Welcome back readers! And welcome to the year 2019! Which, as we all know, is either infested with replicants or about to become the battleground once again between that blue robot known as Megaman and his nemisis, Dr. Wily.
Huh, now that I think about it, a lot of fictional movies, games, and books with robots took place in the “20XX” date arrangement. Granted, Megaman at least has some leeway with a few of their titles because “20XX” is nebulous enough to be “2047” but Blade Runner on the other hand …
Then again, mad replicants could explain a lot of our politics and news commentators.
But enough about politics, it’s 2019, and my holiday break is over. Which means that it’s time to once again resume posting Being a Better Writer! A day late, but let’s face it, thanks to my constantly chaotic shift schedule, BaBW is practically a Monday-or-occasional-Tuesday feature rather than straight Monday anymore. But that aside, what’s today’s topic?
No, I’m not kidding. I was thinking about good topics that could fit the new year, topics that could fit a new writer sitting down and trying their hand at the craft, and one that came to mind was a common one I see when folks post their first attempts at putting together a story: a lack of proper paragraphs.
In other words, I see a lot of fresh attempts at writing that neglect one of the most important visual features of writing and create and ugly, unbroken wall of text. And yes, it is ugly. For more reasons than one.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the most basic questions and work our way up: What is a paragraph, and why should you use one?
Well, to answer your question, just check two paragraphs up, where it says “In other words.” Okay, now two paragraphs down.
Getting the picture yet? Paragraphs are, first and foremost, a method of breaking up a written piece into easily identifiable landmarks. Landmarks that can then easily be digested and categorized by a reader. Hence why when I asked you to look “two paragraphs up” your mind simply counted and moved up. Same for moving down.
It’s a visual guidance. A way to break up large amounts of information into much more easily digested pieces. Much like a trail map at a park will break a trail into smaller, named sections so that hikers can easily identify what part of the trail they are on, paragraphs break your story in manageable, easy to follow pieces.
Try another exercise. Look away from this for a moment. Downsize it, browse Reddit for a second, whatever. Then come back and try to read from where you left off.
How hard was it to find your place? With paragraphs, not very. Again, they’re a visual organization system, functioning in much the same what that chapters do inside a book. As a chapter can help the reader find their place and know where they are inside the larger scheme of things, so does a paragraph help the reader keep track of their place on the page, inside the chapter, and even inside the scene.
Now, let’s talk about that last bit. Before you run off and just start throwing random returns (the enter key) into your wall of text. Because like anything else, there are rules to making a paragraph.
I’m not just talking about the base “rule-of-thumb” your old grade-school teachers taught you either, about how all paragraphs have between three to five sentences. For starters, that’s not quite true. Or rather, it’s true in the same way one can state “All automobiles have four tires.” While it covers some cases, there are vehicles out there with more than four tires on them, and they’re pretty common. The whole “three to five sentences” thing, while usually accurate, is not always true.
Here’s a simpler rule to contemplate, then, while keeping three to five in mind as a guideline: Each paragraph should be covering its own subject.
What do I mean by that? It may help to think of a paragraph as a camera cut in a film. In a visual medium, a camera will sit on an object or focus of interest until it’s needed elsewhere, and then move or cut to a new shot. Paragraphs are similar: they focus on a subject, writing text about it before cutting to a new paragraph when the topic or subject changes.
Note that just like in film, that can take the position of moving to a new angle for the shot even when the topic stays the same. In a visual medium, this is done to keep a view from becoming tedious, or perhaps to show another side of things. In print, you can do this to divide up larger paragraphs even when they’re discussing the same “subject” to keep yourself from putting out too large of a wall of text.
Basically, any time you switch the “object” of whatever you’re talking about, you should be starting a new paragraph. For example, if you were writing a scene that described a room in a brief summary, and then talked about the people in the room, that’s where you want to start a new paragraph. Spend a few sentences describing the room, slap that enter key, and then talk about the people in it.
But hang on a second. What if the people in the room are each going to be a subject on an individual level, rather than as a whole? Then each one should get their own paragraph. Confused? Well, let me give you an example. Here’s a paragraph talking about the people in a room as a whole:
The folks in the room certainly didn’t look friendly. Already he could see a number of glares coming his way, suspicious looks mixed with twitches towards small weapons at sides or hidden up sleeves. A game of Teton in the back of the room slowed, the participants each sizing him up before turning back to their game with shadowed glances.
Still, no one moved to stop him as he moved for the central gaming table.
Okay, it’s rough, but it’s an example. The “people in the room” were the subject, and the moment the story moved on, a new paragraph began. Now, what if some of the people in that room were the subject?
The first eyes that met hers belonged to a large brute of an alien by the door, probably a bouncer. She … he … it was clad in a jumpsuit of some kind, stained across the front and pulled tight by an array of muscles that would have made a bodybuilder nervous. Three eyes looked down at her from beneath a heavily ridged crown of horns, and there was a sudden sniff, large nostrils flaring. Then it jerked its head to one side in a very human gesture, a single digit coming up and pointing at the rest of the club as if to say “You’re good.”
