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3 Occasions When You Need to Break Up a Paragraph


Last weekend I was honored to be a guest speaker at a local author talk near where I live in Northeast Ohio. At the event, a fellow presenter shared a major source of anxiety for her as a writer.


It wasn’t getting a bad review, sounding bad, or being unable to express herself.


What scared her most as a writer was not knowing when to break up paragraphs.


If you don’t have issues with paragraphing, this might not seem like a big deal to you. After all, isn’t it as simple as hitting the “return” key?


Not necessarily. Deciding where to break a paragraph can either continue your reader’s train of thought or completely disrupt it—which may not correspond to your goal at that point in the piece you’re writing.


And if that isn’t a strength you have, breaking a paragraph can be pretty intimidating indeed.


To make matters worse, paragraphing isn’t something that always has specific rules attached to it, especially when it comes to creative writing. When I taught college, I told students that the general rule was the “paragraphing sandwich”—you have a topic sentence and a closing sentence, with details in the middle that elaborate on the topic.


But writing a short story or piece of creative nonfiction isn’t like that. Stories are messy—they’ve got things like dialogue, internal monologues, and all kinds of stuff that wasn’t part of your freshman comp class.


I wish I could say there’s an easy solution to the paragraph problem, but there isn’t. The only way out of it is to practice and know the road map of what works with paragraphs, what specific rules are attached to them, and what is generally not a good idea.


That’s why this week, I’m walking you through three occasions when breaking a paragraph is necessary.


1. When You’re Writing Dialogue


Dialogue is the only paragraphing situation with hard and fast rules attached to it, and no matter how long you’ve been writing, it can still get pretty confusing.


It works like this: you start a new paragraph whenever a different character begins speaking.


There’s more to it, however. While this next point is mostly stylistic, I think it provides better signposting for readers if you also break a paragraph when a character does something that is linked to what they’re about to say.

Check out this example:


“So,” Danielle said. “Did you get me the almond milk from Whole Foods like I asked?”


Alana put her hands in her pockets and stared at the floor. “Umm . . . they were all sold out.”


If Alana’s nervous action immediately followed Danielle’s dialogue, the flow of the conversation would be disrupted. Because the action is clearly associated with what Alana says next, it makes the most sense to put the two sentences together.


On the other hand, if it were Danielle doing something instead, the structure of the dialogue would change:


“So,” Danielle said. “Did you get me the almond milk from Whole Foods like I asked?” She crossed her arms and waited for Alana to answer. She better not have screwed this up, Danielle thought.


“Ummm . . . they were all sold out,” Alana said, fidgeting her hands in her pockets.


The main thing is to try to keep character actions and dialogue together. It makes it easier for readers to associate the behavioral and emotional dynamics of the conversation.


When You Want to Emphasize Particular Ideas or Details


Much of the anxiety authors experience with paragraphing goes back to paragraph length. Again, this is easier in essays you wrote in freshman comp or high school—the paragraph sandwich rule pretty much gives you the template.


But in creative writing, all bets are off. One way you can gauge when to break a paragraph, though, is if you want to emphasize a detail or idea.


It’s okay to have one or two-sentence paragraphs. By offsetting a single idea, you draw attention to it and create a sense of drama. This is especially true if the short paragraph comes after a longer paragraph that explores the character’s actions or thoughts.


Check out this example.


Danielle got in the car, slammed the door, and sped down the road. Stupid Alana, she

thought, she can’t get anything right. She had one job: go to Whole Foods and get almond

milk. And then she had the audacity to suggest Danielle just go to the Piggly Wiggly? What

was her problem? Couldn’t she have just gone to the Whole Foods in the next town? She

knew Danielle was on a non-dairy diet. See if I bring her an almond milk pumpkin spice

latte when I stop at Starbucks on my way out of the store. She passed the grocery store

where a cop car was camped out in the parking lot and glanced at the speedometer. She

was doing fifty in a twenty-five. Danielle gripped the steering wheel, obsessively glancing in

her rearview mirror. The cop car had left the parking lot and was a few cars behind her. For

a moment, she let herself feel hope. Maybe he didn’t catch her, or maybe someone else

behind her was speeding, too.


Then, the car’s lights and sirens flipped on. She was busted.


Oh crap.


These examples are kind of ridiculous, but they make the point. Isolating particular thoughts or details can help readers feel the emotional intensity of a situation, much the same way that a close-up in a film can do the same thing.


When Your Paragraphs Just Get Too Long


Let me be very clear about something.


I know that there are many authors whose work is famous for long paragraphs with crazy streams-of-consciousness stuff going on.


Many of them are Russian, but a couple of southern authors are also guilty of this. Many of them are also from the nineteenth century.


It can be tempting to write long paragraphs and call your story an homage to this tradition, but this isn’t the nineteenth century. This is the age of soundbites, tweets, text messages, and short attention spans.


Most of the time, if readers see paragraphs that take up an entire page, they start feeling something akin to an anxiety attack and zone out.


But again, there are no hard and fast rules for this. The only way to know you need to break up a paragraph is if you think that looking at it might cause a reader to feel overwhelmed.


If you think a paragraph needs to be broken up, look at it and try to find a place where the focus shifts or where the main idea won’t be disrupted by inserting a paragraph. The sample paragraph above might be a hair too long. So, if we look back at Danielle’s Whole Foods and speed trap debacle, we can edit it like this:


Danielle got in the car, slammed the door, and sped down the road. Stupid Alana, she

thought, she can’t get anything right. She had one job: go to Whole Foods and get almond

milk. And then she had the audacity to suggest Danielle just go to the Piggly Wiggly? What

was her problem? Couldn’t she have just gone to the Whole Foods in the next town? She

knew Danielle was on a non-dairy diet. See if I bring her an almond milk pumpkin spice l

latte when I stop at Starbucks on my way out of the store.

She passed the grocery store where a cop car was camped out in the parking lot and

glanced at the speedometer. She was doing fifty in a twenty-five. Danielle gripped the

steering wheel, obsessively glancing in her rearview mirror. The cop car had left the

parking lot and was a few cars behind her. For a moment, she let herself feel hope. Maybe

he didn’t catch her, or maybe someone else behind her was speeding, too.


Then, the car’s lights and sirens flipped on. She was busted.


Oh crap.


The appearance of the cop car shifts her attention a bit from her rant about Alana; therefore, the author can shift our focus as well. You can also look for places where your character turns her thoughts to another topic or notices something in her environment.


In this way, breaking your paragraphs up is not just a way to make the text flow better or look less overwhelming on the page but to let readers enter your character’s state of mind and environment more intimately.


Want to learn more about characterization? Check out my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook.


It contains dozens of writing prompts, tips, templates, and more for creating stories and characters, and it’s FREE.


Click here to download one now!

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