An Author's Guide to Paragraphing for Effect
Updated: Sep 12
Students across the country are taught paragraphing by the TIP TOP rule (start a new paragraph for every shift of time, place, topic and person) and this is a great starting point... the problem is that paragraphing in fiction doesn’t always follow the rules.
What's the point of paragraphs?
Paragraphs have many different functions. From a practical point of view they organise a text, breaking it down into manageable chunks for the reader (if you want to see good examples of this look at any leaflet that comes through your door or that you are handed when you take a day trip). Students are taught pee paragraphs, peel paragraphs, peazr paragraphs all good for analytical essay writing... the list goes on. But what if your are writing a story? From a creative point of view paragraphs work to set tone and atmosphere, create tension and allow for a character’s voice.
If you ask many children how long a paragraph is they will hold up their finger and thumb about two inches apart and state ‘that long’, but this is incorrect. When writing a story, they should be saying ‘as long as you want’.
In fiction, an author may choose to use a one word or one sentence paragraph for deliberate effect. The author may have a longer paragraph of more complex sentence structures to describe a setting and establish atmosphere. A paragraph, short or long, may be used to inform the reader of something significant and, of course, paragraphs are used for dialogue.
How do I improve my use of paragraphs?
As always, I would suggest that the best way to improve your ability to paragraph for effect is to read so you see how writers of different styles and genres do it. To help you on your way, I have posted a number of interesting examples below.
For more information about paragraphing in fiction visit this helpful site
The one sentence paragraph
If you are wanting to create tension or shock then a one sentence paragraph is a good way of achieving this aim.
Here are 3 examples:
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Stumbling over tree roots in the darkness, clawing his way past dripping branches, he saw the jeep ahead, and the lights shining around the vertical wall of the barrier made him feel better. In a moment he’d be in the car and then he’d get the hell out of here. He scrambled around the barrier and then he froze.
The animal was already there.
I like this extract because while it gives us a great example of a one sentence paragraph done well, it also demonstrates that a combination of features are needed for it to work. Within two paragraphs Crichton uses a huge number of techniques effectively. Here is how he has developed drama:
The shift from a more detailed paragraph to a simple, one sentence paragraph jolts the reader and makes the appearance of the dinosaur more shocking. We have been forced to wait… like with the ellipsis I just used, your eyes have to travel to the next bit of text to find out what is next. This is equivalent (at least in my mind) to the dramatic pause in a horror movie where the audience know the killer is there and will jump out at any moment. The technique makes the killer’s appearance all the more shocking for the pause.
The words ‘stumbling’, ‘clawing’ and ‘scrambled’ convey a sense of panic and desperation as the character attempts to escape from the dinosaur.
The description of the setting builds up the drama: ‘dripping’, suggests that the rain adds to the confusion, and ‘darkness’ increases the sense of menace.
The author uses verb tenses to add tension; ‘stumbling’, ‘clawing’ and ‘shining’ are all present participles, which give a sense of immediacy.
He’d (the contraction of he would) reflects the fact that the character is looking forward to what he thinks of as security and the tension is relaxed briefly. However, the next sentence ends with the word ‘froze’, which startles the reader as well as conveying his reaction. The author follows up with a dramatic simple past tense sentence (one sentence paragraph) for effect: ‘The animal was already there’, and the drama is heightened once more.
The Blood Gospel by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell:
Erin’s head jolted forward, snapping her awake. Deafened by the roar of the helicopter, she found herself looking into an amazing pair of eyes, light blue with a darker ring around the edge of the iris. The eyes smiled at her. She smiled back before she realized that they belonged to Jordan.
She had fallen asleep on his shoulder and woken up smiling at him.
A married man.
In a helicopter full of priests.
Before you move on, spend a few moments thinking about this second example. Why are the one sentence paragraphs (plural) effective after the longer first paragraph? The author is using contrast and the reader’s prior knowledge – how?
By Ray Bradbury
She crossed the street and rushed up the sidewalk.
Oh God, the porch! My house! Oh God, please give me time to get inside and lock the door and I’ll be safe!
And there, silly thing to notice – why did she notice, instantly, no time, no time – but there it was anyway, flashing by – there on the porch rail, the half-filled glass of lemonade she had abandoned a long time ago, a year, half an evening ago! The lemonade glass sitting calmly, imperturbably there on the rail… and…
She heard her clumsy feet on the porch and listened and felt her hands scrambling and ripping at the lock with the key. She heard her heart. She heard her inner screaming.
