on, that’s probably where your subject sentence is.
Wes: I like the split that they have with the one that I just said, it says, “This is gonna hold together, the details that follow.”, and in their second example it says, “The opening sentence simply indicates, by its subject, the direction the paragraph is going to take”. So, an example sentence they have is, “He picked up the heavy lamp from the table and began to explore”. Great! There’s direction with that. And, that would be an easy thing to maybe go and scan back for, before you lose your place inevitably, cause’ the paragraph is way too long.
Chris: Or if you’re like introducing something new into the scene and you started describing it, that’s obviously a paragraph, generally, or the start of the paragraph, depending on how long the description is, of course.
Wes: But I think the key thing we’ve definitely got at here with paragraphs, the point of a paragraph is to help readers. We figured out that if you break things up, it is more manageable. It’s good to provide some space and some breathing room, but it is important, I think, that the paragraph does maintain a sense of cohesion and stick on a particular topic. When there’s a noticeable break, you should split it into a different one, regardless of syntax and such. That being said, and even Strunk and White, say this in their last section, that if you go on too long, it’s forgivable to split the paragraph and keep on the same subject to help your reader. And I think that is oddly generous of them (Laughs).
Chris: (Laughs) They’re not usually that flexible.
Wes: They are not!
Chris: I think another thing to keep in mind when it comes to helping readers, is it prepares readers for a change in the narration. Much like italics is kind of used at a sentence level, if you have a sentence in italics. Italics can be a little strange because it can indicate different things. And so, sometimes it can almost be like, “Wait, what’s going on here?”, but it prepares you for something that’s different. Similarly, a paragraph break kind of prepares you for the texts that follows to be slightly different than before. For instance, that’s why we use paragraph breaks to separate characters in dialogue. Part of the reason, so that we kind of prepared for a change in who we’re covering there, or anytime we have a slightly different time or place, again, if it’s a lot of, you know, a really different time or place, we’re probably moving to a new scene, but if it’s something small, like, “Oh, and then over the next 15 minutes he worked on baking the cake.”, that’s probably a new paragraph.
Oren: I’ve generally found that it works okay to be like, “Does it feel like you’re talking about something different now?”, then it’s probably time for a new paragraph. Not a hundred percent of the time. There are going to be some exceptions, but that’s a good baseline.
Chris: And there are definitely subjective choices in there too. Again, there’s some places where you should definitely break or you should definitely not break, but there’s also plenty of places where it’s really an artistic choice, depending because paragraphs can also be used for emphasis. So, what you emphasize can matter, or you might want to emphasize different things, depending on what you’re doing.
Oren: A one-line paragraph gives strong emphasis, which is why all of your paragraphs should be one line so that everything is emphasized.
Wes: There’s a book I remember reading in elementary school and I think it was called The War with Grandpa. The narrator is this kid doing a writing assignment for class, and there’s two chapters in there where he gets into really long paragraphs, and in the second chapter, he talks about getting feedback from the teacher about needing to have more paragraph breaks, and then does exactly what you said Oren
Wes: And that stuck with me so much. It was like third grade, and I was like, “Oh no! Don’t do that”.
Chris: Well, any form of emphasis is really tempting to overuse. Especially, if you really want your text to stand out and you’re like, I want this to have a big impact and this to have a big impact.”, The problem is that emphasis is like a competitive contest, between different parts of your text. So, if you made them all single paragraphs, it means nothing because nobody’s winning, someone’s got to win. That’s what I’m saying.
Chris: But. going back to the dialogue thing, because there is something that people can get mixed up there. I know the traditional rule is to start a new paragraph when a new person speaks. And unfortunately when people follow that too literally, and that’s exactly what they’re doing, it often creates problems. I have even seen people do something where they’ll have a character take an action, and then there’ll be a paragraph break, and then the same character will say something. And then in the same paragraph, another character will take an action and then there’ll be a paragraph break, and then the character who just took an action says something. And then the first character takes an action in the same paragraph. So you have, every paragraph is one person speaking, followed by a different character taking an action.
