Lay Your Fiction Foundation with Painless Paragraph Writing

How do you go about paragraph writing?

Do you just let loose with words and hit the return when you think you're done? Do you have a "formula" that you plug your words into each time before you go on to the next paragraph? Do you follow all the rules you were taught in grammar classes so that (gasp!) you won't get caught "cheating"?

Yes, there are rules for paragraph writing, but when it comes to writing fiction, some of those rules will get bent, if not broken.

If a novel is just a very long collection of words, sentences and paragraphs, then paragraphs are just collections of words. But they can't be collections of just any words. They have to convey an idea.

The Main Idea

Fiction writing doesn't follow the same constraints as non-fiction, when it comes to its format. Characters talk in run-on sentences and sentence fragments. Paragraphs may be chopped to bits just to create the pace you want to convey.

But still, each paragraph conveys an idea (hopefully clearly). And the next paragraph should usually convey a new or connected idea with some transition to connect the two.

For example, even with one word, you can convey an idea:

He watched, time in slow motion, as the two-by-four swung toward him. He seemed frozen in place, with no will to move out of its path. How would it feel when it hit him?


He lay staring up at the sky through the roof trusses and wondering when the others would be back from lunch. Knowing now what it felt like to be hit upside the head with a two-by-four.

But not knowing why his boss had hit him with it.

Even though the second paragraph is only one word, it says what it needs to, and stands alone. You don't have to be told the guy fell, even. That's conveyed in the next paragraph. You're only showing the moment of impact.

The final paragraph, while only one sentence, again stands on its own and leaves the reader wondering the same thing the protagonist is wondering. No need to embellish further. You've hooked them with a loud and clear "why?", compelling them to read on to find out.

So, what else do you need to know about paragraphs?

He Said... She Said

Dialogue brings another facet to paragraph writing.

You may have several consecutive paragraphs where one character is speaking (don't you hate when they're long-winded?). Or you may have a back-and-forth exchange going on between two or more characters (or one schizophrenic character, maybe). Then you'll be changing paragraphs each time a new speaker speaks.

In between, you may describe bits of the setting or the characters' clothing, but the main flow of paragraphs will be held by the dialogue.

One thing to be careful of, especially these days: don't make your paragraphs fifteen sentences long, if at all possible. Readers don't like seeing huge expanses of gray (which long paragraphs create. If you don't believe me, squint at a page full of long paragraphs and you'll see what I mean.) It's too daunting.

So mind the soliloquies. You're not Shakespeare, and it's not the 17th century.

Beginnings, Middles and Ends

You may have been taught in school that paragraphs, like book reports, have beginnings, middles and ends. If that was always the case in novels, no paragraph would be shorter than three sentences. Which just isn't the case in fiction writing.

So how do you know if your paragraph writing is well done?

Read other fiction writers, especially in the genre you want to write. See how they break up their paragraphs, how their books are laid out on the page. Then start by imitating their format until your novel reads the way you want it to.

Have others critique your work (ask them to be gentle but honest), and let you know where they were confused or bogged down. You'll soon find which paragraphs and sentences need more work.

And when you're done going through every word you wrote, you'll be delighted to finally type...

The End

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