The key fit.
Unlock the door, quick, quick!
The door opened.
This extract is written in third person limited perspective (so while we are told that “she crossed the street” we can also experience her emotions “Oh God”) and we get a clear sense of the character’s perspective. The inclusion of the paragraph containing her panicked thought, the minutia of the lemonade, adds authenticity and there is advanced punctuation as well as paragraphing techniques to add tension.
The final three paragraphs are all one sentence paragraphs. She is finally home but the moment is still tense – like Crichton, Bradbury makes us wait. Our eyes have to travel from paragraph to paragraph to see if she makes it inside. The repetition of the word “quick” within this short paragraph reinforces her desire to get inside and the reader’s desire to know if she’s safe.
Is your next area of focus Point of View? Have a look at my blog: An Author's Guide to Point of View
Here are 2 more short examples if texts I think paragraph interestingly and for different reasons. Have a look and see what tips you can gain:
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (again😉)
The rhythmic snorting became louder as they walked, but they also heard a steady droning, buzzing sound. When they reached the end of the road, at the edge of the small concrete dock, Grant froze in shock.
The tyrannosaur was right there.
It was sitting upright in the shade of a tree, its hind legs stretched out in front. Its eyes were open but it was not moving, except for its head, which lifted and fell gently with each snorting sound. The buzzing came from the clouds of flies that surrounded it, crawling over its face and slack jaws, its bloody fangs, and the red haunch of killed hadrosaur that lay on its side behind the tyrannosaur.
Near the end of the dock, a wooden shed was painted green to blend with the foliage. Grant quietly unlatched the door and looked inside. He saw a half-dozen orange life vests hanging on the wall, several rolls of wire-mesh fencing, some coils of rope, and two big rubber cubes sitting on the floor. The cubes were strapped tight with flat rubber belts.
He looked back at Lex.
She mouthed: No boat.
Some points I like about this example is that we have longer descriptive paragraphs (that show don’t tell) of the dinosaur contrasted to both short one sentence paragraphs, a one word paragraph and then the inclusion of paragraphs that reflect speech/silent communication.
I also like the use of italics for dramatic emphasis, the use of silent communication (because clearly verbal communication would get them killed – so drama/tension is heightened) and the use of very specific vocabulary choices, e.g. hadrosaur, not an unnamed piece of meat!
For more information on the technique of ‘show don’t tell’ and some practical tips and examples to support improving this technique, click here.
2001 A Space Odyssey By Arthur C. Clarke
… He awoke, and it seemed that he had scarcely closed his eyes. But he knew that was an illusion; somehow, he was convinced that years had really passed.
Had the mission been completed? Had they already reached Saturn, carried out the survey, and gone into hibernation? Was Discovery II here, to take them back to Earth?
He lay in a dream-like daze, utterly unable to distinguish between real and false memories. He opened his eyes, but there was little to see except a blurred constellation of lights which puzzled him for some minutes. Then he realized that he was looking at indicator lamps on a Ship Situation Board; but it was impossible to focus on them. He soon gave up the attempt.
This extract doesn’t use the one sentence paragraph technique and, after looking at the previous examples, you may be able to tell why. The tone of this example is one of waking and confusion – not a moment of embarrassment or dramatic tension. Ellipsis is used to introduce the moment of waking and the character’s confusion is reflected in the use of rhetorical questions- in fact, the whole second paragraph is a series of questions. The alliterative phrase “dream-like daze” also creates that sense of sleepy confusion.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that paragraphing is also employed when writing direct speech.
Direct speech is the words your characters say in your writing. If more than one person is speaking, each new speaker needs a new paragraph. For example:
Emma asked, “Can you come out tonight?”
“Sorry,” I answered. “I’ve got too much homework to do.”
To conclude, I would suggest it is variety of techniques, including paragraphing, that makes writing successful. In the examples provided you have seen that authors use short one sentence paragraphs but these are combined with other techniques – a longer, descriptive paragraph to create contrast, a range of punctuation types, specific choice of words, italic use and so on…
Top tip: don’t overdo the one sentence paragraph. The one sentence paragraph can be very effective but if you use it too often it loses its impact.
Good luck with your writing!