Oren: Oh, that’s so confusing. Or,it’s cousin is my favorite, is new paragraph, character is talking, dialogue stops, but same paragraph, a different character takes an action, dialogue resumes. Who is talking now, can anyone say for sure? Is there any way to even know?
Chris: Yup. That is super confusing. I mean, both of them are confusing because if you have a character, take an action after a line of dialogue, the assumption is that line of dialogue is theirs. It’s an alternate way of tagging the dialogue. Instead of saying, “He said” or “They said”, you would just, “They frowned” or something like that. So, it’s extremely confusing if you put somebody else’s name next to the line of dialogue, and that person did not say the line of dialogue (Laughs).
Oren: And it’s even more so if the action is taken before the dialogue, because that’s like a very common way to attribute dialogue, is you have a character take a short action and then have dialogue, and it’s assumed that whoever the character was that acted was the one talking. So, if a different character acts in the middle of a dialogue paragraph. This is impossible. You’re just stuck there having to wait a few sentences before you can figure out who said what by context.
Wes: Not that this would help anybody, but when one character does a long speech that has multiple paragraphs, you will start that speech with quotation marks, and at the end of that first paragraph, you will not use clsoing quotation marks. You will start the second paragraph, same speaker. You will include the opening quotation marks. and then you’ll carry on. and you will not use the closing until that speech is done to indicate that it’s the same speaker. I think that’s interesting. And now I’m thinking like, what if we use that to solve Oren’s problem right there? But then I was like, that is such a tiny detail for people to have to pay attention to.
Chris: The other thing is, that’s a start, but it’s not enough.
Wes: It’s a start, but it’s not enough. Yeah.
Chris: It’s really hard to notice that that end quotation is missing because you have a paragraph break to also indicate, and it’s much bigger and more obvious generally than the missing double quote or what have you. So, usually, if you’re going to do that, you have to have in the next paragraph, something like,“They continued”, to indicate another tag, basically to indicate that they’re still speaking
Oren: Just to be clear what I’m talking about, because I feel like this can get a little confusing. So, imagine this paragraph, and what I’m going to say next will be the text of the paragraph. Open quotation mark. We need to get out of here. Close quotation mark. Sally stood up. Open quotation mark. Come on, Sally. We have to go. Close quotation mark. Sally is not the one talking in this paragraph. That’s a different character. I have seen that sort of paragraph before. It is weird.
Chris: In my Crescent City critique, there’s an example of that. Again, the alternate rule, instead of just literally breaking before new person speaks, what you want to do is use your paragraphs to group actions and dialogue from the same person into a paragraph together. That would then be three paragraphs. There might be some situations in which it gets awkward because there’s a character who takes an action and then speaks and then takes another action and then speaks and then takes another action and speaks. Honestly, if you’re doing it that much, you should probably break it into multiple paragraphs, but then you should probably also have the other character who’s listening using body language in between that. Cause’ like, what are they doing this whole time?
Oren: Which actually brings me to a question that I had, and this is linked to what Wes was talking about earlier. How often should you have dialogue that goes on for more than one paragraph? Because when I do that, it immediately feels like this character has been talking for too long.
Wes:I would say not that often, but that’s just me thinking how we don’t monologue as much anymore. It’s a hard question because we’ve talked a lot about this, that the longer your exposition or dialogue goes on, there’s an expectation of time passing and what is everybody else doing? And I think there’s value to what Chris said about just like, keep things kind of grouped better together. And, I think there’s probably like a 10 to 15 line forgiveness, and then after that, it’s just too much where you just need to break in or somebody has to interject. And, I think I’ve seen that with like longer prose where somebody will just try to interrupt the speaker, but the speaker just barrels on just keeps talking and that’s like a way to visually break up the paragraph. An utterance, I suppose.
