How to Use a Paragraph

Hello SErs! Harmony here πŸ™‚ While today’s topic might, at first glance, seem basic and obvious, it has more to it than what shows on the surface.

For certain, when I wrote my first book, I didn’t think about paragraph structure or use at all. I just wrote. And then my learning curve began. In earnest.

What is the purpose of a paragraph?

Stephen KingΒ  ‘… would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing–the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.’

From ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King

  • Some paragraphs exist simply to denote a change of speaker in dialogue.
  • While others exist to introduce a scene, a character, or an issue.
  • A paragraph (by its length or brevity) can be used to slow a scene’s pace or speed it up.
  • Lots of white space, created with short paragraphs is easier to read than a page without any breaks at all. (That doesn’t mean you can’t ever write a loooonng paragraph: just take care not to over use it.)
  • The first line of a paragraph should set up the topic.
  • The sentences that follow the first should explain or amplify said topic.
  • In fiction, the beat of a paragraph is all important.

In modern fiction, we are actively encouraged to use informal language and even use the once outlawed contractions … yes, even outside of dialogue. This is especially true of the beats around dialogue and characterisation. I mention this here because, of course, each sentence is what makes a paragraph. If we worry too much about always being grammatically correct, our writing is likely to read as stilted and stale. As Stephen King tells us in his book On Writing, ‘Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.’

Isn’t that such great imagery?

Despite what I’ve just said about the ins and outs of paragraphs, it’s best when writing your first draft to simply sit and write. You can tweak as necessary later in revision. This is because of that beat I mentioned earlier. The more you write (and read), the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming naturally. These days, I don’t have to think too much about them. If you keep stopping and fiddling with what you’ve just written, you’ll break your natural flow. And still, it’s good to be aware of what paragraphs are for and how to use them.

There are no rules on paragraph length. At all. I’ve seen (and used) one-word paragraphs, or three, or over a hundred. I’ve read books with pages to a paragraph.

A note on rules in general: In my book on self-editing, Polish Your Prose, I advise … that the author knows the rule and chooses to go around it, rather than blindly breaking it.

I would say the same of all rules, including the one about split infinitives that I just broke, lol.

That’s it from me for today. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Have a lovely day!

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Harmony Kent

Β© 2019, Harmony Kent – All Rights Reserved

30 thoughts on “How to Use a Paragraph

  1. This is strangely enough never something I feel that I have had much trouble with. I think that I have consumed so many books by now that when I finally started getting serious about my own writing, some things just came intuitively for me, It felt like having learned a language and finally starting to speak it yourself. I am still very much in my early phase of writing and as I stumble my way down this bendy road, I rely more often than not on my feeling and intuition, which I think has been strengthened by being an avid reader.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  3. Paragraphs seem to form naturally as I write, but I do make adjustments when I edit for length. I often use short or one sentence paragraphs for emphasis.

    As a reader, I don’t mind lengthy paragraphs in a scene as long as the inclusive sentences support the whole.

    A nice refresher, Harmony!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As I write and edit now, I try to steer toward shorter paragraphs. Because of eBooks (and my poor eyesight), “print” can be virtually size we want. And I have mine set rather large so I can see easily. That means long paragraphs can run for many pages/screens, which makes it easier to lose focus. (At least, I struggle with focusing at that point.) But you’re absolutely right. For every rule, there’s a reason to break it. You just have to have a good reason.

    Nice refresher, Harmony.

    Liked by 1 person

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