Close

April 12, 2016

Writing Building Blocks: Paragraph Breaks & Voice

Close up of a keyboard's Enter key with text: Paragraphs Are about Voice?

One reason I leave comments open on most of my old posts is because writing advice doesn’t usually expire. The specifics of “how to write deep point of view?” won’t change next year, and editing tips can give us new ideas no matter what stage of learning we’re in.

Because the advice remains valid, any questions that readers come up with remain timely as well. I’m not going to not answer a question from a writer just because they discovered a post long after I wrote it.

A nice bonus of leaving comments open for questions is that sometimes those commenters give me a great idea for a post topic. (I love questions here—easy inspiration for posts!) *smile*

Where Do Paragraph Breaks Belong?

Recently, one of my commenters left a question on my post about handling point-of-view changes. (Thank you, Peter!) Peter Reynolds noticed:

“My problem is when to start the next paragraph.”

At first glance, that might seem like a duh kind of problem. After all, we probably grew up with school assignments to write multi-paragraph essays, so we know all about topic sentences and supporting details and the like. We’ve been breaking ideas into paragraphs our whole life.

(Unless we’re that guy who writes in Walls Of Text—one huge paragraph without breaks, even when not typing on a phone. Try to avoid being that guy. *grin*)

But the rules are different for fiction. Our work is filled with storytelling that doesn’t come with topic sentences or supporting details, dialogue that follows special rules, unspoken guidelines about which character “owns” a paragraph, and the effect of paragraph breaks on our voice.

As an editor and beta reader, I always say that choosing where to put paragraph breaks is a voice-dependent decision. There’s often no right answer. And that means a post is in order. *smile*

The Rules—and Guidelines—for Paragraph Breaks

Some situations do come with specific rules for when to insert a paragraph break, and some cases are completely up to us. Let’s take a look at the different situations and what the rules—or guidelines—are, going from the strictest cases to the most nebulous…

Using Paragraph Breaks with Dialogue

One of the general “rules” of dialogue is that every character’s dialogue should appear in its own paragraph. That is, we usually wouldn’t type:

“Just tell me.” He paused and leaned closer. “Did you kill him?” She crossed her arms. “Isn’t that for you to find out, Detective?”

Instead, we’d type:

“Just tell me.” He paused and leaned closer. “Did you kill him?”

She crossed her arms. “Isn’t that for you to find out, Detective?”

The Reasons Behind the Rule:

That paragraph break acts as a signal to readers that the speaker has changed. Without that break, readers might become confused about who’s saying what, or to put it another way, readers might become confused about who “owns” that dialogue.

So we’d usually want to include those dialogue breaks for readers’ sake, as a confused reader isn’t immersed in our story. And it’s important to understand that reason before we go into why there are sometimes exceptions to this “rule.”

The Exceptions to the Rule:

Occasionally in our writing, the speakers don’t matter. Imagine a scene where a roomful of people all protest at once:

“What?” “No!” “You can’t do that!”

Does it matter who’s saying what? Or does the reader only need to know there’s an outburst of protest?

If it’s the latter, we might decide to keep all those exclamations on one line to emphasize their simultaneity. If the speakers don’t matter, readers might not need the paragraph break cue.

Takeaway:

In the vast—vast—majority of cases, we’d want to stick to the rule to give each speaker their own paragraph. However, as with most writing “rules,” the point here is that if we understand the reason for the rule, we can break it if we come up with a good enough reason. *smile*

Using Paragraph Breaks with Actions or Thoughts

In fiction writing, we learn that actions and reactions matter. Many times, when our writing feels flat or unemotional, it’s because an action lacks a reaction.

If a non-point-of-view character or situation does or says something shocking, interesting, confusing, provoking, etc., and our point-of-view (POV) character doesn’t react—even in their thoughts—that original action will feel like it landed with a dull thud.

The question then becomes: How do we handle our POV character’s reaction? Do we interrupt the non-POV’s action to stick in our POV character’s reaction? Or do we save the reaction for the end?

For example, we might write:

Lucy stalked by him, slamming doors in her wake hard enough to jangle his teeth. Maybe now wouldn’t be a good time to ask for a raise after all.

Here we have the action of Lucy and the reaction of the POV character, all in one paragraph. Sometimes that will work, and sometimes it won’t. In other words, guidelines might help us with this situation. *smile*

Some reasons why it might not work are when the paragraph…:

  • includes dialogue from a non-POV character,
  • is longer and all focused on the non-POV character except for the one-sentence POV reaction,
  • starts with one or more sentences about the non-POV character, inserts the POV character’s reaction, and then ends with one or more sentences about the non-POV character, or
  • includes actions by both characters (not just internal reactions by the POV character).

