I’ve previously addressed chapters, novels and blurbs and here’s another instalment in the “How long should it be?” series: paragraphs. As with every “How long should it be?”, the answer is always, “How long is a piece of string?” But here are a few things to consider.
It’s perfectly acceptable to have a one-word paragraph. But, of course, you can’t have too many of them and especially not all in a row. The one-word paragraph is great for emphasis, drawing attention to something in isolation, or for giving the reader a moment to pause and reflect on something big that has just happened in the story, particularly if it’s unexpected.
The sorts of words commonly used in one-word paragraphs include:
*The various swear words ranging from mild intensity to things you hope your children never learn
It is important not to overuse the one-word paragraph otherwise it tends to lose its impact but the occasional use – every now and then in just the right place – can be exactly what a story needs.
The one-sentence paragraph works in fundamentally the same way as the one-word paragraph but needs a few more words to get the message through, particularly in the case of short sentences. The longer the sentence, the less it works like a one-word paragraph and the more it seems like a short multi-sentence paragraph.
One sentence paragraphs are terrific for the beginning and the end of a section or a chapter. The beginning one sentence paragraph sets up the scenario. From chapter two of Will Grayson, Will Grayson (in which the two Will Graysons narrate alternate chapters so chapter two is the first chapter of the second Will Grayson), the opening paragraph is, “I am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me.” It’s a perfect one-sentence paragraph.
And then the end one-sentence paragraph delivers the punchline. From chapter two of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the closing paragraph is, “God, I am so in love.” All the paragraphs in between get the story from Will wanting to kill himself to Will declaring his passionate feelings but those one-sentence paragraphs really pack a punch.
The majority of paragraphs fall into either the short or medium category. A short paragraph is a few sentences strung together to convey a moment, a feeling, an action that propels the story along. Knowing where to break your short paragraphs can be a bit of an art and there aren’t always definitive answers – two different people might choose to break paragraphs in completely different spots and yet the result is just as good in both versions.
I use a lot of short and medium paragraphs in both my fiction and non-fiction (which you’ll notice as you read through it), mostly because I find it easier to arrange my thoughts this way. I’m a bullet pointer from way back and they tend to evolve into short thoughts. Perhaps if I wrote philosophical musings my thoughts would be longer; perhaps not.
There isn’t a huge amount of difference between short and medium length paragraphs. It’s usually just that the things you are exploring in a medium length paragraph need a few more sentences than a short paragraph to be completely expressed.
If you don’t have any medium length paragraphs in your writing, you should think about whether the transitions from short paragraphs to long paragraphs are working in your favour. If they are, great. But really think about it. Too many short paragraphs can make your writing feel staccato. Too many long paragraphs can seem like really hard work. A medium paragraph in between can restore the flow.
While long paragraphs are appropriate in some circumstances, just like the one-word paragraph, it’s important that they aren’t overused. A paragraph break allows the reader a short but useful moment to absorb what they’ve previously read and prepare to absorb more. Yes, it’s a fraction of a second but it’s amazing what the human brain can do in a fraction of a second. However, reading huge paragraphs without paragraph breaks for long periods of time isn’t one of the things that the human brain enjoys.
If you want to use long paragraphs, make sure that there is at least one paragraph break on each page of text. If you come across a page that has no paragraph breaks, try to find a place where it feels natural to pause the text. You’ll be doing a favour for your readers and for yourself – most people won’t persevere with a book that is physically difficult to read, no matter how good the story is.
Dialogue is a great way to break up larger paragraphs and while there are several approaches, the most common is to break the paragraph every time one person stops speaking and another starts. Apart from helping the reader to know who’s talking (along with the use of attributes – he said, she said, etc), dialogue provides a break from heavy prose. Even if prose is in shorter and medium length paragraphs, dialogue is great to help mix it up and offer a relief from a more intensive reading experience.
“Is this what you mean, Louise?” the reader asks.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean,” I reply. “Every time someone different speaks.”
“Yep, every time. Because the breaks are more frequent, there is plenty of white space on the page. And white space is a really important component of a comfortable reading experience.”
The most important thing is to use a combination of all types of paragraphs to get the best structure for your writing and for the paragraph type you choose to suit what you are trying to achieve in each block of text. The more you write, the more your paragraph breaks will occur naturally as you go. And remember, you can always go back and adjust the position of your paragraph breaks as part of the editing process.