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I'm writing a fiction book and noticed that my paragraphs seemed excessively long, most having three or more sentences in them.

The Online Writing Lab's page "On Paragraphs" is helpful, but as a new writer I am looking for more specific advice on paragraph length. One idea I had was to compose sentences as separate paragraphs and then go back and merge these paragraphs when they deal with a single idea (e.g., describe a tree).

Are there simple rules on when paragraph breaks should be used in order to form appropriate length paragraphs?

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This is a Your Mileage May Vary question. It depends on the content, the writing style, the intended audience, the tone, and occasionally the demands of persnickety typesetters ::ahem::. There's no right answer. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 28 at 18:16
    
@LaurenIpsum There might be a good answer or a helpful answer. Does something like that exist in Q&A ? –  Heart Aug 28 at 18:37
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A strong caution: Any guidelines for academic writing are likely to be deadly for fiction. –  Dale Emery Aug 28 at 21:03
    
@Heart: I don't know about your paragraphs, but you are writing far too short sentences. –  SF. Aug 29 at 10:06

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

What paragraphs accomplish

Text that isn't split up into paragraphs is often referred to as a "wall of text" and can be very difficult to read. Paragraphs are used for a few reasons: Organization, pacing, and to give the reader a chance to pause, similarly to what the end of a sentence does.

Paragraphs exist to group sentences on the same topic together. For example, sentences that all explain why a tree was planted might be grouped into a single paragraph, then sentences describing the tree might be a second paragraph.

However, when paragraphs get too long, it's usually a good idea to break those up, too.

Some writers have a habit of writing paragraphs of roughly equal length. This generally will put the reader to sleep, so it's a good idea to vary paragraph length occasionally. You can think of a paragraph as analogous to a sentence, but instead of being made up of words, a paragraph's components are sentences. And just as sentences have their own rhythm, so do paragraphs.

Dialog

"Dialog is a special case," said Mary. "The convention in English is that, within a single paragraph, there's only one character speaking."

Joe thought for a minute, then asked, "does that mean that when a new character is speaking, there should be a new paragraph?"

"Yes," said Mary.

Formatting

Paragraph breaks should be visually clear. There should either be white space in between paragraphs, or each paragraph's first line should be indented on the left.

On the web, it's generally easiest to type an extra return between each paragraph to create white space. There are solutions within HTML and CSS that will accomplish the same thing, however.

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Here are two guidelines I use.

Camera Shot. In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury offers this simple and useful idea: Think of each paragraph as a single camera shot in a movie. Every time the shot changes (e.g. change in camera angle), start a new paragraph.

Character tempo. This is a more complex idea. At what "tempo" is the character experiencing the events in the text? If the character is experiencing events very rapidly, use shorter paragraphs. If the character is experiencing events more slowly, use longer paragraphs.

Study any of James Patterson's Alex Cross novels. In most scenes, things are happening rapidly. The paragraphs are short. But in the scenes at home, the paragraphs are generally longer.

In a way, these two guidelines are more or less equivalent. They each have a similar effect on the pace that the reader experiences.

But they feel different to me when I apply them. When I use "camera shot" trick, I'm watching the scene as a writer or director. So it can feel (to me, at least) kinda writerly. There's a little danger there.

When I use the "character tempo" trick, I'm experiencing the scene as the character. It feels more organic.

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Sounds interesting. I think I started the camera shot style today. Before it was too slow for that (feelings etc.). I'll see if I can adapt both of those styles somewhere. If I could I would vote the answer up. –  Heart Aug 28 at 21:21

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