Thursday, February 19, 2009

Paragraph Rules in Fiction

I recently joined a critique group for the first time ever and must admit, I am enjoying every bit of it. I wish I'd gotten up the nerve many years ago. I'm learning quite a bit from my fellow writers - and not just when I'm in the hot seat. At each meeting, we critique seven to eight documents. For each document, one person reads the pages out loud. This if followed by a round table discussion during which critiquers share first impressions - what got their attention, where they were lost, etc.

We don't discuss grammar and spelling. We make those comments on printed copies and return those to the authors. These written comments raised several questions in my mind. I'm going to limit this post to one of them: What are the rules about paragraph structure in fiction?

This question came up when I noticed that seven out of seven critquers did not like my paragraphs - especially any paragraph deemed to be long. If all seven had agreed on how the long passages should be chunked, the question may not have reared its ugly head. However, seven critiquers generally provided seven different approaches to paragraphing.

Here is one example from an original draft:

It would have been ever so gracious of her to at least cross the threshold before she started in on me. But then, she wouldn’t be our Ms. Ruth, now, would she? She greeted me with, “It’s about time, girlee. Don’t you know any better than to keep Mrs. Weaver’s guests waiting on the sidewalk like commoners?” She always called Ms. Weaver “Mrs.” I guess she knew Ms. Weaver was never married and hated to be called “Mrs.” Anyway, Ms. Ruth took a breath and stepped in before ordering me to the kitchen. “I’m parched from having to breathe all that dust. You should know by now not to leave your betters standing around on the street while you do God knows what. You hustle on into that kitchen and fetch me a large iced tea. Make it sweet and don’t even think about charging me for it. It’s your fault I’m so thirsty.”
I obviously thought one paragraph would do here. One critiquer agreed with me and made no marks.

Four critiquers thought this should be broken into two paragraphs, but offered four different break points. Three of those focused on the dialogue and one suggested the second paragraph begins with "Anyway, Ms. Ruth took a breath...."

One person thought I needed three paragraphs and one thought I needed four.

This example is not an exception, it is typical of the paragraphing comments I'm receiving. So, I researched. I checked my trusted Chicago Manual of Style - which disappointed me for the first time in a very long time. Chicago was silent on paragraph rules (or I simply wasn't smart enough to locate the information). I Googled. I even cracked open several of the writing and grammar books parked on the corner of my desk. Did I find anything definitive? No.

So, I have some questions for you.

1) Are there rules for paragraph structure in fiction? If yes, where can I read them?

2) If you were editing (or writing) the above example, how many paragraphs would you create? Why?
----------------------------------------
Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, 2009 President for The Final Twist Writers Group and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at:

MarkandCharlottePhillips.com

News, Views and Reviews Blog

18 comments :

  1. Charlotte,

    Great topic, and I'm with you on your first question. I've never located any written guidelines, and the editors at my company have different approaches to this subject.

    So I've forged my own theories, and based on them I would divide the passage into four paragraphs.

    My second paragraph would begin, "She greeted me with...," to show that Mrs. Ruth has begun to speak.

    When the narrator provides information about her, beginning with "She always called...," I would begin a third paragraph.

    And the fourth would start with "Anyway, Mrs. Ruth took a breath...," which I consider the equivalent of "Mrs. Ruth said."

    So I would provide breaks to distinguish the narration from the dialogue, but I'm certainly interested in what my colleagues think.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'd break it into two paragraphs, the second starting with "Anyway, Mrs. Ruth ,,," But I'd leave out the 'Anyway'.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Excellent topic, one that is not much talked about but everyone has their ways of doing it. Two paragraphs work well for me:

    It would have been ever so gracious of her to at least cross the threshold before she started in on me. But then, she wouldn’t be our Ms. Ruth, now, would she? She greeted me with, “It’s about time, girlee. Don’t you know any better than to keep Mrs. Weaver’s guests waiting on the sidewalk like commoners?” She always called Ms. Weaver “Mrs.” I guess she knew Ms. Weaver was never married and hated to be called “Mrs.”

    (delete "anyway" and start new paragraph with the change/turn in the scene)

    Ms. Ruth took a breath and stepped in before ordering me to the kitchen. “I’m parched from having to breathe all that dust. You should know by now not to leave your betters standing around on the street while you do God knows what. You hustle on into that kitchen and fetch me a large iced tea. Make it sweet and don’t even think about charging me for it. It’s your fault I’m so thirsty.”

