Monday, July 26, 2010

Paragraphing: the long and the short of it

Many of the submissions I've received so far - and do keep sending them, I love seeing new manuscripts pop up in my inbox - have what I call Paragraph Problems.

Today, in the world of romance, the page-long paragraph is a no-no. Sometimes even the half-page paragraph looks out of place. Once in a while, yes. Perhaps when some building of atmosphere is required, or some terrible internal struggle is taking place. Maybe two or three times in a chapter, a half-page of narrative will be acceptable. But not every few pages, and certainly never in the first few pages, where pace is everything.

Here are some simple suggestions for structuring the paragraph. I hesitate to call them rules, because that implies they should never be broken, and a good writer always breaks rules - and gets away with it, of course, because she's so damn good!

But if you suspect you may not be damn good, then stop when paragraphing and think: what were those suggestions again?

Bear in mind that these rules - sorry, suggestions - are aimed at writers of romance. Fleming broke the rules all the time in his Bond novels, and many other writers do too. But here we're talking about romance, short category romance, and most importantly, romance aimed at the digital market.

People read text on screen in a different way to how they read text on a printed page. And they prefer shorter paragraphs on screen, not least because a long paragraph means they have to scroll back to the top of the page - or even the page before - if they lose the thread of what was going on.  Which is easily done in a long and complex paragraph.

So ...

  1. Keep your paragraphs short. Readers tend to skip long ones. They do. Honest.
  2. Vary the lengths of your paragraphs. This includes all-dialogue paragraphs. A fast-paced exchange of one-liners should not continue too long or you'll give the reader whiplash and she'll forget who's speaking when. Equally, a single line of narrative - 'The car sped away, and Dawn realised she was alone on the dark pier' - will be more effective if it's not surrounded by other single or very short paragraphs. Your book is unlikely to be read aloud to anyone, so remember to think visually and vary lengths when choosing where to break your paragraphs.
  3. If you have paragraphs of the DND (dialogue - narrative - dialogue) variety, aim to keep all three short. Never try DNDND. The reader will become confused, especially if two separate people are speaking in the same paragraph. I've actually seen this attempted. Not good.
  4. Paragraphs are like mini-stories in themselves. They should have a beginning, a middle and an end. In my example above: 'The car sped away (beginning), and Dawn realised she was alone (middle) on the dark pier (end).' So we have action (beginning), identity, thought and circumstance (middle), and suspense or resolution (end). Suspense at the end of a paragraph is good, by the way, because it springboards the reader into the next paragraph. 
  5. You should indent the first word of each paragraph, unless that paragraph starts a new section or chapter. Then it should start flush with the left-hand margin.
  6. When describing action, keep paragraphs short and succinct. Use single clause sentences, and dialogue to break up the text. Ultra-short dialogue like 'Hey!' or 'Here, catch!' works best. (Try not to have characters call each other by name too often, unless it's for a reason - i.e. irony or character revelation.)
  7. By contrast, when writing a romantic or intimate scene, don't have the paragraphs ultra-short if you can avoid it, apart from the odd muttered comment. Short paras interrupt the flow. Equally though, don't use this excuse to slide off into reams and reams of purple prose and flowery euphemisms. Keep descriptions of what's going on fairly lucid and accurate. I'm always miffed when I have to re-read a love scene several times in order to work out if they actually did it! We're not writing for convent girls.
  8. In the last chapter, as in the first chapter, shorter paragraphs help to increase the pace and to speed us towards our natural conclusion. Here, dialogue is paramount, especially to convey vital plot information.
  9. Lastly, as far as dialogue tags are concerned, if it's clear who's speaking, drop the 'she said'. But I'm not looking for a thousand cunning alternatives to 'said' either. If 'said' is all that's required, use it, and try not to throw in a 'groaned', 'lamented', 'whimpered' or 'grated' at every turn, or pepper your 'said' with adverbs like 'chillingly', 'bitingly', 'archly'. With any luck, the dialogue itself will tell us how it was said - if your character work has been done well enough.
There you have it. The Embrace Guide to Paragraphing, or everything you ever needed to know about slicing your book into digestible lumps, and more!

Now go cut some paragraphs.


  1. Thanks for this Jane. We should all know these things, but it is good to be reminded, especially if we hope to submit to yourslef! I'll tweet it too!

  2. Well, you'd think we should all know these things, yes. But it isn't always the case with some of the submissions I've received. Nice to have a blog post I can point people towards if there's an issue with paragraphing, rather than repeating all this each time.


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