We all know what paragraphs are, and those of us who’ve been through school know how they are used in academic essays, letters, and business contexts. But when it comes to creative writing, so many beginners have no idea what to do. During my years working as a tutor, I encountered several personal and narrative essays that had very long paragraphs and a few that didn’t have any paragraphs at all. Clearly, these students weren’t taught how and where to split their draft into paragraphs. That’s a problem I hope to remedy with this post.
The only hard and fast rule for paragraphs is to add a break whenever you change speakers. I go more in depth on this particular rule in my post on dialogue. Beyond that, paragraph breaks are used to signal shifts and transitions in the narrative. The shifts that benefit the most from this signaling are changes in time, location, and idea.
These shifts should be easy to spot in your draft. Whether you are taking a jump forward in time or pausing for a flashback, adding a paragraph break will visually reinforce the chronological movement.
Andrew decided to take a detour on his way to breakfast. He wanted to see that study in the daylight before reporting to Chief. As soon as he entered the room, his eyes were drawn to the desk chair. They weren’t playing tricks on him last night. He saw the same thing now that he saw then. He gave the chair a spin and knew exactly what to tell Chief.
Some time later, Andrew joined Chief in the team’s HQ. He quietly sipped his coffee as Chief looked up something on her laptop. She was comparing Andrew’s suggestion to the case files. He was used to the thick silence by now, used to the response Chief would inevitably give.
The phrase “some time later” alone tells the reader that time has passed. The paragraph break reinforces this jump by visually separating what Andrew did before breakfast from what he did (presumably) afterward.
Like time, shifts in location should be easy to spot. Whenever the story moves to a new place, you can use a paragraph break to signal a change in scenery.
Andrew saw Jarle the gardener out the kitchen window while he was pouring coffee. Not to be confused with Jarl the butler. Then again, Andrew figured that the two were used to such mix-ups by now. At any rate, Andrew found a note he had left himself to chat with the gardener. Today might be his chance.
Steam rose out of his coffee cup the instant he stepped outside. He hated mornings and wasn’t good friends with cold, so the icy breeze slapping his face wasn’t his idea of a hello.
This passage isn’t as explicit with the change in location as the previous example was with its time jump. The mention of Andrew stepping outside is the reader’s only clue. However, the break visually separates the paragraph in the kitchen from the paragraph outside thus supporting the story’s change in location.
Not every change in location or time warrants a paragraph break though. Sometimes, you want to show the characters traveling from one place to the next. Covering a large span of space in a montage is perfectly fine.
He poured his next cup and heard someone enter the kitchen. It was the maid, sniffling, her face flushed. Universal signs of a woman who would appreciate some space. Andrew slid the coffee pot back into the machine and left, taking his mug with him. The sewing shears were still on his mind, so he climbed upstairs to the sewing room. He caught a glimpse of Doc looking at the paintings in the foyer. Wonder what they thought of this display of false humility.
Andrew found the door to the sewing room open. The mess of fabric, paper, and thread immediately caught his attention. Murder or no, something definitely happened in here. He set his coffee cup on the floor and took pictures with his phone.
Andrew’s trip from the kitchen to the sewing room is all contained in a single paragraph, even though the story has already established that Andrew needs to pass through multiple rooms to reach his destination. The foyer being one of them. Still, the paragraph ends right before he reaches the sewing room. This break tells the reader that the montage is over, and the story will now focus on what happens in the sewing room.
Shifts in idea aren’t the easiest to detect. I’ll admit the term “idea” itself is vague and broad. This third category is a catch-all by result, covering any time you stop talking about one thing to start talking about the next. Here’s an example:
White had left his duffel bag just inside the door. Andrew threw it onto the bed then opened the long, lace curtains. Beyond them was a balcony overlooking a huge garden and more thick woods. This was the north side of the house, he figured, so he didn’t have to worry too much about the porcelain knick-knacks throwing weird shadows in the moonlight.
He fished the phone charger out of his duffel bag and searched for an outlet. He eventually decided on one by the dresser opposite the bed. Not the most convenient spot, but it beat leaving the phone on the floor overnight. Speaking of which, he checked his phone again – no bars but 60% battery. It’d definitely last the rest of the day.
The first paragraph talks about the room and its position within the house and property. The second paragraph is Andrew unpacking. The paragraph break keeps those ideas separate, making it easy for the reader to track where the story’s focus is.
One place where shifts in idea are a bit more obvious are when the story shifts between external events and internal events.
He went upstairs to his room on the third floor. There was a fire burning in the fireplace. The bed had been made. His duffel bag wasn’t on the floor where he left it. The charging cord for his phone wasn’t in the outlet.
Andrew panicked. He tore open all of the drawers in the dresser. He found the charging cord in the top one. He threw open the doors of the wardrobe. There was his duffel bag. He unzipped and emptied it. No – all of his clothes and bathroom stuff was still there and accounted for. He hid his face in his hands and breathed a huge sigh of relief. That was way too close.
There isn’t a change in location in this passage. The change in time is negligible. What does change is the focus of each paragraph. The first paragraph describes the room. The second paragraph describes Andrew’s reaction – his panic. The paragraph break supports this transition between ideas by keeping each one separate.
Like I said before, none of these are hard and fast rules. But if you have no clue where to put your paragraphs, start with these transition points. If you’ve gotten feedback that passages are too drawn out or too choppy, go through your draft and mark the transition points. Do you paragraph breaks line up? If not, maybe that’s where you should start.
Have you ever thought about paragraphs in your stories? Do you have any specific guidelines or do you just wing it? What other pacing or rhythm problems have you encountered? Let me know down in the comments, and feel free to suggest what you want me to cover in the next “How Do I…?” post.