6 Tips for Creating Paragraphs in Your Novel
Chapter 7 “Editing” – Section 2 “The Paragraph”
“I will try to cram these paragraphs full of facts and give them a weight and shape no greater than that of a cloud of blue butterflies.”
Once you have completed a first draft that is broken down by carefully constructed plot-points and chapter breaks, the next element you need to look at is the paragraph. Think of paragraphs as the glue by which you hold the sentences, which form your story, into cohesive and unified ideas. The difficulty, however, is that paragraph construction in a novel is not a hard science. Whereas some things, like plot-points, you can cleanly identify, plan, and build, paragraphs are more organic constructs which require precision and order as much as they need flow and life, depending on both your style and the needs in each scene you write. So this tutorial will be primarily focused on teaching the tools at your disposal for adjusting and shaping your paragraphs in the way that you find serves the story best.
Tip 1: Learn how to properly format a paragraph so you can break all the rules.
As we were talking about before, a paragraph is a collection of sentences bound together to help convey a single idea. In my tutorial for How to Write an Essay, I talked about the proper way of constructing a paragraph: introduce your statement, give evidence to support and explain your statement, and conclude that statement. Similarly, a paragraph in a novel exists to convey a unified idea or sequence of ideas; the difference is that a novel requires a much larger array of different forms for all the many idea types that range from being infinitely more simple to infinitely more complex than that of an essay. Because the objectives are the same, we can use the knowledge of a proper paragraph to gauge how far we need to deviate from it and whether or not we were successful with that deviation. In other words, we learn the rules in order to understand how they can best be broken (and that applies to more than just paragraphs ).
Tip 2: Note the many different types of paragraphs that exist, and their uses.
Unlike with an essay, there are many ways to organize a collections of sentences into a paragraph. Each of these serve different functions and deviate from the essay paragraph in various ways and to various degrees. The three primary paragraph types that will comprise your novel are description paragraphs, dialogue paragraphs, and action paragraphs.
The Description Paragraph
Of the top three paragraph types that you will be using, the description paragraph will be most similar to the essay paragraph. You will start with an introduction to the purpose of the paragraph, support that introduction, conclude that introduction, and often link to the next paragraph. Notice, in the following example, these parts and how they unify various descriptions about both me and my coffee into a single, cohesive structure. The structure changes the description from a list of items being checked off like a grocery list, to almost a persuasive sort of statement that feels like it has concrete purpose.
Blake finished typing, for a moment, and looked with disappointment at his coffee cup. You see, the coffee he'd brewed that morning had been particularly delicious. It had been neither too hot nor too cold, he'd proportioned the correct amount of water to coffee, and he hadn't accidentally spilled too much sugar into the cup as he was prone to doing. This sounds all well and good, but Blake was down to the last swallow and doubted that he could repeat the perfect cup, thus his disappointment. Sighing heavily, he returned to typing his tutorial.
The Dialogue Paragraph
Depending on how many characters you have in your story, and what type of story you are writing, the dialogue paragraph will likely be the primary or secondary type that you use in your story. As such, dialogue paragraphs require a bit of variation in how you compose them, primarily in how you organize their three components—the quote sentence (what the character says), the dialogue tag (he said, she said), and the nonverbal sentence (any actions or thoughts that alter the meaning of the quote). I actually have an entire tutorial (which will be updated soon) on the topic of dialogue, so I will keep this one as brief as possible.
“Hm, how should I explain the variations in the many ways people can write dialogue paragraphs?” (quote sentence) Blake said, speaking to nobody in particular. (dialogue tag)
Blake stood, rubbing his devilish goatee and thinking about the matter as he poured himself another cup of coffee and said, (nonverbal sentence/dialogue tag) “I should probably be sure to mention that you can use any variation of those three parts, but to generally try to limit each paragraph to two action sections or two dialogue sections, with only one the opposing section in between. Not that it's strictly necessary … but it makes the paragraph neater, like a sandwich.” (quote sentence) He nodded and his stomach gave a low rumble at the thought of a sandwich. (nonverbal sentence)
“Oh! And I can't forget to clarify that your dialogue paragraph can be a quote sentence all by itself, without any tags or non-verbals—particularly when the reader already know who the speaker is.” (quote sentence)
The Action Paragraph
Action paragraphs, unlike what the name may indicate, does not necessarily mean that it is for an action scene. Action paragraphs are essentially just lists of similar events that happen within the story, told sequentially. These can be full-length paragraphs, if the scene is set at a slower pace (like if you were describing the function of machinery); or very short paragraphs, if the scene is set at a quick pace (for an action scene). Note that there is something of an introduction and something of a conclusion in this paragraph type, though it is not as obvious nor as concrete as that of the description paragraph.
