6 Tips for Creating Paragraphs in Your Novel

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6 Tips for Creating Paragraphs in Your Novel

Anybody Can Write a Novel 2.0

Chapter 7 “Editing” – Section 2 “The Paragraph”

I will try to cram these paragraphs full of facts and give them a weight and shape no greater than that of a cloud of blue butterflies.”
-Brendan Gill

Once you have completed a first draft that is broken down by carefully constructed plot-points and chapter breaks, the next element you need to look at is the paragraph. Think of paragraphs as the glue by which you hold the sentences, which form your story, into cohesive and unified ideas. The difficulty, however, is that paragraph construction in a novel is not a hard science. Whereas some things, like plot-points, you can cleanly identify, plan, and build, paragraphs are more organic constructs which require precision and order as much as they need flow and life, depending on both your style and the needs in each scene you write. So this tutorial will be primarily focused on teaching the tools at your disposal for adjusting and shaping your paragraphs in the way that you find serves the story best.

Tip 1: Learn how to properly format a paragraph so you can break all the rules.

As we were talking about before, a paragraph is a collection of sentences bound together to help convey a single idea. In my tutorial for How to Write an Essay, I talked about the proper way of constructing a paragraph: introduce your statement, give evidence to support and explain your statement, and conclude that statement. Similarly, a paragraph in a novel exists to convey a unified idea or sequence of ideas; the difference is that a novel requires a much larger array of different forms for all the many idea types that range from being infinitely more simple to infinitely more complex than that of an essay. Because the objectives are the same, we can use the knowledge of a proper paragraph to gauge how far we need to deviate from it and whether or not we were successful with that deviation. In other words, we learn the rules in order to understand how they can best be broken (and that applies to more than just paragraphs ;) ).

Tip 2: Note the many different types of paragraphs that exist, and their uses.

Unlike with an essay, there are many ways to organize a collections of sentences into a paragraph. Each of these serve different functions and deviate from the essay paragraph in various ways and to various degrees. The three primary paragraph types that will comprise your novel are description paragraphs, dialogue paragraphs, and action paragraphs.

The Description Paragraph

Of the top three paragraph types that you will be using, the description paragraph will be most similar to the essay paragraph. You will start with an introduction to the purpose of the paragraph, support that introduction, conclude that introduction, and often link to the next paragraph. Notice, in the following example, these parts and how they unify various descriptions about both me and my coffee into a single, cohesive structure. The structure changes the description from a list of items being checked off like a grocery list, to almost a persuasive sort of statement that feels like it has concrete purpose.

Blake finished typing, for a moment, and looked with disappointment at his coffee cup. You see, the coffee he'd brewed that morning had been particularly delicious. It had been neither too hot nor too cold, he'd proportioned the correct amount of water to coffee, and he hadn't accidentally spilled too much sugar into the cup as he was prone to doing. This sounds all well and good, but Blake was down to the last swallow and doubted that he could repeat the perfect cup, thus his disappointment. Sighing heavily, he returned to typing his tutorial.

The Dialogue Paragraph

Depending on how many characters you have in your story, and what type of story you are writing, the dialogue paragraph will likely be the primary or secondary type that you use in your story. As such, dialogue paragraphs require a bit of variation in how you compose them, primarily in how you organize their three components—the quote sentence (what the character says), the dialogue tag (he said, she said), and the nonverbal sentence (any actions or thoughts that alter the meaning of the quote). I actually have an entire tutorial (which will be updated soon) on the topic of dialogue, so I will keep this one as brief as possible.

Hm, how should I explain the variations in the many ways people can write dialogue paragraphs?” (quote sentence) Blake said, speaking to nobody in particular. (dialogue tag)
Blake stood, rubbing his devilish goatee and thinking about the matter as he poured himself another cup of coffee and said, (nonverbal sentence/dialogue tag) “I should probably be sure to mention that you can use any variation of those three parts, but to generally try to limit each paragraph to two action sections or two dialogue sections, with only one the opposing section in between. Not that it's strictly necessary … but it makes the paragraph neater, like a sandwich.” (quote sentence) He nodded and his stomach gave a low rumble at the thought of a sandwich. (nonverbal sentence)
Oh! And I can't forget to clarify that your dialogue paragraph can be a quote sentence all by itself, without any tags or non-verbals—particularly when the reader already know who the speaker is.” (quote sentence)