The Reasons Behind the Guideline:

In all those cautionary bullets above, the issue is focus. What is the focus of the paragraph? Who “owns” it?

In non-fiction, we think in terms of topic sentences for organizing our thoughts into paragraphs. When it comes to fiction, we need to think in terms of focus and/or ownership.

In the dialogue examples above, we talked about separating dialogue from different speakers into different paragraphs so readers would know who “owned” the words. This situation with reactions is similar, in that we should think about who (or what idea) owns the paragraph.

  • If a non-POV character speaks, shouldn’t they own the paragraph with their dialogue? Yes, so usually any reaction by a different character would be in a different paragraph.
  • In a longer paragraph with all one focus (on the non-POV character), changing the focus to include the POV reaction in the same paragraph might feel like that one sentence doesn’t belong.
  • If the focus of a paragraph changes back and forth between characters—either with a POV reaction or with actions—the changes can feel like an interruption, affecting the flow and pacing.

In all those cases, reordering and/or reorganizing the sentences with an eye toward focus and flow can make the paragraphs feel tighter and stronger.

The Exceptions to the Guideline:

As I mentioned above, this situation doesn’t have the same strict rule as dialogue. However, if we think in terms of story flow, reducing confusion, and pacing, we can understand why the guideline applies in most cases.

In my reply to Peter, I confessed that I’ve sometimes broken the guideline if I can include a reaction without changing the focus. I took the example from his comment and tweaked it to explain:

Judy ‘hmmmed’ and kept her eyes forward. “I could call Fru, or her father,” she said thoughtfully. When Nick’s eyebrows shot up, she continued her explanation. “That wouldn’t hurt anything, would it?”

“When Nick’s eyebrows shot up” is a reaction from a separate character. If we’re strict about the guideline, it doesn’t belong in a paragraph about Judy.

But that reaction wasn’t a full sentence, or even a full independent clause. The argument could be made that by using a short dependent clause with no deep POV aspects to slip in Nick’s reaction, the focus remains on her.

Takeaway:

In other words, this guideline can be “bent.” If we think about sentence and paragraph flow and pacing, we’ll usually know when bending the guideline won’t improve our writing. In the end, how much we want to bend it is up to us. *smile*

Using Paragraph Breaks with Voice

One of the lesser-referenced elements of our writing voice is our choices with paragraph breaks. Just as some authors write in long, languorous sentences and others use shorter or choppier sentences, the same applies to paragraphs.

When I leave comments about paragraph breaks in my editing or beta reading, I always include a disclaimer along the lines of:

“I’m suggesting to add a paragraph break here because I think this idea is getting lost in this current paragraph, and I’d rather see it receive more focus in its own paragraph. However, the choice of where to place paragraph breaks is often very voice-dependent, so feel free to ignore this suggestion even more than any of my others. *smile*”

In many cases, there’s no rule-bending going on, and either choice will be valid. For example…

“Just tell me.” He paused and leaned closer. “Did you kill him?”

She crossed her arms. “Isn’t that for you to find out, Detective?”

…is just as grammatically correct as…

“Just tell me.” He paused and leaned closer. “Did you kill him?”

She crossed her arms.

“Isn’t that for you to find out, Detective?”

Both options keep the characters’ dialogue separate, so they follow the dialogue rule. They both separate her actions from his paragraph, so there’s no violation of the focus guideline. The decision there is just whether we like the rhythm better with the one-sentence paragraph or not.

Some writers like short paragraphs because they think that helps their pacing, or maybe they want a staccato or choppy rhythm. Others avoid one-sentence paragraphs on principle, or maybe they want a gentler or more flowing rhythm. There’s no right or wrong answer.

Or we might make a choice based on our style and what we want to draw connections between in our writing. For example, we might like the subtext of tying her attitude closer to her words better in the first option. Again, there’s no right or wrong answer.

An Example of Our Choice

Personally, for my voice, I try to “save” the usage of one-sentence paragraphs for emphasis only. Sometimes they’re to draw contrast, and sometimes they’re to give a dun-dun-dun emotional punch.

Either way, I try to avoid using them for other, non-emphasis-related reasons (especially when the sentence is short), so I’d go with the first option above. But that’s just me. There’s nothing wrong with making a different choice if that fits our voice better.

In writing, many elements contribute to our craft. Given that this post turned out way longer than I expected it to—considering the superficial duh feeling we probably have about paragraph breaks—paragraph choices might be an aspect of our writing that we don’t think about as much as we could.

