The title of this post makes it sound like a contender for the “lame article of the year” award, but some writers have trouble deciding when to break a paragraph.
What is it you are trying to accomplish with each paragraph? You are expressing an idea and then supporting it.
The One Line Paragraph
In non-fiction, one sentence can be a paragraph when it’s the introduction to the paragraph topic.
There are other times when a one sentence paragraph makes sense. If you want a statement to stand out, one sentence will do that. The end of every paragraph is a break for your reader. It gives them a chance to think about what was just said. Short paragraphs tell your reader that this is important.
You may also want to use a short paragraph to express a main point so the read can confirm they are keeping up with what you are saying.
The Run-On Paragraph
When a paragraph is unusually long, you’re doing your reader a discourtesy. Everything in a paragraph should be one idea whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. When you make them read long paragraphs, they are going to assume it’s one idea being over-worked. Break the paragraph when the ideas change. If it really is one idea, you many be saying too much about it. Ask yourself why it took a long paragraph to get the idea across. It may be a complex idea and complex ideas can be broken down into component parts. Express the big concept and each step within using separate paragraphs.
When is it Time for a Break
When you need your readers to draw a conclusion from the sentence you just said, it’s time for a paragraph break. If the conclusion is obvious, the next paragraph continues to the next step. If it’s more difficult to make the connection, you may state the conclusion explicitly at the start of the next paragraph to be sure they don’t miss the point.
Any time you introduce a new idea, you need a paragraph break. This includes dialogue where the speaker is talking about more than one idea.
If the time changes, you need a new paragraph. For example, the next line starts out “That evening…” or “Nothing happened for the next…”
When the location changes, you need a paragraph break.
When there is dialogue in your writing, you always have a paragraph break when the speaker changes. That shouldn’t need to be said, but I’ve seen multiple speakers within the same paragraph in published novels.
Dialogue may sometimes involve action rather than words. A character is asked a question and shrugs in reply. That’s a separate paragraph. A car may drive by with people shouting out the window. That’s a separate paragraph. The speaker may perform some action while speaking. That goes in the same paragraph.
You shouldn’t worry too much about paragraph breaks while writing first drafts. That’s a terrible time to edit. Just get it written. When it comes time to revise, it is often obvious where you need the breaks. Does a paragraph run on for half a page? You probably need a paragraph break. Is a paragraph only one or two lines? In fiction, that’s often normal. In non-fiction, you may have made an unnecessary split. Non-fiction is one idea per paragraph.
With practice, and by noticing how other writers pick their paragraph breaks, you too will know when you need a paragraph break.
Article by Ivan Izo.