Building Blocks of a Novel: Paragraphs

Hi All! Today I want to talk about the next building block of a novel—paragraphs! (This is part three of a series. Part one was on word choice and part two was on sentences.)

If we continue with the metaphor comparing a novel to a city, we can imagine words as bricks, sentences as walls, and paragraphs as… buildings!

Think of the buildings on a city street. They may be linked together, but each has its own door, its own foundation, its own roof.

Now imagine you’re tasked with planning a walking tour of that street. Your goal is to design a tour that leads from one building into the next. You would want each building to be enjoyed for its own strengths and beauty, but it would be equally important that the tour keep moving! Each building would need to naturally flow into the next and keep the tourists wanting to discover more.

That’s how great paragraphs work. They have their individual strength to stand on their own, but they keep the reader moving forward. No matter how beautiful or strong or resonant a paragraph may be, it fails if it slows the reader’s progress forward. Likewise, a paragraph that’s weighed down by excess might encourage skimming, which has an equally negative effect on the reader’s experience.

You may not even think about paragraphs as you write. (I know I rarely consider them until I’m revising.) Often we group our sentences together instinctively, creating that new indent when focus shifts. This casual approach to paragraphs will often produce very adequate prose. But by giving more care to our paragraphs, we can create a stronger story that won’t let a reader’s attention wander.

Here are three tips for maximizing the strength of your paragraphs:

Make each paragraph contribute more than one aspect of the story. A paragraph of description follows a paragraph of dialogue. A paragraph of action comes next, which is followed by a paragraph of internal monologue. Writing like this will get the story onto the page, but it’s unlikely to make it leap to life. The reader will begin to be lulled by the monotony. Paragraphs that combine story elements will convey the same information, but in a more engaging way.

As an example, here’s a passage of three paragraphs from Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman.

By the time I’s raced back to Silver and grabbed my rifle, Lil’s already disappeared among the dense vegetation. “Thanks for waiting,” I mutter to myself, and take to tracking her between shrubs and cactuses. When I finally catch up, she’s crouched behind a boulder, some sort of net clenched in her grasp.

She puts a finger to her lips and nudges her head toward the other side of the boulder. It’s then I see the quail—maybe a dozen of ‘em, pecking at the dry earth for what I reckon must be insects. I creep forward, but gravelly earth crunches beneath my heel. There’s a flutter of feathers and a chorus of squawks, and the birds go scampering deeper into the thicket of shrubs.

Lil glares. “You walk like your feet are made of stone.”

Those three paragraphs could have been written as a paragraph of description, followed by a paragraph of action, followed by a few paragraphs of dialogue. The same information would have been provided. But by combining these elements within these paragraphs, we experience the characters, the setting, and the action all at once, and the prose comes to life on the page.

Vary the length of your paragraphs. Long paragraphs might be used to reveal something important that needs careful attention. Short paragraphs might be used to keep the story moving quickly through action. Mixing short and long can keep the reader moving while signally where it may be important to linger.

Here’s an example from the opening of Queen and Shadows by Sarah J. Maas:

There was a thing waiting in the darkness.

It was ancient, and cruel, and paced in the shadows leashing his mind. It was not of his world, and had been brought here to fill him with its primordial cold. Some invisible barrier still separated them, but the wall crumbled a little more every time the thing stalked along its length, testing its strength.

He could not remember his name.

In this example, the short first paragraph grabs the reader’s attention, and the longer second paragraph draws the reader in deeper as it gives clarity to the questions raised in the first paragraph. The short third paragraph shifts the focus again.

Consider carefully where you end and begin new paragraphs. This goes hand-in-hand with the tip about paragraph length. In nonfiction, paragraphs are generally organized to support a topic sentence. The organization of paragraphs in fiction can be much looser, however, and paragraph breaks can be more creatively applied. Ending a paragraph immediately after a certain sentence will create a different emphasis than if that sentence occupies the middle of the paragraph or starts the next paragraph. Looking again at the above example from Queen of Shadows, how would the emphasis change if we changed the paragraph breaks? How would the focus change if we did this:

There was a thing waiting in the darkness. It was ancient, and cruel, and paced in the shadows leashing his mind.

It was not of his world, and had been brought here to fill him with its primordial cold.

Some invisible barrier still separated them, but the wall crumbled a little more every time the thing stalked along its length, testing its strength. He could not remember his name.

Changing the paragraph breaks changes the emphasis. As readers, we tend to pay special attention to the content of paragraphs made up of a single sentence. In the actual example from the book, the emphasis is on the effect “the thing in the dark” has on the character. In the revised example, the attention shifts away from the effect to the fact that it was brought here to menace him. We focus on different things depending on the breaks.

How do you feel about paragraphs? Are they a tool you enjoy using? Do you have any additional tips? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


2 Responses to Building Blocks of a Novel: Paragraphs

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Mar 11 2016 at 9:22 am #

    I’ve seen some authors who used to be very good somehow degenerate into an excessive use of single-sentence paragraphs, often several in a row. They’re good if they pack a wallop equivalent to a paragraph, but who needs so many in a row. Painful to read.
    Multi-sentence paragraphs will dilute that strength, making it less painful to absorb all that the paragraph is supposed to say. Too many words/sentences will be as bad as too few, in the opposite direction, the individual sentences being too weak.
    I’ve always advocated the combination of action, description, and dialog in a paragraph, sometimes in a single sentence. I see it as closely hewing to how people talk and react to each other. I see something, I say something, you reply, and that gives me an idea. Putting these things all in a row loses the jumbled quality that real interactions usually have.
    I often uses paragraph breaks the way a lot of people use scene breaks, to change the focus. When A and B are talking I will have everything in A’s paragraph from A’s perspective, using words A would know to describe what he sees or thinks about. When B starts to talk, I shift to his perspective, using his words to do the same thing. In a movie, this would be the camera focused on A, followed by the camera focused on B, which no one seems to mind in movies but complain about in books.

  2. Bernadette Mar 21 2016 at 2:22 am #

    Loving your analogy of buildings on a city street. It’s funny how great writing feels natural, yet when there’s an abundance of too long, or too short, paragraphs, it’s an instant eyesore and hindrance to reading.

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