The Action Paragraph

Action paragraphs, unlike what the name may indicate, does not necessarily mean that it is for an action scene. Action paragraphs are essentially just lists of similar events that happen within the story, told sequentially. These can be full-length paragraphs, if the scene is set at a slower pace (like if you were describing the function of machinery); or very short paragraphs, if the scene is set at a quick pace (for an action scene). Note that there is something of an introduction and something of a conclusion in this paragraph type, though it is not as obvious nor as concrete as that of the description paragraph.

Blake poured his second cup of coffee, and stirred some sugar into it. Slowly and without much expectation for the flavor, he twirled the metal spoon inside the ceramic mug, creating obnoxious clanking sounds. As Blake stirred, he remarked on how uneventful this illustrated tutorial had been thus far—without any cats, bears, or anything else trying to kill him. Putting the thought out of mind, he took a sip.

Minor Types

Along with these three primary paragraph types, there are several minor types. Four of the most common minor types that you will encounter are topical paragraphs, broken paragraphs, one word paragraphs, and one sentence paragraphs. Topical paragraphs are especially important for when your character is thinking about a topic—such as is they are having inner turmoil, trying to make a decision, or trying to figure something out; these are also very similar to an essay paragraph. Broken paragraphs are generally used when a paragraph of any sort is interrupted—either by a character or an event that occurs unexpectedly. One word paragraphs are important for when you want to place dramatic emphasis on a particular word. One sentence paragraphs can function similarly to the one word ones, or simply become a necessity when you have a single sentence that does not fit with any other blocks of text.

The realization that nothing terrible had happened was deeply troubling for Blake. From past experience, he knew that there was no such thing as a 4th-Wall breaking tutorial where he did not come out unscathed. Whatever narrator was in control of his existence was not a benevolent being, it was one with a juvenile sense of dark humor. It was only a matter of time before something happened.
With a shaky hand, Blake lifted the mug of coffee to his lips—the spoon rattling against the mug. He took a sip and—
His coffee was cold. In writing his tutorial, he had quite forgotten how much time had passed, resulting in his coffee having lost all the heat. On top of that, he realized that the sugar to coffee ration wasn't quite right on this second cup. Truly, this was a fate worse than death.
Then I remembered with absolute terror … there were two upcoming tutorials that would require my further participation in examples.

Of course, all of these paragraph types can be mixed, altered, and adjusted as your story needs. Please note that these are not official terms that will help you on any sort of literature quiz, only terms that I thought best described each (I do not believe that any such terms formally exist). This list is neither comprised of the ONLY sorts of paragraphs you can use nor the ONLY way you can use them. This is a small sample of some standard forms that you can use for beginning to learn paragraph breaks and paragraph structure.

Tip 3: Note the effects of paragraph lengths.

As briefly mentioned above, the length of your paragraph will have an effect on the pacing of your story. Like reading a chapter, the reading of a paragraph is something of a mental exercise for readers—which is why children's authors usually stick to short paragraphs in order not to discourage young reader with huge blocks of text. Of course, adult readers have a higher tolerance, but the little bit of mental exercise creates an effect in pace. Long paragraphs will have the added effect of seeming a little slower and more contemplative than shorter ones. And if your goal is to write a more relaxed and thoughtful scene, this will work out to your advantage. Alternatively, short paragraphs are read quickly and without much effort at all—particularly when they are only a sentence or a couple sentences long. If you are writing a quick-paced action sequence, where things happen in rapid succession, then short paragraphs are preferable. In general, however, moderation is key. You want to organize your paragraphs into manageable chunks of similar information, without giving them constant quick bites nor enormous blocks of dense text. It will also help your novel flow more naturally if you alternate with some frequency between long and short paragraphs, as well as between different paragraph types.

Tip 4: Start a new paragraph whenever you change the focus character.

