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Critique: How to Use Paragraph Breaks to Guide the Reader’s Experience

Paragraph breaks are something akin to a writer’s turn signals. They silently—sometimes almost subliminally—tell readers what’s about to happen and how they should react.

As you may remember (or not) from school, a paragraph break in technical writing is meant to indicate a new thought. (I have clear memories of being required to find and underline the “topic sentence” that was the organizing thought of each new paragraph; it was a boring exercise, but looking back, I realize how well it’s served me.)

In fiction, we use the paragraph break a little differently (<—topic sentence!!!). Not only do our paragraph breaks signal a new thought, they can also be used to orient readers within the overall action: Who is acting? Who is speaking?

In ye olden days, what constituted a cohesive paragraph, even in fiction, was considerably more permissive. If you read the classics, you know it’s not uncommon to encounter paragraphs that last pages. These days, readers prefer to see more white space on the page. They want to read quickly, an ability aided by an author’s skillful use of “turn signals.”

Use paragraph breaks almost like punctuation, so you can guide your readers’ experience of your story’s action and pacing.

Learning From Each Other: New WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the second in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have so kindly sent in. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Erik Börjesson for sharing the following excerpt from his fantasy Rose of the Winds:

It moved.

“Hey!” The squirrel leaped from the branch in a streak of red. She ran after it, weaving through a clung of sap trees and jumped over a thorn bush; the world passed her in streaks of colours and shapes. Where she was going was of no concern, what mattered was the squirrel and little more. The squirrel’s coat of brown and red blended in with the canopy of the trees as if it was wearing camoflauge. She held the camera with white fingers, its leather strap chafing her neck, a drop of sweat streaked down her forehead. A low branch came up ahead. Clara lunged to her knees, sliding over the forest floor, showering browned leaves and clods of dirt in her wake, her head barely missing the branch. She stopped, panting, her heart beating in her throat. Clara looked for the squirrel, turning around in circles. She finally spotted it clinging to the grey trunk of an ashtree. Quick as lightning, Clara bent down on one knee and focused in on the squirrel. Snap. “Gotcha.” She smiled a wicked smile and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The squirrel retreated to the safety of the canopy, relieved that the chase was over. Clara stood up and brushed the cakes of mud off her blue jeans; though, some of it still clung to them. She turned to leave, but then stopped. Where was the trail? It felt like something cold and nasty had turned her guts inside out. She looked around for something familiar. She spotted the low branch and went back and under it; she soldiered on. Next was a thorn bush. Clara walked and walked but found no bush. Was the tree with the low branch really the same one she had passed?

Even in this in medias res excerpt, Erik does a great job with forward momentum, thanks mostly to the character’s goal. She wants something, and that is the entire point of the scene. As the scene goes on (there’s a subsequent section I haven’t shared due to length constraints), it’s also clear he has a great grasp on scene structure. We start out with Clara’s goal to take a picture of the squirrel, encounter conflict as the squirrel runs away, and reach a “yes, but…” outcome when she succeeds in her goal, only to then have to react to the realization that she is lost. So good job, Erik!

However, today, I would like to use this opportunity to explore the how, when, and why of paragraph breaks. For starters, here is how I would edit the excerpt to add a significant number of paragraph breaks. You’ll immediately notice how much more white space this provides, which makes the piece less formidable, easier to read, and clearer in its presentation of action.

It moved.

“Hey!”

The squirrel leaped from the branch in a streak of red.

She ran after it, weaving through a clung of sap trees and jumped over a thorn bush; the world passed her in streaks of colours and shapes. Where she was going was of no concern, what mattered was the squirrel and little more.

The squirrel’s coat of brown and red blended in with the canopy of the trees as if it was wearing camouflage.

She held the camera with white fingers, its leather strap chafing her neck. A drop of sweat streaked down her forehead.

A low branch came up ahead.

Clara lunged to her knees, sliding over the forest floor, showering browned leaves and clods of dirt in her wake, her head barely missing the branch. She stopped, panting, her heart beating in her throat. She looked for the squirrel, turning around in circles.

She finally spotted it clinging to the grey trunk of an ash tree. Quick as lightning, she bent down on one knee and focused in on the squirrel.

