Posted in Writing

Why You Need to Think about Your Paragraphs


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Before leaving the basic elements of form and style, we ought to think for a moment about the paragraph, the form of organization which comes after the sentence […] Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs and lots of white space. They’re as airy as Dairy Queen ice cream cones. Hard books, ones full of ideas, narration, and description, have a stouter look. A packed look.

I think a lot about paragraphs in my writing, the way my paragraphs look on any given page of my latest short story or novel. Something I’ve learned a lot from Stephen King and many, many other fabulous authors is how to vary the lengths of your paragraphs to create a rhythm for your writing that works exceedingly well for the reader.

Write huge block paragraphs over and over, and you’ll bog down your reader. No matter how beautiful your writing is, no matter how perfectly chosen the words, a massive paragraph on any given page will likely turn off most readers.

Write lots of little sentence-long paragraphs over and over, and you won’t give your readers enough meat in terms of action, description, character. If every paragraph is one or two sentences, the rhythm becomes almost too fast at times and your reader will likely start flipping through the pages at an accelerated rate, skipping over moments you as the author might deem to be important.

The trick is to have a healthy mix of the shorter paragraphs and the longer paragraphs, no matter (for the most part) what genre or age market you’re writing toward.

It would make sense to write shorter paragraphs throughout most of my work since I primarily write for the middle grade and young adult markets, right? Yes, it’s true… to a certain extent. In my newest young adult novel, I integrate a lot of shorter paragraphs, lots of dialogue, moments that only have the occasional bits of description.

But I also trust in my young adult reader to stick around when I include the occasionally long paragraph or moment of heavy description. I do believe readers young and old will stick with you through some longer paragraphs if they’re engaged with the story and characters. Hell, if you have a particular chapter with lots of big meaty paragraphs detailing character details or a longer flashback, the reader will go with you if the story is working.

But the majority of the time, even in fiction written for older readers, it is absolutely in your best interest to keep your longer paragraphs to a minimum. And when you do include a longer paragraph, make sure there’s an excellent reason for it. Make sure it works with the rhythm of your storytelling and then look closely at every sentence of that longer paragraph to ensure its necessity.

I typically will look at the way my chapters look from revision to the next, and if I feel like there is too much in the way of shorter sentences, where, say, five pages in a row is just dialogue and one-to-two-sentence paragraphs, I’ll think about maybe taking one of those short paragraphs and expanding it a little, or maybe writing a new paragraph from scratch. I did this in my new middle grade novel in an early chapter, where I noticed about seven pages went by with itty bitty paragraphs, with no real depth or description given to the new setting or dramatic moment. I added a new paragraph from scratch that runs about eight sentences in length and fills up half a page. I re-read the novel two weeks ago and I was so happy to see this paragraph there now. It slows the pacing in a way that works for the rhythm and not against it, allowing the reader to a catch a breath before the next action scene.

Don’t obsess over your paragraph lengths when you write the first draft. Keep the idea in the back of your mind that you should include lots of shorter paragraphs and the occasional longer paragraph. Have a balance. Don’t go too far one way or the other.

And then, when you’re revising, I would advise you do a draft where you specifically see how your paragraphs look at the page and if you find yourself seeing too many pages in a row with either lots of huge paragraphs or lots of white space and brief one-sentence paragraphs, ask yourself if you can vary up your paragraph length, even by just adding a single new paragraph, building onto an existing one, or cutting down on what you already have.

Paragraphs make a story. Make sure you’re using the best ones you can!

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