Another major aspect for combining sentences into a paragraph (and probably the one that will cause you to alternate paragraphs the most) is for clarity—specifically, for telling the audience when the character performing an action is switched to a different character. In other words, each and every time that one of your characters is talking, doing something, or even thinking—and then a different character does something in turn—you need to switch paragraphs. This formatting serves as a kindness to your reader by making it immediately clear that the acting character has changed, without them having to play detective to understand who is doing what. Note that there are two exceptions to this rule. If you have multiple characters performing the same actions or actions that are related in topic, then you can allow them to share a paragraph. You can also stay within the same paragraph if you are just giving a very brief and minor reaction from one character to another.

While Blake thought about and dreaded what horrible things things might happen to him later that month with the coming tutorials, the Narrator of his life planned what horrible things would happen to poor Blake. For as Blake had correctly stated, the Narrator was a cruel being with a twisted sense of humor. (Note that this Topical Paragraph is talking about two very inter-connected characters whose actions are interrelated. If the Narrator actually performed an action to hurt Blake, I would need to break to a new paragraph.)
Oh horrible Narrator!” Blake shouted dramatically. He tore his clothes and dumped coffee grounds on his head, which mildly amused the Narrator. Blake wailed and shook his fists at the heavens. “Why have you chosen me, of all people, to torment so? Surely you could torment my cats instead.” (Note that I was able to cleanly add the reaction of the Narrator without confusing the readers because the Narrator's reaction was very limited and because I was very precise about who was performing what action.)

Tip 5: Pay special attention to the first and last paragraph in each chapter.

Just like with a story's beginning and ending, we need to pay special attention to the first and last paragraphs of every chapter. We talked, in the tutorial on Chapter Composition, about how the beginning of every chapter needs to be a hook and every ending needs to serve as something of a cliffhanger. In order for those hooks and cliffhangers to work, they must be precise and they must carry enough power to energize your reader and push them forward with a sense of excitement and anticipation. So the first thing that we need to know at the opening of every chapter is the sensory information of the POV (Point of View) character. Start by stating the POV character's name (if you are using multiple POV characters; if you only have one the entire story then this no longer becomes necessary). Then reveal what he/she immediately sees, feels, tastes, smells, and how the scene is lit (time of day or type of artificial lighting). By giving us this basic sensory information, your readers start off the scene immediately knowing what we are supposed to be imagining, instead of a blank white space that is gradually filled in as the story moves along, and yet the audience is not overburdened with every single little physical detail. In a sense, your first paragraph is a lot like the appetizer for the meal—light, flavorful, and meant to work up your appetite for the main course. By that same illustration, the last paragraph is the dessert. Take great care to make the last bite sweet, conclusive, and designed to leave your audience eager for their next meal by creating final moments of dramatic suspense that will lead into the next chapter.

Tip 6: Use important words only once per paragraph.

One of the biggest flaws I've noticed with the more recent drafts of my novels is that I will find the perfect word to describe what I'm talking about, and then I will reuse it within the same (or the immediately following) paragraph. I don't do it consciously, but subconsciously I suppose that I become fixated on that word as the perfect descriptor. It's so perfect to me, in fact, that the word begins to lose its power through repetition. Not only that but even a perfect word for a situation can become distracting and annoying after repetitive and constant use, particularly close to itself. Note that proper pronouns like the names of people, places, or things don't really count under this (nor common and necessary words like and, or, is, to, from, etc…); these problematic repeats are usually adjectives and adverbs. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about this problem when drafting; but when you are editing, be sure to eliminate larger repeated words to make your paragraphs ever-closer to perfect. (Perfect.)

Daily Recommended Reading: Any novel you want to read. (Just read anything you happen to have sitting around and pay close attention to the paragraph breaks and the paragraph structure. Does the author have another style or paragraph type not mentioned above? Do they do something uniquely? What is the effect? I'd love to hear all about it in the comments, because this is a rather huge topic that deserve much more discussion than what it gets.)

Write-A-Novel Exercise 7.2

Choose a single chapter in Act I of your novel which best exemplifies the pace and tone of the rest of the story. Keep in mind, when choosing this chapter, that it will be the one critiqued by the group, the one you will use in all of these exercises, as well as the one you will use to cross reference with the rest of your novel when you work on your next draft (in order to transfer the same types of edits to those chapters as you have done to this one). Once you have chosen a chapter, use the tips listed above to redraft it.