Snap.

“Gotcha.” She smiled a wicked smile and wiped the sweat from her forehead.

The squirrel retreated to the safety of the canopy, relieved that the chase was over.

Clara stood up and brushed the cakes of mud off her blue jeans, though some of it still clung to them. She turned to leave, but then stopped.

Where was the trail? It felt like something cold and nasty had turned her guts inside out. She looked around for something familiar. She spotted the low branch and went back and under it; she soldiered on. Next was a thorn bush. Clara walked and walked but found no bush. Was the tree with the low branch really the same one she had passed?

3 Rules of Paragraph Breaks

When and how you break for a new paragraph is as much a stylistic choice as anything else. Pacing will be a major consideration as well. Faster, choppier pacing does much better with shorter paragraphs—sometimes paragraphs of even just a single word. Slower, more leisurely—or more academic—pacing will usually do better with longer paragraphs, although you shouldn’t hesitate to break up dense sections of text when possible to make them more readable.

Truly, there are many rules of writing good paragraphs (some of which I talked about in this post: 8 Paragraph Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making). But today I want to talk about three of the most important.

1. New Speaker = New Paragraph

Perhaps one of fiction’s most important rules for paragraphs is that of a “new line for every speaker.”

In a dialogue exchange between two or more characters, the different speakers should be separated by paragraph breaks.

Don’t do this:

“I’m not going with you,” Horace said. Judith glared. “Oh, yes, you are!”

Do this:

“I’m not going with you,” Horace said.

Judith glared. “Oh, yes, you are!”

This instantaneously signals to readers the speaker is shifting. As a result, readers are able to keep up with the back and forth of the dialogue almost instinctively, especially if the author also skillfully includes dialog tags (he said) and action beats (she glared) to clarify who is saying what.

You will also want to insert a paragraph break into the midst of a single speaker’s dialogue if you are interspersing the dialogue with a second character’s non-verbal reactions. This brings me to an oft-overlooked and but equally important second rule…

2. New Actor = New Paragraph

Maybe you wondered why I ended up adding so many paragraph breaks to Erik’s scene when it has so little dialogue—and no conversational exchanges whatsoever.

The reason is that actors within narrative are treated the same as speakers. Usually, when characters exchange actions, the rules are the same as when they exchange dialogue. In Erik’s example, Clara acts, then the squirrel acts. We have two actors in this scene, which means each should get a new paragraph. The paragraph breaks give readers immediate signals about who is the doing the acting.

The exceptions to this rule all of which hark back to those grade-school adages about topic sentences. Sometimes, in some paragraphs, the emphasis will need to remain on a primary actor, rather than bouncing between the actions/reactions of multiple actors. For example, you may need to briefly indicate a response from a second character, but you’ll maintain a cohesive paragraph because the emphasis remains on a singular character or on a cooperative action or movement.

For example:

The servant unlocked the padlock with a great squeaking. The portcullis stuck when he tried to raise it, and the knights had help him lift it off the ground. They ducked under, and the manservant guided them across the courtyard, through the dusty shambles of the main foyer, and up two flights of stairs.

3. New Parts of Narrative = New Paragraph

Even in a scene which features or emphasizes one primary actor, paragraph breaks are often useful for guiding readers through the different types of action that character might be performing. These might include:

  • Physical action: He revved the car.
  • Physical reaction: His heart hammered.
  • Dialogue: “You crazy driver!” she yelled.
  • Indirect internal narrative: If these crazy people didn’t get out of the way, he was just going to run them over.
  • Direct internal narrative: If these crazy people don’t get out of the way, I’m just going to run them over.
  • Observation/description: Street lights blinked past.

Keep in mind these differentiated parts of the narrative will not always require their own paragraph break. An intimate sense of your pacing will help you decide when a break is best and when it isn’t. One good rule of thumb, however, is that if you spend more than two sentences on any one narrative type, it’s probably best to think about breaking for a new paragraph.

We might assemble the above examples like this:

He revved the car.

“You crazy driver!” she yelled.

His heart hammered. If these crazy people didn’t get out of the way, he was just going to run them over.

