7 Reasons to Split Your Paragraphs and Keep Readers Engaged
Minds wander. The prose can be near perfect, the dialogue witty, but life still happens. Reading to escape the world doesn’t mean the world stops. Keeping paragraphs short helps keep them tightly bound to your will and gives your readers bite sized chunks to better follow along and an anchor to their place on the page.
1. Don’t overcrowd your paragraph.
Two is a couple; three is a crowd. Too many characters in a paragraph is like too many people in a horse costume. Which direction do they get to look? Who is meant to be the focus?
A great way to combat this is to ensure 1 character is the focus and anyone else who comes up is assessed through their lens. This is particularly important if you’re in a 3rd person limited point of view–don’t mistakenly slip into someone else’s awareness.
2. Not everyone gets to talk.
You’ve worked hard. All your characters sound distinct and no one needs a catch phrase. Great! Don’t undermine your hard work by letting everyone talk at once.
Each character needs to have their own paragraph to put forth their own ideas. Let them be the unique snowflakes you created. If they must interrupt each other, give them their own paragraphs and use an em dash at the end of the first to throw the speaking stick over to the second.
3. Only I can dance when I’m holding the speaking stick.
Breaking dialogue up with actions is a great way to introduce pacing and underscore the most emotional points in a conversation. It is important, though, to make sure the same person is doing the talking and acting.
There are exceptions, but when more than one character gets to be the subject in the same paragraph you introduce complications and confusion. There are very few times when this helps.
4. Oh, and another thing…
Any time you switch ideas, switch paragraphs. This includes narrative, background, dialogue… Don’t worry if the same person is talking. If they’re changing their subject, they can still have a new paragraph. You simply skip the closing quotation mark, and use another set of open quotation marks at the outset of the new paragraph. You don’t even need a dialogue tag when you do this.
“Terse, have you ever thought about the universe? The stars are so small to us, yet to the beings on the planets circling them, they are the center of their respective galaxy.
“It’s like ants on a hill. To us, it’s insignificant, to them, it’s all the perspective they really have and–”
“Shut up, Ponty”
5. Whoooooa, Nellie!
Those silly speed readers! You’re trying to interject emotion into this important moment and they just want to read the page at superhuman speeds (jealous, btw). You can use paragraph breaks to slow them down. The time it takes to change paragraphs is a powerful tool. Use it wisely to avoid looking like a teenager’s free verse poem, but don’t ignore the option.
6. Tense up!
Ensuring clarity in the order of events can be complicated inside of a sentence. Outside of a sentence, paragraphs can and should be used to keep timelines straight.
If you are switching tense, if a passage is a bit of a remembrance, switch paragraphs. If the character muses about the future, switch paragraphs.
7. How’d you get over there?
Staging can get lost in the other details of your scene or the important words leaving the mouth of your character.
If the character is shifting their position in the room, shift the paragraph. If they’re running down the street, you’re fine until, perhaps, they stop. It is an easy way to make sure there is a visual shift calling attention to the movement of the character.
Knowing when to start a new paragraph saves lives!
Okay, maybe not, but changing them often can alleviate confusion about which character died.
Variety in paragraph length is exciting. Avoiding length for fear of reader distraction isn’t always the correct answer. Changing the paragraph with each shift in focus is.