    ReplyDelete
  4. From the small piece you've given, it's difficult to tell if this is a telling of a memory or something happening on-scene. Whether the character is recalling something from the past or showing what is currently happening, the scene will be more immediate and pull in the reader if it's "live." By doing that, you take down the wall between the reader and the story. I would rework it like this:

    **
    It would have been ever so gracious of her to at least cross the threshold before she started in on me. But then, she wouldn’t be our Ms. Ruth, now, would she?

    “It’s about time, girlee. Don’t you know any better than to keep Mrs. Weaver’s guests waiting on the sidewalk like commoners?”

    She always called Ms. Weaver “Mrs.” I guess she knew Ms. Weaver was never married and hated to be called “Mrs.”

    Ms. Ruth took a breath and stepped in before ordering me to the kitchen. “I’m parched from having to breathe all that dust. You should know by now not to leave your betters standing around on the street while you do God knows what. You hustle on into that kitchen and fetch me a large iced tea. Make it sweet and don’t even think about charging me for it. It’s your fault I’m so thirsty.”
    **

    Making the scene "immediate" puts the reader IN the scene instead of listening to a re-telling of the events.

    That's my two cents, anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I like to write like the way that I enjoy reading. If I'm considering buying a book and find as I'm thumbing through it that many paragraphs take a half or the entire page, I put it back. Long paragraphs tend to be boring and mundane. Just my opinion.

    John W.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm definitely with the school of more paragraphs, especially if dialogue between characters offers those natural paragraph breaks. The more, the merrier, not to mention easier to read and follow.

    Dani
    http://blogbooktours.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  7. It would have helped to know more about what kind of book this is because a literary novel can have longer paragraphs without breaking for the dialogue when it is all related like in this sample.

    Commercial fiction tends to have more breaks, and I would format it the way Shelley suggested.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Charlotte,

    I'm not sure if you're responsible for this or not, but...

    It's so difficult to read your quotes as you've posted them. The light grey on darker gray doesn't have enough contrast.

    Black on white is always the best choice.

    Just trying to help.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I always use paragraph breaks for every new dialogue speaker and significant point of action or thought. In other words, lots of short paragraphs.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great topic. I would make the paragraph into four paragraphs. I do not know the rules about paragraph, but I usually start a paragraph for different characters speaking shown with quotation marks.

    I have a tendency to start a new paragraph when introducing a new thought pattern expecially if it would cause confusion if I continue on.

    Hope that make sense?

    http://wildsunpublishers.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you all for your generous comments. You've given me much to think about - and edit.

    I want the reader IN the story, which is short fiction piece - and far from literary. At the moment, it is light and fluffy, but Mark suggested a very dark turn that I'm considering.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I agree, the light gray is hard to read. Blogger does this for me, but I can change it.

    ReplyDelete
  13. When you're writing a script, the advice is lots of white space. While I don't go as drastic as that,I am aware of the white space on my pages. As one poster noted, it makes the page more inviting to the reader.

    This is an interesting topic. As I think about it, I realize I do have some personal rules for how I break up paragraphs.

    Hmmm, will need to think on this some more!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi, This is a great topic.
    I have a journalism background, so I like short paragraphs. And I think with today's short attention spans, that helps readers stay focused.

    My rule of thumb is to start a new paragraph for dialogue. I would divide it into 4 paragraphs, too. And I would do it the same as Shelley suggested.

    Great discussion. Thanks!
    Heidi
    http://www.heidimthomas.com

    ReplyDelete
  15. I wrote on the subject some time back on my writing blog. Here's a fast link

    http://marilynnbyerly.com/marilynnbyerly/paragraphlengths.html

    ReplyDelete
  16. Marilynn,

    I'd love to read what you wrote about paragraphs, but the link got cut off. I found your blog through your webpage, but couldn't find the paragraph post. Can you try one more time to post the link here?

    ReplyDelete
  17. buy facebook likes
    get facebook likes

    http://www.greencine.com/central/guide/anime http://www.visualizing.org/visualizations/egypt-influence-network
    buy facebook likes 1000 facebook likes buy facebook likes
    I recently bought a laptop over Christmas along with Microsoft 2007 Home & Student and Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2010 (they are both on disc/CDs). Do I still need an internet connection for installing them, like if I was required to activate something online? I know on boxes of both it says if you don't have a CD drive you can install if online, since they give you an activation code. I DO have a CD drive. But I still want to know if I need an internet connection, because I currently don't have one on my laptop.

    buy facebook likes get facebook likes [url=http://1000fbfans.info]1000 facebook likes [/url] facebook likes

    ReplyDelete
  18. So did you ever find rules for this? Aside from the pretty obvious rule of each paragraph having only one speaker, I don’t know of any in fiction writing, and I just go with my gut whenever the question comes up.

    ReplyDelete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...