Please do not participate in this exercise until you have a complete first draft of your novel. Criticism, given before a first draft is completed, has a powerful discouraging effect for the writer. Also, please abstain from making other sorts of edits to your chapter, as we want to make our focus as specific and precise as possible with each exercise.

For those critiquing, please make you suggestions only relevant to the topic at hand. We will be going through a large variety of editing exercises, and your critiques will serve best when given at the appropriate time. As always, please make your critiques honest and hold nothing back, while remaining polite and uplifting. We want to encourage one another to succeed by telling them the truth about their flaws while uplifting their strengths and potential.

Writers, I advise you to always keep a copy of every draft you've ever written, no matter how bad. The contrast is important for seeing your own abilities grow, as well as for teaching others later down the road. Additionally, having a backup copy of the original file will make you subconsciously feel free to redraft, cut, and change the text, as the original will always be there if you decide you liked it or some element of it better. So keep a record of all of the many drafts you will create.

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Anastasia122's avatar
Ah I try to Improve writting paragraphs~
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Thanks for reading :)
Anastasia122's avatar
CrystalMeteor's avatar
I'd like to note a little something about number 6:
I'm problably speaking from a rather cultural point of view, but while reading it, I wondered that generic nouns (so not specific names, as you mentioned) aren't on your list of problematic repeats. I'm German, and German as a language is based highly on nouns and endless noun constructions, whereas adjectives might be less a problem. Imagine you found the perfect noun - it'll appear over and over for sure. Just saying that it depends a little on the language where the traps are hidden in specific.

But overall, you're absolutely right and you put down the necessary points really well. =)
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Well I'm not at all familiar with how German works (other than a little bit of knowledge of English words of German origin), but I imagine you could be correct. For example, if you simply repeated the same noun over and over (especially if it wasn't strictly necessary) it would become somewhat noticeable and cramp on the style of the text. And now that you mention it, I do try to vary the nouns that I use in a paragraph so that I repeat as little as possible. I suppose I just didn't think about it because I much more frequently encounter adjectives and adverbs that are repeated badly. 

So yes, totally, you are absolutely correct! Thank you for bringing that to the conversation :) 
CrystalMeteor's avatar
You're very welcome! =)

I'm not that familiar with many languages either - but when learning English, I noticed that it is indeed based strongly on verbs and adjectives, and how different that is from German. Sometimes it's a lot of effort to construct your perfect noun - who'd let go of that after using it once (for example, German has words like "Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz", which translates to "(German) federal law for educational sponsorship"). Otherwise, I only know some French, which I remember as quite balanced on using different kinds of words (so maybe that problem doesn't occur to them at all, theoretically speaking).

It would probably be interesting to hear from other native speakers what's common in their language.
Nocturnaliss's avatar
I'm a native French speaker and I must say I noticed differences between French and English the more I learn(ed) it. For me, the grammar was the biggest difference, and phrase construct... I notice this when I try and translate my English stuff to French: whole sentences need to be inverted to sound right, some have to be overhauled because there's no right equivalent... French is a language that sings, that demands many words and is generally speaking complex and convoluted. English is far more straightforward (especially its past tenses!) and flexible, especially when creating 'new' words (compare 'Ghostlight Forest' to 'Forêt de la Lumière Fantomatique' <<). The fun thing to do is mix and match... so I try to make my English sing like French ;)

I also know Dutch but I can't really speak about the literary differences as I never read books in Dutch: Dutch sounds more like a factual language I find very dull to read. It comes to life in speech, with intonations and accents that can make it fabulous to listen to. 
CrystalMeteor's avatar
Very interesting, thank you for the insight!

