From Rick:

I saw a recent article title “How long should a sentence be?” While that’s not an unimportant aspect of writing, a pervasive problem I see among new writers is really long paragraphs that need to be broken up.

A few years back, I did a blog post here called “Is Your Story the Right Size?” (link below) In that I talked about deciding whether your story concept matched the length you wanted to tell it in.

IS YOUR STORY THE RIGHT SIZE?

This point is independent of wordiness (or lack thereof) in your writing. I’m not going to repeat the article, but the substance of it is whether you have enough (or too much) story for the word count you plan on allocating to it. Story ideas go both ways. We can take a concept and elect to make a short story (or flash fiction), or we can try to stretch it into a novella or novel. The key is to know the requirements of each form.

TRY FLASH FICTION

However, the purpose of this post is not to decide how much space you should allocate for the telling of your story but how to divide your story into units that make it more effective.

Jonathan Pepper previously wrote an excellent guest blog here on the topic of chapter length.

THREE WAYS TO TAME YOUR CHAPTER LENGTHS

Jonathan’s advice goes to the core of good writing: maintaining tension and interest that keep the reader turning the pages. Think about that. The reason we write is to share our writing with others. A corollary to that is wanting our readers to KEEP READING and to want to read more. An important part of storycraft is making the writing flow smoothly. And one way to accomplish that is to break up the writing appropriately.

Today’s readers for the most part tend to find long sentences and long paragraphs tedious to plow through. Certainly well-written very long sentences have their place, as do ultra-short ones, in the grand scheme of things, but in today’s world more than ever many distractions vie for our time, and given that so many readers now read on portable devices in busy environments it’s even more important to ensure that we maintain the reader’s attention. Writers of the past who constructed sentences that ran on and on had their day, but such a writing style is rarely embraced today. The best way to hold the reader’s attention is to break your writing in strategic places.

In this post I want to focus on paragraphs. One of the biggest problems I find among new writers is paragraphs that are way too long. I’m not talking about paragraphs that are too wordy and should be trimmed overall. I’m talking about paragraphs that cram too many things into one instead of being broken up into several paragraphs. As an example, compare the two passages below, which are otherwise identical except for the paragraph breaks.

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VERSION 1—SINGLE PARAGRAPH

After teaching his evening class “Black History: 1865 to the Present,” Eli Howard packed up his briefcase and left the classroom building. He didn’t live that far and preferred to walk when the weather permitted. Outside, the Wayne State University campus streets glistened from the brief thunderstorm of an hour before. The storm had left muggy air and deserted campus streets in its wake. Ahead of him, a young woman exited a classroom building carrying a folded denim jacket on top of the books under her arm as she walked toward the parking lot. His light-sensitive eyes easily discerned her attractive facial features and flawless skin. He also spotted the two individuals lurking in the shadows nearby. He stopped next to a tree and set his attaché on the ground. The Blue Light Security Phone at the far end of the lot wasn’t close enough for quick access by either of them. Three cars remained in the parking lot. The woman pulled a set of keys from her jeans pocket and pointed her key fob. The door locks on the red Saturn thunked. Maybe she’d reach her car in time and he wouldn’t have to intervene. The two men sprinted toward her. She jerked her head up at the wet squeak of sneakers on the asphalt and quickened her pace. The more muscular of the two, a clean-shaven white man in his late twenties or early thirties, darted out of the shadows. The woman lunged for her car and slipped on some wet leaves. She caught her balance, but her books, jacket, and keys fell and scattered across the asphalt. The man pressed himself against her back, squeezing her between him and the car. She screamed. Eli fought to control his emotions. He projected a thought at the man. No effect. The distance was too great even for his strong vampire telepathy.

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VERSION 2—PARAGRAPHED

After teaching his evening class “Black History: 1865 to the Present,” Eli Howard packed up his briefcase and left the classroom building. He didn’t live that far and preferred to walk when the weather permitted.

Outside, the Wayne State University campus streets glistened from the brief thunderstorm of an hour before. The storm had left muggy air and deserted campus streets in its wake.

Ahead of him, a young woman exited a classroom building carrying a folded denim jacket on top of the books under her arm as she walked toward the parking lot. His light-sensitive eyes easily discerned her attractive facial features and flawless skin. He also spotted the two individuals lurking in the shadows nearby. He stopped next to a tree and set his attaché on the ground. The Blue Light Security Phone at the far end of the lot wasn’t close enough for quick access by either of them.

Three cars remained in the parking lot. The woman pulled a set of keys from her jeans pocket and pointed her key fob. The door locks on the red Saturn thunked. Maybe she’d reach her car in time and he wouldn’t have to intervene.

The two men sprinted toward her. She jerked her head up at the wet squeak of sneakers on the asphalt and quickened her pace. The more muscular of the two, a clean-shaven white man in his late twenties or early thirties, darted out of the shadows. The woman lunged for her car and slipped on some wet leaves. She caught her balance, but her books, jacket, and keys fell and scattered across the asphalt. The man pressed himself against her back, squeezing her between him and the car. She screamed.

Eli fought to control his emotions. He projected a thought at the man. No effect. The distance was too great even for his strong vampire telepathy.

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Do you see the difference paragraphing makes? In the first example, everything flows together, making it harder to follow. There are no breaks to separate parts of the scene. Back in high school, you were probably taught about writing paragraphs: start with a topic sentence, elaborate and expand on that sentence, then write a concluding sentence. This works well for non-fiction, essays, and persuasive writing.