Chris: I can see if you have a situation where it’s just natural for one character to explain something, which is usually the reason why dialogue would go on that long. And, it’s not like, “This is my villanous plan!”, or, “Here’s my whole back story”, or something like that. Again, paragraphs can be of different lengths, and I think this is a case where the paragraph length is kind of sensitive, right? Because, a paragraph can be anything from a single sentence to the entire page. Hopefully not the entire page, but I could easily imagine two short paragraphs of dialogue, for instance. Each with several sentences, but not with 10 sentences.
Wes: And something else, if you are going to pursue something like that, Strunk and White suggest that as a rule, which is funny, begin each paragraph, either with a sentence that suggests the topic or with a sentence that helps the transition. And so, what they say in that section is that if you’re getting on a bit you should, and I think this works for dialogue too, include words or phrases such as “Again”, or like, “For that reason”. Little primers to try to remind readers and presumably the fictional listener of what is going on. It can be long, just make it good and return to your subject so you don’t lose people.
Chris: I would also say that if somebody is speaking for a whole paragraph, a sizable paragraph or two small paragraphs, or what have you, that does generally indicate that the pace is not too fast because they have time to speak at length. I mean, you have other problems if this is like during a fight scene, or an argument or something.
Chris: That, should be a faster pace if its a tenser conflict.
Oren: Look, speech is a free action. I can say as much as I want and time doesn’t pass.
Wes: Oh man. I just, I can’t handle that in combat when I’m playing a role-playing game. And someone starts talking and I’m like, “These are supposed to be six second turns!”
Wes: And then everybody hates me.
Chris: But I would say at that point, you probably have time to ground that person in their environment a little bit. To show what the other person is doing or how they’re reacting, whether they’re nodding or what have you. To have them sit down in a chair, drink out of a cup. Something that shows that they are not just words in an empty white space. Generally, if you’re going on at that length and you can use those types of actions or body language, or futsing with objects in their space to break up that dialogue a little bit.
Oren: Okay. So dialogue aside then how many lines should a paragraph be? Just tell me, I need to know, give me a formula that I can use and not have to think about it anymore.
Wes: They have advice for this.
Chris: Ohh, Yes, of course the deal.
Wes: You’re not going to like this.
Oren: Uh oh.
Wes: “As long as it holds together, a paragraph may be of any length.”
Chris: No, you’re fired.
Wes: “A single short sentence or a passage of great duration.”, which again is very open-minded. They’re basically saying you can do a fragmented short phrase or just be John Stuart Mill and use all the semi-colons that have ever been printed. I like minimum three for like a real paragraph. Just seems like a good number.
Oren: My actual thought is that whatever it is, you should vary it, because like, if all of your paragraphs are the same length, regardless of what that length is, it’s going to feel weird, but you should probably use the extremes less often than the middle. So, there should probably be fewer one and eight line paragraphs than there are three, four and five line paragraphs. That’s my general rule.
Chris: I would say that if you have a bunch of paragraphs that are either fairly large or pretty uniform all the way through, then it could be okay, but it’s likely that you’re missing an opportunity. I’ve been trying to, for my own paragraphs, get better at looking at them and being like, “Can I actually break this paragraph up?”. Because again, shorter paragraphs tend to be friendlier to people. They demand less time, easier to track your place. It gives a feeling of making progress. So, if you can break it up into multiple paragraphs, I often do, and if you’re all the same length, then you may be losing an opportunity to put some emphasis on some of your sentences that could use it. We don’t want emphasis everywhere, but some emphasis is nice. To me, that suggests not taking advantage of an opportunity to use paragraph breaks, to sort of bring out the narration a little bit more.
Wes: I think, for exposition– I was going to say not rushed exposition, but for exposition. A good five to seven, five to 10 makes sense to me, you’re being slowed down. You’re being talked at. But then, as scenes change, you get shorter and it just makes for more sense, three to five lines, things like that.
Oren: All right. Well, now that we have solved the question of how long a paragraph should be, we’re going to go ahead and call this episode to a close.
Oren: Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, who is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Denita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Closing Music]
This has been the Mythcreant podcast. Opening, closing theme, ”The Princess Who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Colton.
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