Easy-to-Understand Fiction paragraphing

When writing essays and non-fiction, there are rules for what a paragraph is, what it does, what is presented for the beginning, middle and end (sounds a bit familiar, I’m thinking).

In fiction, however, it seems the same rules don’t work. They must not, or I wouldn’t be reading (or trying to read) a story where the paragraph contains too much stuff that either doesn’t belong, or that needs to be separated out, or that doesn’t quite fit. The worst cases cause confusion. No, I’m not going to give examples. You’ve seen them. We’ve all seen them.

Now, here’s something that helped me. I learned it from somewhere, or someone, or somehow figured out what was what to make it easier for me to understand, and now it’s something I’m going to share here. Ready?

The first one, for me the simplest and easiest to remember (and it’s on a sticky note on the pc):
Talking, thinking, doing: if it’s all done by the same character, it can go in the paragraph. If it’s not the same person, it needs a new paragraph.

ie. Same person, same para; new person, new para. It sounds simple, but sometimes it means adapting a sentence or description to ensure the reader doesn’t get lost or confused by who’s doing what in the paragraph.

Another one (from Ingermanson):
Is about clips: internal narrative is one para, anything external is a new para.

ie. Internal (what Ingermanson terms private): Anything internal is from the POV perspective, and a private, internal clips is what shows the reader anything the POV character, does, says, feels, or thinks.

External (what Ingermanson terms public): Shows the reader anything the POV character is able to see, hear, smell, taste, or touch.

If the POV char is thinking, feeling, emoting in some way, it’s an internal beat. As soon as the POV char changes the focus from internal to external, that then becomes a new para. If they’re experiencing the setting, which is external, that’s an external clip/beat. How they react to that can be external (run away reaction) or internal (freeze and panic).

In short, that makes the need to change a para the same as the expectations for changing a para when there’s a change of character who speaks or acts. (If you understand that, you’re doing well. It took me months of examining each paragraph, what happened, what didn’t, what worked and why.)

And from wikipedia:

A paragraph is a self-contained unit of discourse in writing dealing with a particular point or idea. A paragraph consists of one or more sentences. Though not required by the syntax of any language, paragraphs are usually an expected part of formal writing, used to organize longer prose. Wikipedia

What all that means is that a paragraph is not a self-defined thing. It has a purpose, like all the parts of a story, starting with the sentence.

sentence has a structure, with an opening subject, an action, and an object (simplest version, built on from that state). A sentence can be played with to create a power position either at start or end. If it’s in the middle, the power is dissipated due to the build up and wind down being on either side.

paragraph is a similar animal. It needs a hook, a central area (or arena), and an end-point. One of these positions can be a power point, with the same effects as the sentence. The beginning hook can be the power that draws the eye on, the ending power play can shock or evoke other emotions. If it’s in the middle, the power is dissipated (it can be done deliberately to good effect).

scene has an opening gambit, a hook, that leads into the action, and winds up with a defined end. One of these positions will have the power play, usually the end, to keep the reader going, but the hook can be just as compelling. If it’s in the middle, the power is softened (okay, dissipated).

If chapters of scenes are done, the scenes build in the same manner. The first scene has a big hook, and the last scene is the big payoff for the chapter. The middle is the muddle that leads to the big flourish at the end.

story is the same. It starts with a hook, goes through a series of setups and payoffs until the final big payoff at the end.

There’s a pattern, but that doesn’t mean it’s a formula.


RULE OF THUMB: When one character acts or thinks in the same paragraph as a segment of dialogue, there’s no need to attribute. Your readers will assume that the character speaks the line.

Respect the concept of singularity—a single idea to a sentence, a single topic to a paragraph, a single purpose to each scene, a single, dominant central story line to your work of fiction.

Smith, Jim. Writer’s Little Helper . F+W Media.

And for me, this little image made a lot of sense:

Now, I don’t know where I found it, but I’m sure it’s out there in the internet world. (OOooooh, it’s here, and there’s so much other stuff that’s so interesting)
The visual makes it clear:
If there’s a change in Time, Place, Topic, or Person, it’s a new paragraph.

I promise I’m not being obstreperous. Honest! I’m looking for clarity, and having searched high and low and found only puffs of smoke and mirrors hidden down dark alleys … well, I find the journey to be convoluted and misrepresented. Fiction isn’t an essay, so the definition of a paragraph for an essay is necessarily different. I want the same type of definition we give to things like structure, beginning with the simplicity of ‘beginning, middle, end’ and going up to the more complex definitions. I want to find the first piece of the puzzle so I can then build on it to make the best use of the words I’m using to influence the reader without giving them eye-strain, or worse.

That’s my spiel, but do you have something that may make it easier to fully comprehend and create the power of a paragraph?

I, for one, would appreciate it.

15 thoughts on “Easy-to-Understand Fiction paragraphing

  1. Really great post, Cage. I truly enjoyed it and learned a great deal from you. I will have to go exploring myself now that you have brought this very interesting topic to my attention! Thanks so much for the new knowledge! Keep creating! CSA

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  2. I agree about everything except one: ‘RULE OF THUMB: When one character acts or thinks in the same paragraph as a segment of dialogue, there’s no need to attribute. Your readers will assume that the character speaks the line.’
    Because ereaders are a bit harder to read [in some ways] than print, I place almost all dialogue on a separate line so there is visual clarity. I do the same with one character + thought + dialogue. If the dialogue follows a clearly attributed thought, or action, I don’t provide the ‘he said/she said’, even though the dialogue appears on what amounts to the next paragraph.
    But as I said at the start, that’s more to do with providing visual clarity on an ereader than anything else.

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    • I think the assumption on the author (of the quote) is that there is more information in the paragraph with the dialogue. As there should be. Either a beat or action tag, rather than an attribution.

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      • Very true. When in doubt, I read a whole page, including that section, out loud. If I stumble, or have a moment of disorientation, I know it’s not clear enough. Otherwise, full steam ahead. 😀

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  3. Good topic! I just finished a book that had every transition from internal to external dialogue start with a new para (which fits the second rule above), but sometimes without dialogue tags. In my head, I thought, We were in Jane’s head, now a new para, so Jorge must be speaking. Ugh, no, it was still Jane. I guess we need to make sure it’s CLEAR who’s speaking.

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  4. Very helpful, thank you.

    Paul Auster observed: “For me, a paragraph in a novel is a bit like a line in a poem. It has its own shape, its own music, its own integrity.” I find the connection between a paragraph and a poem stanza useful.

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