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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. Dennis Michael Montgomery says:

    I favor breaking paragraphs because large paragraphs tend to make me feel I’m getting lost in them and I don’t want my reader feeling lost. Then there’s another part of me that says, “I don’t have time for all of this.”

    The exception to this may be a writer with the gift of literary gab like F. Scott Fitzgerald. I started reading ‘This Side of Paradise’ and was pulled into his large paragraphs by his gab. However there was a part of me that was wondering if he couldn’t have broken them up into smaller paragraphs?

    But who am I to question a master of English?

    By the way, I enjoyed the article and will copy and paste it into my Writing Tips folder.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Fitzgerald came out of a previous literary era that still favored longer paragraphs. If he wrote today, chances are he’d have been a little more liberal with his breaks.

  2. An author/writing teacher named Randy Ingermanson describes MRUs as ‘public clips’ and ‘private clips,’ and that terminology/way of thinking has really helped me a lot. Public clips relate anything that is focused outside the viewpoint character, things that are observable by all. Private clips are focused on the main character, their actions, dialogue, and internal stuff.

  3. I use the change in paragraph style that predominantly alines with a change in character or scene. This article was a good refresher for those who still struggle. Thanks Katie.

  4. Glenn Bowman says:

    I noticed KM used a trio of asterisks to break up her work. In my writing, I add a pair of blank lines, a centered hashtag, and two additional lines. Then I continue with my next related paragraph.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      What you’re referencing is a scene break. It’s an extra visual clue, beyond the simple line break, to tell readers that a new scene has begun.

  5. thescratchingquill says:

    If I can jump in here, much as I like sizable paragraphs, I’d almost go back to the big clunkers if it would keep writers from doing this:

    ~~~~~

    Where was that boy? I stared ocean of people in the city square with its dizzying currents. I clutched my briefcase, tight. “Boy? Hello? Where’d you go?”

    I was all alone.

    In the world’s largest city.

    ~~~~~

    Please, save the dramatic line breaks for breathtaking reveals. Otherwise it just seems like the writer is begging me believe the scene is dramatic — like they’re super insecure about it.

  6. Excellent analysis and explanation of effective use of paragraph breaks. I would have edit the example pretty much the same way.

    Chris

  7. Another reason for deciding how long paragraphs should be is to consider your market. A magazine using columns is going to need *very* short paragraphs – 100 words will seem enormous; an e-reader set on a normal font size will be overwhelmed by paragraphs of much more than 150 words; a paperback can take more without it becoming intrusive because of the size of the page and the amount of white space margins.

    But I agree, pacing wins.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. Something I notice even in my own writing is how much bigger the paragraphs get when I look at my blog on my phone versus my computer. :p

  8. I cosign everything you write here, and your examples are perfect. The errors you pointed out, and the rules you give, are exactly the “tells” between a book produced by indies who haven’t taken the time to learn formatting, and one produced by commercial tradpublishers. That said, I’ve seen academic publishers violate all these guidelines, which makes for a jarring experience, and turns a good story into a chore to read.

    Folks, the guidelines are not pickiness. Best practices for layout has been studied in detail. My paper actually laid out the print pages on the basis of most readers (they had metrics) reading from left to right rather than top to bottom. A features editor who was in the minority of those who read top-to-bottom actually argued about layout with another features editor!

    Bottom line, what you see on the published page isn’t an accident, nor the result of publishers all deciding to be weirdly uptight. Formatting conventions are based on the underlying desire to keep people reading, and are adhered to by people whose paychecks depend on fulfilling this desire.

    Readers may not know the technical terms for the guidelines, but they instinctively know what’s correct when they see it. No matter how good your story, you absolutely can make reading it a chore by violating the norms, so it’s best to learn what they are. A good style guide — think “Words Into Type” (used by Baen) or Chicago Manual of Style (used by many other American publishers) or “New Hart’s Rules” (used by British publishers) can point to other conventions.

    Besides, don’t you want to be able to induce tension and thrills and restfulness in a reader?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      What you say here is not only an appropriate revelation for formatting and punctuation, but also for the sound reasons underlying almost all conventional fiction techniques. This is exactly why it’s important for writers to understand the reasons behind the “rules” before deciding to break them.

  9. The first time I read through the piece, before it was broken up, I thought the squirrel was the one with the camera. (Oops.) The White Rabbit has a pocket watch in `Alice in Wonderland’ and Mrs. Beaver has a sewing machine in `The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’. A squirrel with a camera wasn’t a huge stretch for me. 🙂

  10. Ah, yes, paragraph breaks & topic sentences… It’s always a good thing to be reminded of what we learned in school! Thank you for the refresher course! I still read & love the classics, but I do like a fair bit of white space on the page.

    I like how the paragraph breaks are used in this excerpt to control the pacing of the scene, especially when you have two characters playing off each other with lightning-fast action.

    Erik, well done! I loved being in the woods with Clara chasing down that shot of the squirrel. (Squirrels are awesome – so much fun to write about! 😉

  11. Casandra Merritt says:

    Can I split the main character/protagonist so that my POV character is not the one pursuing the overall story goal? I was just wondering if this ever goes over very well, or if it is even possible.

  12. In fiction I tend towards paragraph breaks between every thought, sometimes I have the opposite issue with white space where I wonder if I need to smoodge some paragraphs together to slow the pacing a little

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Too many paragraph breaks can create a very choppy style. If that’s not what you’re going for, you can use the mentioned rules in “reverse” to figure out which sentences more naturally belong grouped together within the same paragraph.

  13. jancat051066 says:

    I’ve always been told white space is our friend – meaning, use lots of paragraph breaks. I know for me when I read a book I’m turn away from long winded paragraphs. In the first example it felt very long-winded, but I had no problem with the way you put it after.