Fiction is a little different. The last thing I want to do is to give you rules to follow when writing paragraphs because it won’t serve you well. When you wrtte, you should sense a progression of the narrative and build in pauses when necessary.

Here’s something that might help. The period at the end of a sentence signifies a pause before the next one begins. The sentence that follows is often related to the one before it. The sentences within one paragraph usually fit together to express one narrow aspect or action in the scene, such as one character’s actions and dialogue.

A new paragraph represents a bigger change or shift than does a period. In dialogue, a new paragraph usually means a different character is speaking. In straight narrative passages, a new paragraph may designate a shift in the perspective or the action. It may move the action forward to something else, but still in the same scene.

How do we determine when to start a new paragraph? I like to use two guidelines. The first looks at how long the paragraph is already, and the second looks at how closely related every sentence is within a given paragraph. As soon as the thought, action, or view changes, that’s when a new paragraph is probably needed.

Examine my second example above and note how I broke up the scene. Certainly that paragraphing scheme is not the only way to do it. I could have easily joined the first two paragraphs because the actions in both are closely related: Eli leaves the building and is walking in the parking lot, where he sees the woman and the men approaching her. Or I could have broken that second paragraph into a new one where Eli stops next to a tree because that’s a shift on his part.

here’s how it’s broken up in terms of concepts or actions:

–Introduce Eli.

–Set the basic scene.

–Show what he sees and foreshadow what’s coming.

–Zero in on his observations and thoughts.

–Show the main action: men sprinting and the woman’s reactions.

–Show Eli’s thoughts and reactions to that.

Again, this is not the only way to break the paragraphs. You could break these up further to yield more, shorter ones, or you combine some to yield fewer paragraphs. I’d love to able to say that the choice of paragraph breaks is arbitrary. To an extent it is, but not completely. The choice of breaks depends in part on how the writer’s style and how he wants it to flow. To drive this point home, let’s look at a different paragraphing for the example, one that changes the emphasis on the events.

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VERSION 3—ALTERNATIVE PARAGRAPHING

After teaching his evening class “Black History: 1865 to the Present,” Eli Howard packed up his briefcase and left the classroom building. He didn’t live that far and preferred to walk when the weather permitted.

Outside, the Wayne State University campus streets glistened from the brief thunderstorm of an hour before. The storm had left muggy air and deserted campus streets in its wake. Ahead of him, a young woman exited a classroom building carrying a folded denim jacket on top of the books under her arm as she walked toward the parking lot. His light-sensitive eyes easily discerned her attractive facial features and flawless skin.

He also spotted the two individuals lurking in the shadows nearby.

He stopped next to a tree and set his attaché on the ground. The Blue Light Security Phone at the far end of the lot wasn’t close enough for quick access by either of them. Three cars remained in the parking lot. The woman pulled a set of keys from her jeans pocket and pointed her key fob. The door locks on the red Saturn thunked. Maybe she’d reach her car in time and he wouldn’t have to intervene.

The two men sprinted toward her. She jerked her head up at the wet squeak of sneakers on the asphalt and quickened her pace. The more muscular of the two, a clean-shaven white man in his late twenties or early thirties, darted out of the shadows.

The woman lunged for her car and slipped on some wet leaves. She caught her balance, but her books, jacket, and keys fell and scattered across the asphalt.

The man pressed himself against her back, squeezing her between him and the car. She screamed.

Eli fought to control his emotions. He projected a thought at the man.

No effect. The distance was too great even for his strong vampire telepathy.

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Is this version, I made the paragraphs shorter and more numerous to give the narrative a more staccato feel. This increases the tension. Is this a better version? It depends on the writer’s intent. I did not intend this scene to one of extreme tension. In fact, it was the opening scene of the novel. My focus was not the woman—because she is irrelevant to the story and not seen again—but on the character of Eli. As the rest of the scene progressed, Eli intervened to stop the men, called the campus security, gave them his statement, then continued home, pondering not that he’d saved the woman but the overall violence that had become pervasive in Detroit, where this story takes place.

The scene is thus a turning point for Eli and designed to show (not tell) the reader who and what he was. It didn’t even need to be an attempted rape. Any bit of criminal violence would have worked the same. My point in explaining this is to help you see the reasons for deciding where to break paragraphs. For the most part there are no right or wrong answers here—except that making this one long paragraph would be a questionable choice.

The next step up from the paragraph is the scene, which is really nothing more than a group of related paragraphs that tells a larger piece of the story. The decision on where to break scenes is usually much easier: you end the scene when the purpose of the scene has been accomplished. I don’t mean that to sound glib. Each scene should have a purpose, and it ends when that’s completed. Then it’s on to the next scene, chapter, whatever.

How do we decide whether to use a scene break or a chapter break? That’s up to the writer. Some writers write one scene per chapter. If your chapters are going to be made up of several scenes, you may want to consider having those scenes focus around one aspect of the story, but again, that’s a writer’s choice.

NOTE: It’s considered good writing practice currently to use a scene break or a chapter break when changing the point of view character.

When it comes to deciding how long a scene or a chapter should be, I can’t give any better advice than Jonathan Pepper did in the link I cited earlier. Read it, study it, practice it!

Modern literature has been tending toward shorter chapters, so be sure that even though a chapter ending provides a good place to stop, the reader will not be satisfied that something has been wrapped up. Make him want to move on to the next chapter.

And as you write each chapter, take care that your paragraphs properly broken are carefully constructed for maximum effect.

–Rick