However, the point with all of these rules, guidelines, and thoughts about voice is that the more we understand an element, the more we can make choices that will bring readers’ impression closer to our intentions. And just like many other aspects of writing, little things can add up to something bigger. *smile*

How much do you think about your paragraphing choices in your work? Have you run into issues with the dialogue rule in your work or in your reading of others? Have you run into issues with the focus guideline in your work or in your reading of others? Do you disagree with any of my points here? Do you have any advice to add?

Pin It

What do you think?

15 Comments on "Writing Building Blocks: Paragraph Breaks & Voice"

Click here to learn more about Lost Your Pants workshop
Notify of
avatar
5000
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Carradee

Another factor to consider is how location affects memory. Something buried in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a chunk of text is likely to get skimmed or quickly forgotten, making it a nice place to put certain types of hints.

In my own writing, I generally play paragraph breaks by shifts in focus.

Carradee

Oh, the main issue I have with paragraphing is when you do separate a person’s action from their speech, you’re implying that someone else said it, so that can get confusing.

Davonne Burns

I like to end a paragraph on a character’s internal reaction and start the next with physical action or dialog. I personally feel this can help highlight the character’s thought process and motivation for the sequel to the action that’s just happened. Of course that doesn’t always hold true and each scene has it’s own flow.

Glynis Jolly

I’m sure glad Peter asked this question. I’ve been trying to decide how to word such a question myself. Now reading your discussion about the paragraph decisions, I know I need to go back through my work and decide whether I’m going to have dialogue separate from what the character is doing or write it by character and topic (kind of, that is). I’ve been switching back and forth in my draft with the thought of deciding later. This does bring up another question though. Is separating dialogue from action/reaction more of a British concept? I know Jane Austin wrote this way.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
(Btw this comment is long not because it has too many points, but because there are a number of passages I pulled out from my work to illustrate the issue, haha.) Lol I actually think about the paragraph break issue all the time, so it isn’t duh to me, Hahaha. So for instance, I know it’s best if one character speaks per paragraph, but I know that certain genres of books (like many famous Chinese martial arts stories) tend to have multiple characters talking in the same paragraph. It had never bothered me in those Chinese martial arts novels, since I was used to it and it was the norm. I think some English literary classics do that too, and I was also okay with it because it seemed to be the norm. HOWEVER, with English modern novels, it WOULD bother me because I’m used to the one character talking per paragraph rule for modern books. Lol. As for the issue of putting another character’s reaction in the same paragraph as the dialogue of another character, I’m divided on this. On the one hand, I think it’s clearer when they are separate; but on the other hand, sometimes I think it’s more effective when the reaction is written right after the other character’s dialogue than if the reaction were on a separate line. Particularly if the speaking character continues to speak after the other character reacts. I’m not exactly sure why I often prefer them to stick together, but maybe… Read more »
Jen Sako

Great post. Thank you for writing it. I like to use, sparingly, one sentence paragraphs. Particularly for a reaction that is emotional and needs the weight of it’s own paragraph. Sometimes, I’ll get a critique that points out the grammatical rule I’ve broken. I take a harder look but I often leave it as is.

So there.

Calisa Rhose

In all probability, I spend way more time lingering over paragraph breaks than I need to, or should. For me, breaks are like some commas; to use, or not to use. I’m never sure which way to go at times. LOL

Great post. Thanks for clearing up the “right or wrong” question. That helps a lot!. 🙂

Kassandra Lamb

Great post, Jami, and very timely for me. I’ve just started a new series, but intend to keep the old series going as well. I’m finding it a bit challenging at times to switch back and forth between my two protagonists’ voices.

Now I will be more cognizant of the use of paragraph breaks to enhance the differences between them. Both protags are smart women but one is more intellectual than the other, so she gets longer paragraphs.

Another thought — since the development of ebooks, I’ve become more aware of the influence of white space on the reading pace. I find shorter paragraphs easier to read. I wonder if I’m the only one (after all, I do have old eyes…lol)

trackback

[…] Writing Building Blocks: Paragraph Breaks & Voice by Jami Gold. Nice informative stuff in here! […]

trackback

[…] words carefully, Liz Bureman explains the techniques of parataxis and hypotaxis, Jami Gold explores the link between paragraph breaks and voice, and Kristen Lamb gives us 3 ways to add the sizzle to fiction that […]

trackback

[…] words we use and how we break up sentences, paragraphs, and chapters all act as one ingredient of our […]

wpDiscuz