5 Paragraph Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making

8 Paragraph Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making

Words, sentences, and paragraphs–they’re the bricks and mortar of the writing craft. They’re fundamental. If we’re not using them correctly, it doesn’t matter how wonderful our mastery of characters and story structure may be. They’re make-or-break territory.

Not long ago, a Wordplayer messaged me, asking if I could write a post on paragraph mistakes. She explained,

Someone told me I am not following the paragraphing “rules.” She gave me a low star review because of it.

Ouch. It’s one thing to get zinged for a bad story. It’s another altogether to have written a great story–and to still get zinged because of basic paragraph mistakes.

Here’s the thing: most of writers don’t give too much thought to paragraphs. Paragraphs are just breaks in the text, right? With a few specific exceptions, using them is about as intuitive as it gets, right?

Eh, not necessarily. The art of the paragraph is actually an extremely technical one. Beyond just the matter of “correct vs. incorrect usage,” the paragraph is a nuanced tool that controls your story. Perhaps no one understands the power of the paragraph better than the poet, as Mary Gordon notes in her September 2015 interview with Writer editor Alicia Anstead:

I tell my students: If you are a writer, you have more power than the greatest tyrant in the world because of punctuation. You get to tell people how to breathe.

8 Paragraph Mistakes in Fiction

Dreamlander NIEA FinalistReady to be a story tyrant? Ready to kick those one-star reviews to the curb? No problem. All you have to do is make sure you’re avoiding these eight paragraph mistakes. All examples are excerpted from my portal fantasy Dreamlander.

1. Dialogue: Failing to Divide Speakers

Unless you’re paying ode to Kafka’s Trial, you’re going to want to make sure you’re following this basic rule of giving each dialogue speaker his own paragraph.

Not Like This

He rubbed the smooth, spiraled twist of a tree trunk. “Where am I?” “Bah.” The older one shrugged at his partner. “Pitch, you’re an idiot. You would pick the stupidest of the lot.” “Doesn’t matter. He’s mine, I found him.” The little one called Pitch bounced around, still brandishing his swords. “Don’t be jealous, Raz.” “Where am I?” Chris repeated.

Like This

He rubbed the smooth, spiraled twist of a tree trunk. “Where am I?”

“Bah.” The older one shrugged at his partner. “Pitch, you’re an idiot. You would pick the stupidest of the lot.”

“Doesn’t matter. He’s mine, I found him.” The little one called Pitch bounced around, still brandishing his swords. “Don’t be jealous, Raz.”

“Where am I?” Chris repeated.

2. Dialogue: Failing to Separate Speech From Action

Most writers know about dividing dialogue from dialogue, as in the first rule, but this one is a little more advanced. Since action beats (such as “rubbed a tree trunk,” “shrugged,” and “bounced” in the previous example) are often used both to indicate who is speaking and to bring added context to the dialogue, writers sometimes regard lengthy instances of internal narrative or action as simply one long action beat. As a result, they end up essentially burying the dialogue within the action. This fails to emphasize the dialogue properly. Instead, you should be pulling dialogue onto its own line, grouping it with only the immediately pertinent action.

Not Like This

Chris shifted his weight. If Eroll got himself injured or killed out there, that would be his fault as well. And that, more than all the other possible consequences he could see right now, wasn’t something he wanted to live with. He held out his hand. “Good luck. I wish I could come with you.”

Like This

Chris shifted his weight. If Eroll got himself injured or killed out there, that would be his fault as well. And that, more than all the other possible consequences he could see right now, wasn’t something he wanted to live with.

He held out his hand. “Good luck. I wish I could come with you.”

3. Action:  Failing to Divide Actors

Here’s one that trips up a lot of writers: Did you know that the same rule about giving speakers new lines also applies to actors? This one isn’t quite as hard and fast, but it’s an important general rule for keeping your prose tight, clear, and punchy. When you switch from describing the actions of one character to the actions of another, the new character should get his own paragraph, just as if they were having a conversation.

Not Like This

She released Rihawn’s head, and the big black followed Quinnon without any urging. His front legs scrabbled up the side of the gully, his hind end lunging to keep up. They broke above the lip, and the setting sun speared her vision. She ducked and blinked hard. The Guardsmen tore across the field. They stood in their stirrups and leaned over their mounts’ necks, swords raised. In front of them, the Koraudian column erupted in chaos. Riders held back their horses and craned to see. In their center, the prisoners churned, already pushing against the perimeter guards. Quinnon reined up behind the row of sharpshooters that had remained behind the charge. The men dismounted and knelt, their green coats nearly disappearing in the tall grass. Almost as one, their rifles cracked.

Like This

She released Rihawn’s head, and the big black followed Quinnon without any urging. His front legs scrabbled up the side of the gully, his hind end lunging to keep up. They broke above the lip, and the setting sun speared her vision. She ducked and blinked hard.