Street lights blinked past.

When set up like this, the man, the woman, and the street lights each ground themselves on new lines within their own topic sentences. The man’s indirect thought about running people over is introduced and grouped with his own related physical reaction.

An understanding of motivation-reaction units (MRUs) will help you ground your instincts for ordering the various parts of narrative. A proper MRU starts with the motivation or cause, then lines up the resulting effect as another string of causes and effects: feeling > thought > action > speech. Once you can differentiate between the roles of various sentences, you will have a better feel for when to break between them.

***

Paragraph breaks are important both as a tool for pacing your narrative and for subtly guiding readers through the nuances of your expanding story. Used skillfully, they create an inviting presentation of text that pulls readers in, keeps them grounded, and urges their eyes and imaginations forward through the prose.

My thanks to Erik for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

You can find further excerpt analyses linked below:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you prefer to err on the side of more or fewer paragraph breaks in your writing? Why do think this is? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Anne Andersen says

    Thanks again for reminding a fiction writer that refamiliarizing ourselves with grammar and style rules can be useful! Though, sitting down and using a style manual is daunting.

    By the way, with the writers block thing… be kind to yourself. You probably know how to deal with it.

    I’m not convinced writers block is a real thing. It’s often not knowing well enough what you’re trying to say or it is your mind and body telling you to care for other parts of your life for a while.

    Allow yourself to be slothsome or distracted for a while. Not everything needs tight control.

    The best advice I was ever given (was not to lower my standards) but to write about why I wasn’t able to write. What stopped me or caused me problems. I would ramble on about plot issues, character issues or personal issues and how they affected my writing. Eventually some writing excitement would rekindle.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks. It’s been an interesting month, but I made a big breakthrough shortly after recording the podcast. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about in the near future!

  2. I had never broken it down like this (though I knew the first rule about the different speakers by heart). I worked off instinct, but thinking about the individual cogs is useful, especially when it comes to recommending certain tactics to others, since you can explain your reasoning.

    Thanks so much!

  3. Hi Katie

    This is a great post. Thanks so much for it and all that you do for us.

    I’m struggling a bit with internal narrative — specifically when to use direct internal narrative and when to use the indirect version. Have you done a post on this? If so, could you please point me in the direction of it?

  4. Thanks for this. I was starting to wonder if sometimes I was putting in too many paragraph breaks. What you illustrate here confirms I’m doing it right.
    I’ve had no formal training, except for an online writing course, so I work mostly on instinct.
    Cheers.

  5. Great insight on using paragraphs to drive the action! You rock, girlfriend! 🙂

  6. Thanks for explaining this so succinctly. I have read other explanations of MRUs that only confused me but now I think I understand.

  7. Michelle Christensen says

    This is a powerful post for me. It goes against everything I was taught in AP English 35 years ago. Of course, back then we were studying the classics. I have written a lot of articles for an Internet marketing company, and I used similar “rules” and made sure there was plenty of white space.

    I’ve had a hard time transitioning the concept of paragraphs in fiction being only 1, 2, or 3 sentences. (I’m new to fiction writing.) My critique group has been urging me to do so, telling me that readers like white space. This is true, but it has felt like I’m dumbing down the paragraph structure.

    Reading your rules and reasoning behind the rules makes it easier for me to “go along with the current trend.” I have to, regardless of whether I like it or not. But now, I’ll like it better since I understand it better. Thank you!

  8. Am a little late (catching up on my emails) It’s funny every time I read one of your postings like this one I feel it should be kept hush-hush and hidden under the covers while reading it. Ah-hah-aha all mine! Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky! Lol!

    quite a few other writers on different sites I go to don’t even try to learn anything new it floors me, I mean how can you not want to get better? ;-;

    Anyway, thank you for this article I’ll learn it and apply it. <3 (She's so generous isn't she?) <3

Trackbacks

  1. […] writers in the revision process, K. M. Weiland examines how to use paragraph breaks to guide the reader’s experience, and Janice Hardy warns us about red flag telling words that often spell trouble in our writing and […]

  2. […] Critique: How to Use Paragraph Breaks to Guide the Reader’s Experience […]

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