When I translated German to French, I had a similar experience. I needed, like, twice as many words in a completely different order to express the same (still, I guess that's due to fact we Germans like to put as much as possible into one word - your example of 'Ghostlight Forest' could be something like 'Irrlichtwald'). However, since French is so complex it also has a very rich vocabulary (that's why I'm really hesitant about speaking it even after learning for six years and having good grades - I never got the feeling I know enough words to say something meaningful), so when you're writing in French, I guess it is less likely you happen to use the same word over and over again. And even if you do, it could merge differently with the melody of the whole sentence, so it wouldn't even get boring.
Nocturnaliss's avatar
German and Dutch ressemble one another, so I know what you mean. I guess Ghostlight Forest would translate as 'Spooklichtwoud'... just two letters more than a German equivalent ;). But, yeah: French is a very rich language. It seems like everything can be said in multiple ways, as there are many words to a single idea... and even the way you construct a sentence can make a world of difference. I like to compare French to the tide of a sea, each sentence a wave, a sound, a thought... - Comparons le français à la marée d'un océan sans fin, où chaque vague est une phrase, un son, une pensée... Much as the English equivalent is pretty accurate, it just doesn't quite feel the same, if only because of the phonetic/speech differences. Like you say, even similar words can sound interesting when integrated in the language's melody. It's an intricate language. So kudos to you for having learned it! You shouldn't hesitate to speak it if you know it :P it's only by trying that you can learn.
CrystalMeteor's avatar
Merci beaucoup! Je parle le Francais rarement parce que je ne connais personne qui peut ou veut le parler avec moi (ils parlent trop vite ou ils corrigent mon accent allemand tous les fois). Je ne l'ai parlé (et écrit) plus depuis six ans.

I hope I didn't mess up to hard now. ;)
But I think both languages have their own poetry to themselves.
Nocturnaliss's avatar
Oh wow you're good! You got all the conjugations right (which isn't easy at all in French!) and wrote in a clear, comprehensive manner :D you should really not be afraid of using your French! In fact, there's only two small things that you got wrong: 'tous' should be 'toutes' (because it relates to 'every time', and 'une fois' is feminine), and the 'plus' in your last sentence just needs to be moved between 'l'ai' and 'parlé': 'ne plus' and 'ne pas' are a grammatical construction that tends to keep the words close to each other..; I think there's ever at the most one word between, but I've never paid attention sicne, well, it's been my native language for 30+ years XD (take a look here…). And I feel like I'm being a nitpicking grammatical nerd here XD seriously though: your French is amazing. I'm pretty certain you could pass off for a native ;)

Et si tu veux tester ton Français de temps à autre, ne te gêne pas et envoie-moi un PM :D discuter avec toi sera un grand plaisir! :)

Yep, both languages do have their own poetry :D which makes it fun to try and mingle genres and linguistic specialties... I love trying to get the French song into my English writings, for instance ^^ doesn't always work, but at least it creates a unique style XD
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LostLibrarian's avatar
One more use of minor paragraphs can be to forcefully destroy the reading flow. While normally the time in the novels flows faster, one can use it to match both the reading time and the "time in the novel" and highlight important events. Overlord did a nice job with it to underline the most important starting point of the whole series:

With not only paragraphs but also white space those lines are much harder to read and reading like 10 lines took so much more time. With this the reader will remember the event because it feels so different without using (too many) buzzwords...
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Yes, that could definitely be done really well! I've usually seen it used in poetry but your example does illustrate a good way to implement it for a novel. 
Kinkifun's avatar
Great info as usual!
Nocturnaliss's avatar
I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees the value of one-word paragraphs! I had a friend bash my parapgrah choice because the one-word I used was a repeat from the former paragraph - with the intent, for me, to emphasize that word and the feelings of the character (a 'sudden realization' if you will). After reading this tutorial, I feel a lot more confident in my writing skills << I apply the one paragraph one idea rule to the letter, always trying to have one paragraph link to the previous and next for cohesion's sake. Great tutorial as always :)
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Thank you :) Of course, they can be overdone or used badly, but there comes situations where a one-word paragraph is the best thing you can possibly use to communicate a piece of the story. 
Nocturnaliss's avatar
Very true. I can but wholeheartedly agree :la:
Leopold002's avatar
Interesting as always! And helpful. A review of the basics.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Thanks! Yeah, I'm going to try to break writing down to its most basic elements.
Amber134's avatar
This is so helpful
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Awesome :) I'm glad. 
Graeystone's avatar
Number 6 - just as guilty.

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