    I usually go through my WIP and look for places that the paragraphs are too long and would turn the reader off. Turning the reader off is not something I want to do.

    Thanks,
    Janice

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One of the best rules of thumb for any writer is to treat readers how the writers themselves would like to be treated. Trying to read our own writings with that more objective eye can be extremely helpful even in making relatively “small” decisions like the paragraph breaks we’re talking about today.

  14. I didn’t even try to read the first excerpt. The great wall of text looked very uninviting. Broken into paragraphs, I could just glance and see and get drawn in. I could immediately see what was going on and didn’t experience the whole “this looks like an investment of time that I don’t want to make” reaction. Anyway, I always err on the side of too many paragraph breaks, and appreciate it when others do too.

  15. James L. Mecham says:

    Another great post with helpful information.

    I prefer more paragraph breaks, probably due to my short attention span. And the breaks provide a visual illusion, making a large amount of words appear less.

    Text books should use this technique!

    And I’m enjoying your book, “Wayfarer.”

  16. Donna Terrell says:

    It is a balancing act for me between paragraphs that are too long and too many smaller ones. I write a paragraph that may not seem that long on my screen, but then remember that it will appear longer on a book page. Not only that, but the struggle of too little or too much dialogue. I often wonder, have my characters been talking too long? Is there anything I can change from dialogue to exposition?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dialogue is the workhorse of fiction. As long as it’s presented in a lively, entertaining, quasi-realistic fashion, it’s better to overuse it a little than underuse it.

  17. Usvaldo de Leon says:

    This is a great series. Thank you for doing this.

  18. In your examples, each paragraph was left justified (i.e. not indented,) and a space between paragraphs. I have always liked this way of writing and find it easy to read. But I was told that you indent each of your paragraphs, and leave no spaces between them. Thus the indent indicates the paragraph break. I just looked back at one of your Kindle novels, (I have most of them,) and that is how the book is structured. Is it okay to write a novel using this left justification/white space approach, or would the editor scream at you? (Your latest book is in my queue to purchase soon.)

    • Keep in mind that the examples here are posted on the web, where there are different conventions than for published print. Some media share formatting rules, but not always. For instance, you still have to begin every sentence with a capital letter no matter what medium you publish in 🙂

      For print and Kindle, especially with fiction, you really do have to indent the paragraph and not put breaking spaces between them. It’s unfriendly to put breaking spaces between paragraphs in your fiction (whether e-book or print) for two reasons:

      1) Readers have been trained their whole lives to expect that paragraph break = scene break. If you violate the norm, then you’re forcing the reader to guess if you’re being quirky, or if you just don’t know how to format the books.

      2) Traditionally, if a scene break occurred in a middle of a page in print, the paragraph break was sufficient to indicate the shift. This is insufficient on an ebook, because an e-reader’s settings might mean the scene break occurs at the end or beginning of a “page.” The print solution was to use either *** or a fleuron, at the beginning/end of the page, but for e-books some publishers wrongly omit those clues, which jars the reader. If you combine this omission with a practice of giving every paragraph a paragraph break, then you make it even worse for your reader.

      The thing about conventional formatting is that it allows the reader to ignore formatting and just concentrate on the story, which is the goal. It’s a bad idea to force people to stop and guess how they’re supposed to read the story — “Huh, why did this scene just change? The characters are still having their conversation, and from the same character’s point of view. Did I miss something?”

      If you hire an editor, or submit to an anthology, etc., they’ll let you know what their manuscript guidelines are, which typically won’t be the same formatting as the version typeset for publishing. FYI, traditional manuscript formatting used double spaced lines, as indicated in the classic “Writer’s Digest Guide to Manuscript Formatting” — just ignore the typewriter part 🙂 I can’t help but consider that double spaced lines were easy on the eyes …

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This has to do with the medium in which the piece is published. Online publications usually format the way you see here, with a line between each left-justified paragraph. Printed material, however, will eliminate the extra lines between paragraphs and indent the first line. Glad you mentioned this!

  19. Casandra Merritt says:

    Thanks!

  20. This is a great post for fine-tuning the awareness writers bring to their craft, and the examples nailed it. After breaking up the paragraphs, this scene had so much more life.
    Now I’m thinking about short chapters vs. long ones. I believe some of the same concepts apply.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The same principles of pacing apply. Shorter almost always contributes to a faster (and sometimes) choppier feel.

  21. Interesting and helpful, as always. Thank you!

  22. Rod Schmidt says:

    On a slightly different subject: It has long been said that the final sentence of one paragraph should relate to the first sentence of the next paragraph. I have noticed in recent years that there is a fashion to carry this to an extreme, so that what I would have called the “topic sentence” is moved up, from (where I would think) it belongs, to the end of the preceding paragraph.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, well, it’s the Wild West out there. 😉 The ultimate point of any technique is to make the writer’s intent as clear as possible to readers.

  23. This was very informative. Thank you!

  24. I just read a book by the Spanish author Javier Marias called The Infatuations. Very loooong paragraphs, sometimes extending beyond single pages. The text was pretty much stream-of-consciousness from the point of view of the female lead character. She was constantly analyzing and rethinking her own thoughts–almost like describing a multi-faceted diamond, turning it ever so slightly with each new thought and description. The thing is, the book is actually a murder mystery, and completely fascinating (to me.) It was written fairly recently, but the author clearly decided to treat it as if it were written much earlier–say by a contemporary of Proust! I know that lack of white space is a turnoff for many readers, but I had to agree with this author’s choice for this book.
    Beyond that, thank you for explaining the rules of paragraph-breaks! I was pretty much doing those things already, but now I know why!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, stream of consciousness often contributes to very long paragraphs. I want to say (but could be mistaken) that one of Faulkner’s book is a single paragraph.

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