She stepped past, nodding in thanks and pulling her gaze back to the rest of the club’s patrons. Red silk, she reminded herself, eyeing the crowd. Likes to gamble. Then again, so did half the sapients in the club from the look of things.
Her eyes first were pulled to the familiar, a cluster of humans at one of the forward tables, engaged in some sort of wargame. The leader of the group was wearing a pauldron on one shoulder, an ornament almost as ostentatious as the large weapon strapped to her hip. A mercenary then, or gun-for-hire. And a boisterous one too from the sounds emanating from her table. But she wasn’t wearing a slip of red; everything was either tan or grey. Not who she was looking for.
An alien at one of the card tables caught her eye next, a therixian wearing a red enviro suit and playing three different hands of cards at once with her multi-tipped appendages. Possibly her contact, but the large amount of refresher orbs and the general swaying of the therixian’s core said otherwise. Her target wouldn’t be drunk.
Okay, see what we have there? The paragraph subjects are various occupants of the club our protagonist is looking at and observing. Since each one is its own subject of interest, each one gets its own paragraph.
This is why, by the way, dialogue tags always switch paragraphs when someone new starts to speak. Each time someone speaks, a different subject becomes the focus of the paragraph, and so we start a new one. Like so.
She sidled up to the therixian’s table, moving slowly and splitting her focus between it and the game. From the look of the things, the therixian was doing a good job of collecting winnings, even if it did appear fairly inebriated. Maybe this was who she was looking for after all.
The therixian swayed and noticed her standing nearby, mandibles clicking. “Un-chak Karko?” The words were harsh and laden with clicks. And completely alien.
“Sorry.” She held up her hands. “I only speak Terran and some Kardish. Spee-da?”
“Bak-tak!” The dismissive gesture with the word made it clear, as did the snap of the therixian’s jaws.
“My mistake.” She backed away from the table, looking around the room once more.
Right, see that there? Where each dialogue tag starts a new paragraph? That’s how your dialogue should look. In fact, if you look at the second paragraph you’ll notice something else, too: It starts without a dialogue tag, but still starts a new paragraph because it shifts the focus cleanly to the therixian to make it clear who is speaking. We can do the same with the last paragraph as well, and make it look like this:
She backed away from the table, eyes jumping to other areas of the club. “My mistake.”
Both are worthy of starting their own paragraph. The order is just up to you.
Now, another bit about dialogue. Remember how I mentioned that having three to five is a guideline? That you can have paragraphs shorter than that? Well, dialogue is one of the ways that can happen. As long as a reader can tell who is saying what, for example, there is absolutely no requirement to have any other sentences after it. Which means that you can have a segment of single-line “paragraphs” that go just like this:
“Not much. Just chilling. You?”
That? That isn’t an issue unless someone isn’t able to identify who said what (and if it goes on for a while, then it’s generally a good idea to slide some form of that in so readers have an easy time keeping things straight).
Dialogue can also break the guideline by forcing a short paragraph. Recall our bit about having a “subject” for each paragraph above? Well, what happens if you break to a new paragraph for a new topic, get a single sentence in, and then someone speaks in a way that shifts the subject and brings about a new paragraph?
You know what? That’s fine. You’ll see that in novels from time to time. Dialogue as a subject can overrule the standard guideline. You have a paragraph that’s one line? Well, you can always check to see if it fits anywhere else, but if not? Eh, it happens. However, if you find you’ve got two or worse yet three “one-line paragraphs” in a row with no dialogue, you need to merge that stuff and work them together, or expand each one out. Your call, but do one of them.
Back to the lone single, though, it’s possible you might slide it around a bit during editing, maybe several times until you find a spot that reads the cleanest. It’s up to you.
Okay. We’ve talked about the basics of what necessitates a paragraph, about dialogue, about length … Is there anything else to consider?
Okay, yeah, I can think of one more thing. We’ve spoken about a paragraph being too short, but what about too long? When is too long too long, for dialogue or a subject?
Well, this varies, but I find a good rule of thumb to think about is “when will the reader need a bit of a break, even for the sake of visual ease?” Recall how a huge wall of text keeps there from being easy to identify “landmarks” on a page? Well, when a paragraph starts to break that ease, it’s time to split things up.
How? Sort of in a similar way to dividing paragraphs on multiple subjects. Above, where each group our example character looked at was another paragraph? You can split a paragraph about one thing into two paragraphs and have them discuss different aspects of the same thing, or shift to a slightly different part of the thing to springboard your next paragraph.
Dialogue? Similar. Shift paragraphs at a natural point, such as where someone would want to take a breath, or when the subject they’re speaking on shifts. You can have a character deliver several paragraph’s worth of dialogue as long as you format things neatly and have it be several paragraphs.
Now, with that said, I think I have covered the basics pretty well and given some of those fresh new writers out there with the New Year some stuff to chew on. Check your subject. Check your “focus.”
And with that, good luck, now get writing.