In scholastic and technical writing, a good paragraph begins with a topic sentence and is comprised of sentences that support the main idea.
While I do edit for people who are pursuing literary degrees, that is a different kind of writing and requires strict adherence to style policies as set down by the professor at the beginning of the semester.
This post pertains to the paragraphs in a literary narrative, whether the genre is contemporary, sci fi, fantasy, mystery, romance—or any kind of writing that is fiction. In writing for literature, we don’t begin with a topic sentence as such, but we do explore and expand on only one idea in each paragraph.
The rules are simple:
- Present a single idea per paragraph.
- Present the dialogue and reactions of only one person per paragraph.
- Present the viewpoint of one character per paragraph.
Jamie said, “You cheated on me.” Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.” He spat, “You disgust me.”
That is a confusing passage, but it doesn’t have to be. Three ideas are explored there: Jamie’s accusation, Kerry’s guilt and fear of losing him, and finally his disgust.
Jamie said, “You cheated on me.”
Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.”
He spat, “You disgust me.”
While it makes for short paragraphs, you must break out Kerry’s reaction. One thought, one point of view per paragraph, no matter how short that makes it.
A good paragraph agrees with itself, is logical, and the central idea it contains is developed, which sometimes makes for long paragraphs.
With that said, some considerations must be taken into account in the modern world of eBooks. EBooks versions of novels containing long paragraphs tend to appear as an unbroken wall of words. The reader can be daunted by this and may decide to move on to a different book. This is especially a problem when the paragraph contains a long section of internal dialogue, which is frequently written in italics.
Thus, for a genre-fiction manuscript that you intend to publish as an eBook, you will want to keep your paragraphs shorter, dividing long passages at logical places, using two paragraphs to explore the idea.
In any type of writing, emails, literature, or scholastic, when a new idea comes into your writing, or a different character speaks, you must begin a new paragraph.
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.
One idea is explored here in ten short sentences, which combine to offer up a wealth of information. Put bluntly, Meursault received a telegram, possibly from an old-folks home, informing him his mother was dead and when the funeral was.
This is where the artistry of the author comes into play: he takes a simple idea and presents it in deliberately crafted prose that feels loose, almost indifferent. Rather than a plain statement of fact, the few sentences exploring that one thought makes us curious about the protagonist and his state of mind.
Authors, please present only one central idea per paragraph. However, you are free to offer up that idea with your own flair and style.
Credits and Attributions
Quote from The Stranger, by Albert Camus, Original title L’Étranger © 1942 (Gallimard, French) © 1946 (Hamish Hamilton, English)
Wikipedia contributors, “The Stranger (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Stranger_(novel)&oldid=796803119 (accessed August 30, 2017).