The Guardsmen tore across the field. They stood in their stirrups and leaned over their mounts’ necks, swords raised. In front of them, the Koraudian column erupted in chaos. Riders held back their horses and craned to see. In their center, the prisoners churned, already pushing against the perimeter guards.

Quinnon reined up behind the row of sharpshooters that had remained behind the charge. “If they want to stop and gossip, let’s give them something to talk about!”

The men dismounted and knelt, their green coats nearly disappearing in the tall grass. Almost as one, their rifles cracked.

The Exception

Maybe you noticed the exception in that second paragraph. There are actually three different actors all grouped into that one paragraph: Guardsmen, Koraudian riders, and prisoners. Why aren’t they each getting their own paragraph?

Although they arguably could be given separate paragraphs, the unity of the paragraph arises from the fact that its actually more about describing a vista being witnessed by the POV character, than it is a blow-by-blow of individual actions.

4. Action: Failing to Observe Motivation-Reaction Units

Motivation-reaction units (or MRUs) encapsulate the small integers of action-reaction within a story. First an action happens, then the character’s reactions are shown happening in a realistic order: feeling and/or thought, then action, then speech. (If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of MRUs, click here to read more.)

Actions receive their own paragraphs. Depending on their length and the requirements of emphasis, the “thought” portion of the MRU will often get its own paragraph as well. If the action is brief enough, it can be grouped within the same paragraph as the dialogue.

Not Like This

She shook head. [Action/Cause] She was a difficult woman to impress, and, up to now, his skill sets in this world hadn’t been of a quality that measured up. But, right now, he couldn’t help feeling she was pleased with him. Even more than that, she seemed to be reaching out to him for something. [Thought] He eyed her, then spoke before he could give himself time to think. [Action] “Your life didn’t exactly turn out the way you thought it would, did it?” [Speech]

Like This

She shook head. [Action/Cause]

She was a difficult woman to impress, and, up to now, his skill sets in this world hadn’t been of a quality that measured up. But, right now, he couldn’t help feeling she was pleased with him. Even more than that, she seemed to be reaching out to him for something. [Thought]

He eyed her, then spoke before he could give himself time to think. [Action] “Your life didn’t exactly turn out the way you thought it would, did it?” [Speech]

5. Description: Failing to Separate New Entities

Zen in the Art of Writing Ray BradburyWe can think of the entities within description as basically akin to the speakers and actors above. This does not mean each new item you describe deserves its own paragraph, but each new entity needs one. For example, let’s say you’re describing a room. Within that room, you’ll have many different areas to describe, and within those areas, you’ll have many different items. Each time, you switch your focus to a new area, break with a new paragraph. In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury explained it like this:

All the paragraphs are [camera] shots. By the way the paragraph reads, you know whether it’s a close-up or a long shot.

In short, every time you switch your “camera’s” focus to a new area, start with a new paragraph.

Not Like This

He’d take a tie any day over the getup in which Parry had decked him out. The high-collared doublet was made of black velvet with matching leather sleeves. A border of elaborate gold stitching and dark green velvet lined the buttons down the center, all the way to the stiff hem flared around his waist. The matching pants—black velvet slashed to show a layer of green beneath—ballooned around his thighs. Really, they were more shorts than pants, since they abruptly stopped above the knee where they met his tall boots. And to top it off, Parry had convinced him he was supposed to wear a short cape, its hem embroidered in gold fully six inches deep, slung over one shoulder and tied under the opposite arm.

Like This

He’d take a tie any day over the getup in which Parry had decked him out. The high-collared doublet was made of black velvet with matching leather sleeves. A border of elaborate gold stitching and dark green velvet lined the buttons down the center, all the way to the stiff hem flared around his waist.

The matching pants—black velvet slashed to show a layer of green beneath—ballooned around his thighs. Really, they were more shorts than pants, since they abruptly stopped above the knee where they met his tall boots.

And to top it off, Parry had convinced him he was supposed to wear a short cape, its hem embroidered in gold fully six inches deep, slung over one shoulder and tied under the opposite arm.

6. Description: Failing to Indicate a Change in Setting

Most of the time when your characters move from one setting to the next, you’ll probably be indicating the change with a full-on scene break. If not, you need to at least emphasize the change by using a paragraph break to assist in indicating the move from one place to the next.

Not Like This

She straightened and strained against the pain to see into the trees. Leaves rustled. Something was definitely in there. Even as she prayed for it to be a zajele or a scavenging jiswar vixen, the green tabard of a Guardsman materialized from among the trailing hespera vines. His left shoulder hunched from an old wound. Together, they entered the campsite, where Yemas and two other Guardsmen huddled around Eroll’s prone body.

Like This

She straightened and strained against the pain to see into the trees.

