Thursday, March 26, 2009

Questions: Paragraph Length

Josi S. Kilpack

I'm in the middle of the first draft of a book and I was wondering if there were any general norms to paragraph length. All I can find is "don't make them too long" and "vary the length". Is there any more I should know?


*Typically a single paragraph should be committed to a single idea, when the idea transitions to another idea, end the paragraph and start another one. The single idea is relayed to readers by collecting sentences together, thus making the 'paragraph'.

*Paragraphs can be anywhere from one sentence, to infinite sentences (or what feels that way anyhow--chances are the reader won't finish anyway, so it will always be without end).

*Typically paragraphs are between four and eight sentences.

*Varying the length of sentences keeps your writing flowing easily, especially in regard to prose. Be careful about using the same type of sentence (complex, three word, beginning with a pronoun) over and over again, this often bores your reader and sounds repetitive.

*Signal the start of a new paragraph by indenting the first line (in the formatting menu of your Word processing program you should be able to choose this as a default so that whenever you manually return, the next line indents)

*When writing dialogue, each character gets a new paragraph when it's their turn to participate.

( I had an example, but I can't get the formatting to work in blogger, thus I put a # in the following block that shows where a hard return should be. The line following the hard return would then be indented 5 spaces. Notice how hard it is to follow the conversation when it is not broken into paragraphs)


"Don't eat the cheese!" she yelled.# He looked at the cheese, picked it up and stuffed it in his mouth. "I an ef I ant!" he said with his mouth full, giving her a challenging look. #"It was spiked with botulism, you'll be dead within twenty four hours, you idiot," she retorted. If he would just once listen to her, he'd have a long and happy life. But, well, as she'd just told him, he was an idiot. Idiots tended to die young whether or not they ate botulism tainted cheeses. #He swallowed and looked back at the cheese tray, fear in his eyes and beads of sweat forming on his forehead. "Botulism?" he asked, looking a little green. "Why is the cheese tainted with botulism?" # "I don't think the why matters any more, does it?" She hoped his funeral wouldn't take place on Saturday, she had a hair appointment that day and didn't want to miss it.

And all of this brings me to my personal opinion on paragraphs; paragraphs are good. Use them. I rarely have more than 9 sentences in a paragraph specifically because when a reader opens a book, seeing a solid block of text is daunting. I'm a reader and I can verify that this is true for me. I get lost when I move from the end of one line to the start of another line and the paragraph often SHOULD be broken into more paragraphs because it is rarely a single idea when it goes on that long. I have been known to put a book down when entire pages are taken up by one or two paragraphs. They remind me of a drawbridge of a castle, pulled up to prohibit entry. I often can't see past them and determine that the book is not worth my time.

I also love single line paragraphs, they are a great resource when trying to emphasize something. Such as:

. . . blah, blah, blah, blah, blah you better take out the garbage.
I didn't take it out.
The next morning I found the kitchen garbage poured into the front seat of my car. Apparently, she'd cracked a few eggs into it for good measure. Dang, I hate that woman. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. . . .

However, single sentence paragraphs only work if you use them the right way and don't over do it. Typically, your paragraphs should be 4-6 sentences long, using both complex and simple sentences, even a single word sentence works from time to time. Varying your sentences keeps your words flowing and your momentum up.

It's my belief that paragraphs are as much visual as they are semantic. The words need power, but the visual absorption of them also need to be pleasing to the eye.

For a little self-exercise go to your current WIP, go to 'edit' and 'select all' this will highlight your text. Back up from your screen--what do you see? What kind of white-space do you see (meaning non-written on paper)? Are the edges jagged at both sides? Or is it blocky and solid looking. (hint: you want airy and jagged)

Happy writing people!

7 comments:

Blue's Dad said...

How do you have "infinite sentences"? On second thought, I've read books that felt like they were infinite :-)

Curtis said...

If you've ever read George Eliot, you know she can write infinite sentences.

Nice blog, Josi. Always good advice.

Curtis said...

And by the way, good luck on your new Lemon Tart book release. I'm swinging by the bookstore tomorrow to pick it up.

Kimberly said...

The info? Helpful. The examples? So hilarious I freaked my kids out by bursting out laughing. Nice!

Heather B. Moore said...

Great examples. Especially the blah blah blah ones :)

I read a book last summer in which a paragraph lasted 2 pages. I couldn't believe it. It was by NY Times Bestselling author, Ann Pachett. So if you like long paragraphs, submit to her publisher!

Eowyn said...

Brilliant ideas, thanks.

LexiconLuvr said...

That botulism cheese was a riot!

Great information, Josi. You make it so easy to understand. =]