The basic rule of a paragraph is that we break a paragraph when there’s a change of subject; a new idea is introduced, a new person speaks, the time shifts. This doesn’t mean that paragraphs are purely functional we can also use them to speed or slow the reader’s pace; a long paragraph slows the pace, a short paragraph speeds it up and for really quick fire we can go down to a line or a word. But it’s best to start with the basics.

If we’re going to go right to the basics of a narrative prose paragraph the most obvious paragraph break is the dialogue break. So we might have two characters speaking, Jane and Ted, and each time the speaker changes we have a new paragraph:

‘How’re you?’ said Jane.

‘I’m fine,’ said Ted.

This is the easy bit when we only have the dialogue and attribution but what if we have some description as well? In part this depends on the type of description and I like to use the rule that if the description relates to how the dialogue is said or what a character is doing when they say it that goes with the dialogue. Another way to do it is to have the dialogue and the description of what the character is doing separately so we might have:

‘How’re you?’ Jane said, stirring her coffee.

‘I’m fine.’ Ted shrugged.

Or

Jane stirred her coffee.

‘How’re you?’ she said.

‘I’m fine.’

Ted shrugged.

I prefer the first method because this can be used to imply that an action is being performed as the speaker is speaking or immediately before or after. I find the paragraph break of the second version creates a pause that suggests action before or after speech which makes it difficult to replicate characters doing both at the same time like people.

Another variant is lengthy description between speech which, in my experience, leads to the common mistake of attaching the dialogue of two speakers to one paragraph which creates added confusion. A general rule might be to have something like:

‘How’re you?’ Jane asked, stirring her coffee.

Jane had dark hair and eyes and her hair never sat in the same place for long.

‘I’m fine.’ Toby shrugged.

Obviously this is only example so I kept it short which might make the paragraphs appear too short. The point is that using this style of paragraphing means we know who is speaking, when they are speaking, what they are doing and have a bit of description without losing clarity. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have description between speech but if we do this is best to keep it short and have the same speaker at either end so something like:

‘How’re you?’ Jane asked, stirring her coffee. ‘I heard you weren’t well.’

Which seems far clearer than:

‘How’re you?’ Jane asked, stirring her coffee. ‘I’m fine.’ Toby shrugged.

At this point the reader might wonder if Jane is saying that she’s fine and then Toby is shrugging which is a different conversation from the original one.

The purpose of paragraphs is to increase clarity and therefore make it easier to read. By removing paragraphs we not only make it harder to read but risk changing the meaning of what we wrote completely by a misunderstanding which could be easily avoided. Obviously we can bend these rules as we grow in confidence but as is often said we need to learn the rules before we can break them.


For more writing advice see my Advice Page. For more on the basics of writing see Finding Your Toolbox.

NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.

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