Blake poured his second cup of coffee, and stirred some sugar into it. Slowly and without much expectation for the flavor, he twirled the metal spoon inside the ceramic mug, creating obnoxious clanking sounds. As Blake stirred, he remarked on how uneventful this illustrated tutorial had been thus far—without any cats, bears, or anything else trying to kill him. Putting the thought out of mind, he took a sip.
Along with these three primary paragraph types, there are several minor types. Four of the most common minor types that you will encounter are topical paragraphs, broken paragraphs, one word paragraphs, and one sentence paragraphs. Topical paragraphs are especially important for when your character is thinking about a topic—such as is they are having inner turmoil, trying to make a decision, or trying to figure something out; these are also very similar to an essay paragraph. Broken paragraphs are generally used when a paragraph of any sort is interrupted—either by a character or an event that occurs unexpectedly. One word paragraphs are important for when you want to place dramatic emphasis on a particular word. One sentence paragraphs can function similarly to the one word ones, or simply become a necessity when you have a single sentence that does not fit with any other blocks of text.
The realization that nothing terrible had happened was deeply troubling for Blake. From past experience, he knew that there was no such thing as a 4th-Wall breaking tutorial where he did not come out unscathed. Whatever narrator was in control of his existence was not a benevolent being, it was one with a juvenile sense of dark humor. It was only a matter of time before something happened.
With a shaky hand, Blake lifted the mug of coffee to his lips—the spoon rattling against the mug. He took a sip and—
His coffee was cold. In writing his tutorial, he had quite forgotten how much time had passed, resulting in his coffee having lost all the heat. On top of that, he realized that the sugar to coffee ration wasn't quite right on this second cup. Truly, this was a fate worse than death.
Then I remembered with absolute terror … there were two upcoming tutorials that would require my further participation in examples.
Of course, all of these paragraph types can be mixed, altered, and adjusted as your story needs. Please note that these are not official terms that will help you on any sort of literature quiz, only terms that I thought best described each (I do not believe that any such terms formally exist). This list is neither comprised of the ONLY sorts of paragraphs you can use nor the ONLY way you can use them. This is a small sample of some standard forms that you can use for beginning to learn paragraph breaks and paragraph structure.
Tip 3: Note the effects of paragraph lengths.
As briefly mentioned above, the length of your paragraph will have an effect on the pacing of your story. Like reading a chapter, the reading of a paragraph is something of a mental exercise for readers—which is why children's authors usually stick to short paragraphs in order not to discourage young reader with huge blocks of text. Of course, adult readers have a higher tolerance, but the little bit of mental exercise creates an effect in pace. Long paragraphs will have the added effect of seeming a little slower and more contemplative than shorter ones. And if your goal is to write a more relaxed and thoughtful scene, this will work out to your advantage. Alternatively, short paragraphs are read quickly and without much effort at all—particularly when they are only a sentence or a couple sentences long. If you are writing a quick-paced action sequence, where things happen in rapid succession, then short paragraphs are preferable. In general, however, moderation is key. You want to organize your paragraphs into manageable chunks of similar information, without giving them constant quick bites nor enormous blocks of dense text. It will also help your novel flow more naturally if you alternate with some frequency between long and short paragraphs, as well as between different paragraph types.
Tip 4: Start a new paragraph whenever you change the focus character.
Another major aspect for combining sentences into a paragraph (and probably the one that will cause you to alternate paragraphs the most) is for clarity—specifically, for telling the audience when the character performing an action is switched to a different character. In other words, each and every time that one of your characters is talking, doing something, or even thinking—and then a different character does something in turn—you need to switch paragraphs. This formatting serves as a kindness to your reader by making it immediately clear that the acting character has changed, without them having to play detective to understand who is doing what. Note that there are two exceptions to this rule. If you have multiple characters performing the same actions or actions that are related in topic, then you can allow them to share a paragraph. You can also stay within the same paragraph if you are just giving a very brief and minor reaction from one character to another.
