Constructing Paragraphs in Fiction

Last week, I discussed writing nonfiction paragraphs. Many of the rules that apply to this type of paragraph also apply to fiction paragraphs. Descriptive paragraphs within fiction can often be written in the same style as nonfiction paragraphs.

Usually, writing factual or descriptive paragraphs is not a problem for most writers. However, the same cannot be said for writing fiction paragraphs involving characters. Although the same rules apply, they are slightly different.

A Few Rules for Writing Fiction Paragraphs

  1. They should contain only one idea.
  2. Each time a different character speaks, acts or thinks, a new paragraph must be started.
  3. They should be no longer than 1/3 of the page and preferably shorter.

Regarding Rule #2, if a new paragraph is not started when a different character speaks, acts or thinks, readers will be confused and not know who is doing or saying what. Here’s an example of what could happen if this rule was not followed.

Wilma was one day away from retirement and walked with a spring in her step towards the bus stop. When she spotted her friend Rose, she waved. “How are you this morning,” said Rose. “Happy. Excited.” She hugged her friend. “I bet you can’t wait to leave on your around-the-world trip.” “I stayed up half the night packing.” She looked to see the bus approach. “We better hurry. I don’t want to be late for my last day at work.” Rose looped her arm with hers and tugged her forward. “It would be a bad omen for your retirement.”

Writing like this confuses readers, and it wouldn’t take long before they dropped the book and went onto something else, like cleaning out the chicken coop.

Here is how these paragraphs should be written.

Wilma was one day away from retirement and walked with a spring in her step towards the bus stop. When she spotted her friend Rose, she waved.

“How are you this morning,” said Rose.

“Happy. Excited.” She hugged her friend.

“I bet you can’t wait to leave on your around-the-world trip.”

“I stayed up half the night packing.” She looked to see the bus approach. “We better hurry. I don’t want to be late for my last day at work.”

Rose looped her arm with hers and tugged her forward. “It would be a bad omen for your retirement.”

Although not every paragraph has a dialogue tag, it’s obvious who is speaking because a new paragraph was started. At times, what is being said also indicates the speaker. Since a new paragraph is started every time a different character speaks, and this is the rule without exception, then dialogue can easily be written like this…

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“It’s raining again,” said Elmer.

Susan grumbled. “I can’t do anything about that.”

“You don’t have a magic wand to bring out the sun?”

“Hardly. I don’t even have a stick.”

“You could make one.”

“Out of what?”

“That tree in the yard you’re always complaining about.”

“You’re the one complaining about it, not me.”

When a person is credited with a lot of dialogue without interruption, it can be broken into two or more paragraphs. In this instance, you follow Rule #1 and separate each idea in its own paragraph. Usually, there is a natural break in long dialogue because the speaker changes tone or direction. It may be subtle, but use it to divide the dialogue. The reason long dialogue should be broken up is because of Rule #3.

An Exception to Think About Regarding Rule #2

This isn’t exactly an exception; more like a clarification.  Although it states, a new paragraph must be started when a different character acts, this refers more to the perspective to the action, not who is doing the action.

If Kellyn is sitting on a chair watching people walk by, she can describe everything in one paragraph even though several people are performing their own actions. It is all from her perspective.

For example: Kellyn adjusted her position on the bench. A large man bumped her knee, making her glare at the back of his head as he stumbled towards the tavern. If she hadn’t been wearing a uniform, she may have tripped him. A hauflin shot out from one the shops and bumped into the man, sending him to the ground. The hauflin jumped up and ran off between two women who giggled as they watched the man roll into a deep puddle. Kellyn smirked and looked away. He had received his reward without her help.

Another Example: Bronwyn slid from the saddle and directed his horse by the bridle. An agonizing scream stopped him in his tracks. It delivered a cold chill down the back of his neck. He quickened his pace. The voice cried out again. Releasing his horse, he sneaked through the bush for a better view. Kellyn came up beside him. [Scattered Stones]

‘Kellyn came up beside him’ can be added to this paragraph because he knows she came to his side. Action scenes where two or more characters are doing battle often include the actions of more than one person as well.

Although certain actions of different characters may be included in one paragraph, putting them in their own paragraph gives them more strength and puts emphasis on important points.

Compare these two styles.

One Paragraph

McGuigan watched Elspeth flick her finger and immediately a white cloth fell to the floor from a nearby doorway that led into the throne room. Thick burgundy drapes hung across the opening, except for a gap wide enough for the large human warrior who stood in it. The woman appeared preoccupied with the activities in the throne room and gave the hallway no mind. Still, thought McGuigan, who had thrown the cloth? Elspeth crouched and moved silently forward, passing the warrior without a glimpse. McGuigan followed. Curious, he glanced at the warrior as he approached. At that moment, she made a visual sweep of the hallway without changing her solemn expression. Her attention returned to the party as if she saw nothing.

Divided Paragraphs

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McGuigan watched Elspeth flick her finger and immediately a white cloth fell to the floor from a nearby doorway that led into the throne room. Thick burgundy drapes hung across the opening, except for a gap wide enough for the large human warrior who stood in it. The woman appeared preoccupied with the activities in the throne room and gave the hallway no mind.

Still, thought McGuigan, who had thrown the cloth?

Elspeth crouched and moved silently forward, passing the warrior without a glimpse.

McGuigan followed. Curious, he glanced at the warrior as he approached. At that moment, she made a visual sweep of the hallway without changing her solemn expression. Her attention returned to the party as if she saw nothing.

McGuigan watched Elspeth flick her finger and immediately a white cloth fell to the floor from a nearby. [Revelation Stones]

Breaking up paragraphs in this manner depends on the circumstances, the emphasis on a particular action and the writer’s style.

As mentioned with nonfiction paragraph writing, Rule #3 is not always followed, but I recommend it because…

  • When readers look at a page and see lengthy paragraphs, an invisible weight falls upon their shoulders. The amount of reading to reach the next page is mammoth, and they might decide they’ll stop there for the night.
  • If paragraphs are short, they are more likely to read this ‘one last page’ before turning out the light.
  • Shorter paragraphs hold the attention of readers better than longer ones.
  • Readers are less likely to lose their place on the page.
  • For dramatic effect.

Final Tips

  • Paragraphs should vary in length because it is more pleasant to the eye.
  • Paragraphs must be indented in fiction, but it is okay to make the first paragraph flush to the left. Of course, you could invent your own style, but this one is the standard style. (Fiction paragraphs in this post were not indented because WordPress doesn’t allow me do set an indent specifically to the start a paragraph. It indents the entire paragraph.)

Next Monday: Let the Dialogue Do the Talking

If you found this information helpful, please consider buying me a cup of tea ($1.50) as if we had chatted at a cafe and I shared this with you. [Payment is through PayPal.]

Are you looking for an unbiased, honest evaluation of your writing? Check out First 5,000 Words Evaluation.

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5 thoughts on “Constructing Paragraphs in Fiction

    • Wow. That is a rule if broken, particularly with thought and dialogue, that will confuse readers to frustration. I think I would have stopped reading and wrote a letter to the publisher and/or author. I don’t mind rule-breakers, but not if they make life confusing.

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