Leaves rustled. Something was definitely in there. Even as she prayed for it to be a zajele or a scavenging jiswar vixen, the green tabard of a Guardsman materialized from among the trailing hespera vines. His left shoulder was hunched from an old wound. Quinnon.

Together, they entered the campsite, where Yemas and two other Guardsmen huddled around Eroll’s prone body.

7. Narrative: Failing to Delinate New Subject/Thought/Topic

This is the most basic paragraph rule of all: Whenever you change the subject, change the paragraph. We all learned about “topic sentences” back in high school. The gist is that only sentences that support and expound upon the topic/main sentence belong in the same paragraph. This idea is much more straightforward when writing an essay (or a blog post). But it extends to fiction as well, particularly within narrative.

Whenever your narrative changes directions to include a new thought or subject, indicate the change with a new paragraph. In days gone by, authors would group together within a single paragraph any thought that was remotely related to the rest–which resulted in honkin’ long paragraphs that sometimes spanned pages. These days, readers prefer to have thoughts separated much more judiciously. Even paragraphs of only a few sentences are fine.

Not Like This

Two days of riding brought them to the Karilus Wall. For Chris, every minute was a nightmare of senses strained to rupturing. Koraudian troops swarmed everywhere, like red ants to carrion, and Quinnon was right: they were headed for Ballion, almost five hundred miles away, where the Wall’s protective fortress tapered into gentle foothills. They had been able to avoid contact with the troops until the morning of the second day when an advance patrol spotted them and killed the wounded Guardsmen with the first shot. They’d outrun them—keeping Eroll in his litter only because Quinnon had had the foresight to tie him in—but the encounter left Allara shaking and vomiting. Every night, fireworks lit the western sky with color-coded messages. According to Allara, that meant her father was back in Glen Arden, or maybe even Ballion itself, organizing more troops. If they were lucky, Quinnon was right about the Cherazii opening the dams to keep Mactalde at bay. When they finally reached the top of the Wall path, it was crawling with Laeler troops, some on their way up, some on guard duty, and some passing through on their own trek to Ballion to try to intercept the Koraudians. They stopped at the aid station long enough to get both Eroll and Allara tended to. Then they’d boarded an express skycar back to Glen Arden.

Like This

Two days of riding brought them to the Karilus Wall. For Chris, every minute was a nightmare of senses strained to rupturing. Koraudian troops swarmed everywhere, like red ants to carrion, and Quinnon was right: they were headed for Ballion, almost five hundred miles away, where the Wall’s protective fortress tapered into gentle foothills.

They had been able to avoid contact with the troops until the morning of the second day when an advance patrol spotted them and killed the wounded Guardsmen with the first shot. They’d outrun them—keeping Eroll in his litter only because Quinnon had had the foresight to tie him in—but the encounter left Allara shaking and vomiting.

Every night, fireworks lit the western sky with color-coded messages. According to Allara, that meant her father was back in Glen Arden, or maybe even Ballion itself, organizing more troops. If they were lucky, Quinnon was right about the Cherazii opening the dams to keep Mactalde at bay.

When they finally reached the top of the Wall path, it was crawling with Laeler troops, some on their way up, some on guard duty, and some passing through on their own trek to Ballion to try to intercept the Koraudians. They stopped at the aid station long enough to get both Eroll and Allara tended to. Then they’d boarded an express skycar back to Glen Arden.

8. Narrative: Failing to Employ Dramatic Effect

Sometimes an appropriate paragraph break can be instituted for no other reason than dramatic effect. If one line within your paragraph is particularly important, don’t be afraid to break just previous to it. This prevents it from getting “buried” within the previous paragraph and makes readers sit up and pay attention. As a general rule, readers are always more likely to absorb the full impact of the first and last sentences of any paragraph.

Not Like This

Orias took one more stride, planted himself, and canted his body for a final blow. His sword swept through the distance between them. But it never connected. A hailstone the size of his fist slammed into the blade. He staggered forward, his balance destroyed, and more hail pounded into his back.

Like This

Orias took one more stride, planted himself, and canted his body for a final blow. His sword swept through the distance between them.

But it never connected.

A hailstone the size of his fist slammed into the blade. He staggered forward, his balance destroyed, and more hail pounded into his back.

Avoid these eight nasty paragraph mistakes, and you’ll be well on your way to mastering the foundation of strong writing. Do that, and you’ll be able to control your stories and your readers’ reactions to them.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are there paragraph mistakes you particularly notice in books? Which do you struggle with the most? Tell me in the comments?

8 Paragraph Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great advice, to each thing its own place and everything should follow a logic. Ensuring the reader’s comfort as well as managing the pace. Hah, no wonder reading some works felt like torture. I’ll keep those guidelines in mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Ensuring the reader’s comfort” is a great way to look at this. The story can be great, the writing can be great, but if the reader is uncomfortable for any reason that’s an insta-barrier between him and the good stuff.