While Blake thought about and dreaded what horrible things things might happen to him later that month with the coming tutorials, the Narrator of his life planned what horrible things would happen to poor Blake. For as Blake had correctly stated, the Narrator was a cruel being with a twisted sense of humor. (Note that this Topical Paragraph is talking about two very inter-connected characters whose actions are interrelated. If the Narrator actually performed an action to hurt Blake, I would need to break to a new paragraph.)
“Oh horrible Narrator!” Blake shouted dramatically. He tore his clothes and dumped coffee grounds on his head, which mildly amused the Narrator. Blake wailed and shook his fists at the heavens. “Why have you chosen me, of all people, to torment so? Surely you could torment my cats instead.” (Note that I was able to cleanly add the reaction of the Narrator without confusing the readers because the Narrator's reaction was very limited and because I was very precise about who was performing what action.)
Tip 5: Pay special attention to the first and last paragraph in each chapter.
Just like with a story's beginning and ending, we need to pay special attention to the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. We talked, in the tutorial on Chapter Composition, about how the beginning of every chapter needs to be a hook and every ending needs to serve as something of a cliffhanger. In order for those hooks and cliffhangers to work, they must be precise and they must carry enough power to energize your reader and push them forward with a sense of excitement and anticipation. So the first thing that we need to know at the opening of every chapter is the sensory information of the POV (Point of View) character. Start by stating the POV character's name (if you are using multiple POV characters; if you only have one the entire story then this no longer becomes necessary). Then reveal what he/she immediately sees, feels, tastes, smells, and how the scene is lit (time of day or type of artificial lighting). By giving us this basic sensory information, your readers start off the scene immediately knowing what we are supposed to be imagining, instead of a blank white space that is gradually filled in as the story moves along, and yet the audience is not overburdened with every single little physical detail. In a sense, your first paragraph is a lot like the appetizer for the meal—light, flavorful, and meant to work up your appetite for the main course. By that same illustration, the last paragraph is the dessert. Take great care to make the last bite sweet, conclusive, and designed to leave your audience eager for their next meal by creating final moments of dramatic suspense that will lead into the next chapter.
Tip 6: Use important words only once per paragraph.
One of the biggest flaws I've noticed with the more recent drafts of my novels is that I will find the perfect word to describe what I'm talking about, and then I will reuse it within the same (or the immediately following) paragraph. I don't do it consciously, but subconsciously I suppose that I become fixated on that word as the perfect descriptor. It's so perfect to me, in fact, that the word begins to lose its power through repetition. Not only that but even a perfect word for a situation can become distracting and annoying after repetitive and constant use, particularly close to itself. Note that proper pronouns like the names of people, places, or things don't really count under this (nor common and necessary words like and, or, is, to, from, etc…); these problematic repeats are usually adjectives and adverbs. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about this problem when drafting; but when you are editing, be sure to eliminate larger repeated words to make your paragraphs ever-closer to perfect. (Perfect.)
Daily Recommended Reading: Any novel you want to read. (Just read anything you happen to have sitting around and pay close attention to the paragraph breaks and the paragraph structure. Does the author have another style or paragraph type not mentioned above? Do they do something uniquely? What is the effect? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments, because this is a rather huge topic that deserve much more discussion than what it gets.)
Write-A-Novel Exercise 7.2
Choose a single chapter in Act I of your novel which best exemplifies the pace and tone of the rest of the story. Keep in mind, when choosing this chapter, that it will be the one critiqued by the group, the one you will use in all of these exercises, as well as the one you will use to cross reference with the rest of your novel when you work on your next draft (in order to transfer the same types of edits to those chapters as you have done to this one). Once you have chosen a chapter, use the tips listed above to redraft it.
Please do not participate in this exercise until you have a complete first draft of your novel. Criticism, given before a first draft is completed, has a powerful discouraging effect for the writer. Also, please abstain from making other sorts of edits to your chapter, as we want to make our focus as specific and precise as possible with each exercise.
For those critiquing, please make you suggestions only relevant to the topic at hand. We will be going through a large variety of editing exercises, and your critiques will serve best when given at the appropriate time. As always, please make your critiques honest and hold nothing back, while remaining polite and uplifting. We want to encourage one another to succeed by telling them the truth about their flaws while uplifting their strengths and potential.
Writers, I advise you to always keep a copy of every draft you've ever written, no matter how bad. The contrast is important for seeing your own abilities grow, as well as for teaching others later down the road. Additionally, having a backup copy of the original file will make you subconsciously feel free to redraft, cut, and change the text, as the original will always be there if you decide you liked it or some element of it better. So keep a record of all of the many drafts you will create.
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