By Deborah Brewer
As writers, we dream of readers lost for hours in our carefully crafted story worlds. But if we don’t master the paragraph, we may lose our readers to confusion. Fine-tuning a paragraph can be frustrating work, but it’s the writer’s job to communicate clearly, not the reader’s job to decipher what the writer wanted to say.
Paragraphs are divisions of prose, visual cues, much like stanzas in poetry, that organize a writer’s thoughts. In fiction, a paragraph consists of one or more sentences that make a point about a particular topic or gives the words or perspective of a particular character. Writers stack them, one after the other, until their story is told. Paragraphs also provide readers with conveniently sized portions for pacing and easy comprehension. While the methods for indicating a paragraph have evolved over the centuries, presently, a new paragraph starts on a new line and is usually indented.
In grade school, we learned that a paragraph began with a topic sentence. We followed that with several supporting sentences, then added a concluding or transition sentence at the end. We got bonus points if the lengths of our sentences varied a bit, for rhythm and emphasis.
Writers do well to remember that looking for this structure is how readers were taught to read. When readers attempt to make sense of your work, they will, if perhaps subconsciously, refer to this structure to guide them in thinking—What’s this about? Does the writer prove or show it? Am I enjoying the ride? Where are we going next?
The first sentence of a paragraph orients the reader to the topic at hand. While a bit of mystery might draw a reader’s interest, don’t neglect to make your topic clear. If a character is speaking, your reader would like to know a little something about who they are, where they are, and if the reader has heard from that character before, how much time has elapsed. Consider how disorienting an opening sentence such as, “Bob was always late, Tom knew,” could be for a reader. One tends to assume the first name they encounter is the point of view character in the paragraph.
As you review your work, check to see that paragraph after paragraph doesn’t begin with the same word, Jo or They for example. If you find you have fallen into a pattern, rework the beginnings for variation.
I watched more than a few episodes of Sesame Street as a kid. Perhaps you did too. There was a matching game in which objects such as a ping pong ball, a basketball, a tennis ball, and an orange were compared. In this case, we children were taught, the sports equipment should stay together and the orange ought to join a collection of similarly hued cheddar cheese and traffic cones, or perhaps a bowl of fruit.
A writer must consider whether a sentence is a misfit in a paragraph, perhaps a now-defunct artifact from a previous rough draft that doesn’t belong in their revised story. Ask yourself if you still need that comment about peanut butter sandwiches or that lover from years ago. Artifacts are not benign. They are distractions that ought to be cut.
Grouping sentences on the same topic also helps writers avoid redundancies. While repetition can be used for stylistic purposes as in, “Verily, verily, I say unto you,” or for the sake of a reader’s poor memory, such as an important detail revisited twenty chapters into a novel when it’s now become a pertinent clue to the crime. But redundancies are boring and should be cut.
If we think of an action paragraph in fiction as a scene in a movie, it makes sense to let it unfold in chronological order. The following paragraph is awkward on account of the last action being out of sequence. It requires the reader to rewind the action to insert the new information and then replay the scene again.
Jill put on her jammies and jumped into bed. But not before she brushed her teeth.
In a sequel, the reflective, telling response to an action scene, however, it’s fine to put a decision, a judgment, or a summary first, then add a little more reflection. Jill is not acting; she’s planning her next moves. The images of her thinking don’t need to be edited and replayed.
She would put on her jammies and jump into bed. But not before she brushed her teeth.
A paragraph’s closing sentence either sets the reader up for what follows or leaves them with a last word. It seems simple enough, but there are pitfalls.
For transitioning paragraphs, set your reader up for what is next by making sure you set the mood, described the setting, or made your point. Rework it until it meets your intention. If a paragraph lacks purpose or repeats the point of a previous one it should be cut.
Consider the pattern the last words of successive paragraphs make on the page. For example, does every third paragraph end with a fragment? Do the paragraphs often end with little words like “of?” If the pattern is distracting, edit for variation.
Compare “Make it a good one”, with “Make it good”. “Good” holds more meaning than “one.” To drive your point home, choose the more meaningful word.
End your final paragraph on an emotional note that relates directly to the story problem. Don’t wander back into the story or ponder what comes next. When an Olympic gymnast flies over a pommel horse we all cheer when they stick the landing. Give your readers a solid finish with a laugh, an epiphany, a decision, or an exit, and call it done.
Vary the length of paragraphs in a story, for the same reason you vary the length of sentences in a paragraph—to keep it interesting.
A paragraph may consist of a single word or span many pages, but 150-250 words are plenty enough if a reader’s comprehension is the goal. An entire page filled, side to side, end to end, may require a straight edge placed beneath the lines to keep the words from melding into one another. We might expect such stultifying paragraphs in a college textbook, but genre fiction is read for fun.
White space on a page gives eyes a break and minds a moment to process.
A paragraph containing a single word can be very exciting when placed between longer ones. But if we read an entire page of extra short sentences the writing begins to feel insubstantial.
Avoid both too much type and too much of a blank page. Less can be more, and more can be less. But in the dialogue above, less is inadequate to communicate the scene.
We learned a lot of good strategies in grade school. Why not put them to use? I am not above copying and pasting a few paragraphs into a new file and either reworking them there or printing them on paper and cutting the sentences apart with scissors to reorganize them on my desk.
Writing a great paragraph is a matter of slowing down and making certain your words stay on topic, have a meaningful sequence, and don’t needlessly repeat. A careful edit is worth the effort.
For Further Reading:
Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology, Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.