  2. Thanks for the information. I just love your podcasts and website.

  3. Not long ago I read Euphoria by Lily King and loved it but at first I had a hard time with the very long paragraphs. Any comment on that?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      To some extent, this is always just going to be a stylistic choice on the part of the author. There’s nothing technically *wrong* with long paragraphs; it’s just that shorter paragraphs are almost always more palatable to readers–as you discovered with this book.

  4. Ooooh now this is gold. I thought I had it down pat with new speaker new line, and the occasional one sentence/word paragraph for speed things up (longer ones to slow things down)

    Thank thank thank you! Bookmarking this in my story chapter checklist folder. ^_^ (Trying to do everything at once drives me crazy so I do one thing at a time … well I try to.)

  5. Very useful info indeed. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    As a rule, I write content for websites and blogs, and they have their own rules of paragraphing 🙂 But I am working on my first fiction novel, too. And I agree with you that most of writers don’t care much about paragraphs. I think I will pay much more attention to paragraphs after reading this post.

    Cheers!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very true. I should have mentioned that in the post. Almost all of these rules are very specific to *fiction* writing.

  6. I just listened to your podcast and never realized my mistake until you cleared it up for me.. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You just saved my writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My pleasure! And I’m glad you stopped by to read the transcript. This was one of those podcasts that made a lot more sense in print!

  7. Great stuff.

    A plug for your book “Structuring Your Novel.” When I got to the end of the book, I felt as if I had just watched a great movie that was too short. I felt there could be more, and there was a tinge of disappointment that it wasn’t longer. I had just finished Chapter 13 FAQs About Story Structure, but I turned the page and it said, “PART 2: Scene Structure.” There was more than a hundred more pages of writing advice. I was only two-thirds the way through the book! And I was thinking to myself, “I feel as if I am watching some horror movie where I think the lady is safe from the stalker, and I relax only to see something moving in the background, and I have to buckle up again because it isn’t over.” A treat.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! I think this is in the running Best Reader Anecdote Ever. So glad you’re finding Structuring Your Novel interesting and useful!

  8. Aidan Cloutier says:

    Hi, I have a small question. My character, Charles, speaks quickly and likes to dump everything that’s happening in his mind whenever he’s talking. Should I include Maria’s reaction paragraph first, or his reaction paragraph. I want to go with the flow, but I’m not sure which should come first in terms of intensity.

    “I have run tests on myself and I am perfectly qualified for this mission and so the only reason you would lie about me not being qualified is because you don’t want me to participate in the mission and so that means you don’t like me.”

    It hit Maria like a bullet. She stood there, not moving. He saw right through her, a trait that he was noticeably capable of. She tried to mouth words, but nothing would come out.

    Charles said all of it at once, mixing it with his feelings of hate, anger, betrayal, and loneliness. He bent over and took deep breaths, using the counter as support to hold his weight.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s unclear to me who is the POV character here, since you seem to be sharing the internal reactions of *both* characters. This is generally known as “head-hopping,” which is generally frowned up. You can tighten your narrative significantly by limiting it to the viewpoint of just one character.

      That said, assuming Charles is the POV character, I would include *his* reaction to his words first, since he’s going to be instantly aware of them, while there’s that split second’s delay as he *sees* Maria’s physical reaction.

  9. Sweet! Another post under my belt. It’ll still take a while to digest as I’m reading a lot of them so fast. Indigestion stinks. Feeling good so far though. *he he*.

    Well, I’m sure I’ve got a warrant out for my arrest issued by the grammar police. If you’ve ever seen my writing I’ve made some serious blunders, federal fiction felonies, crimes you name it. I’m in the books. So If you read any of my work, I apologize beforehand and hope you’re rich in mercy.

    Its been AWHILE since I’ve had any basic grammar help. I’m in need of critical care resuscitation. But, this post was a breath of fresh air. There you go, CPR for writers! There’s hope! By golly, there’s hope! I’m might survive. I mean take me to the ER first, but I might just make it!

  10. It was extremely useful! I’ll try all the techniques out in the nearest time!

    Best,
    Sunny

  11. Won’t starting a new paragraph every time you switch describing one character’s action to another make for extremely short paragraphs? Especially in fights where blows after blows are being exchanged?

    And also if for example a POV character say something and another non-POV character reacts but only a brief one sentence reaction? Wouldn’t that make for really short paragraphs?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes. Short paragraphs aren’t a bad thing. But you do have to feel it out. If it messes with the rhythm, then, of course, group the sentences in one paragraph.

      • Ohh well now that explains. I simply cannot imagine a fight scene where when each character trade blow to blow being seen on page as one line paragraphs after one line paragraphs.

Trackbacks

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