Paragraphs: The Long and Short of Them

Among today’s reading pubic, most readers prefer lots of white space on the page. That is–short paragraphs.

Although I enjoy such literary classics as Ivanhoe and The Man in the Iron Mask, with their long paragraphs, I try not to write many lengthy paragraphs in my articles and stories.

Note that I said: not many. Why? Because an occasional long paragraph is acceptable. However, long paragraphs should be the exception, not the rule, because stories abounding with long paragraphs are hard to read. And face it, thanks to movies and television, today’s reading public have short attention spans.

What are the rules for an average paragraph length? There are none. Ideas are a paragraph’s central focus, not sentences. Here I share some of my thoughts on the subject.

A Few Thoughts

  • Avoid long descriptive paragraphs. Instead, work the description into the story’s action and give just enough to establish setting and/or a character.
  • Vary the length of paragraphs to establish rhythm. Just as music has rhythms and beats, so should our writing. Variety helps writers establish their “music on the page.” Want a relaxed rhythm for a while? Use long paragraphs. Want a fast rhythm? Use short paragraphs.
  • Use long paragraphs to give readers a break. If we use constant tension and short paragraphs, we exhaust readers. This may cause them to stop reading our book. Hey, everyone needs a break!
  • Use long paragraphs to give readers a “false sense of security.” That way, you can surprise them with something unexpected, such as an event or crisis.
  • Use frequent short paragraphing to create tension.
  • Use snippets of dialogue between the characters to strengthen conflict.

An Example

In Book Two of my Civil War naval series, Southern Sons-Dixie Daughters, one of my protagonists is Danny Yates, an escaped slave who’s found service aboard a Union warship in Admiral David Farragut’s West Gulf Squadron. In this brief scene, Danny gets in trouble with the ship’s steward, named Bridges, as well as his captain, Charles Vincent. The dialogue snippets are in bold type.

“Quit dragging your feet,” Bridges snapped.

“Don’t rush me,” Danny snapped back.

“Belay that back talk!”

“Belay yourself.”

“Yates.”

Danny halted at the wardroom hatch. Captain Charles Vincent called his name, his voice an iron fist in a velvet glove.

His scowl deepening, Danny looked at the captain.

“Did Bridges tell you not to talk back to him?” Vincent said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Then why do you keep doing it?”

“Because I wanted to. I ain’t nobody’s slave no more. I ain’t in the mood.”

“You aren’t a slave on this ship.”

“I feel like one.”

Hopefully, you get the idea.

  • Use one-sentence paragraphs for emphasis. One warning is in order, though. Do not use this technique often because it will lose its effectiveness

An Example

This example comes from a work-in-progress, tentatively titled, Circuit Rider: A Novel of the Creek War. I wrote this one-sentence paragraph to emphasize Barnaby’s pending mischief because it was central to what happened in the scene.

Barnaby reached into his bulging coat pocket and gripped one.

At the same time, Reverend Phineas Able Steward strummed his violin and sang a hymn, pausing periodically with an enthusiastic gesture for his small audience to join in. Two raccoons trotted past him, and two coyotes from somewhere in the woods gave earsplitting howls.

Rigid as statues, the town’s citizens stared straight ahead at the lanky, hollow-cheeked preacher, the tension tauter than a banjo string.

I didn’t reveal what Barnaby had in his pocket here because I wanted to create some suspense and urge my readers to keep reading.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Browne, Renni, and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. 2nd ed. New York: William Morrow, 2004.

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees. Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit & Rewrite. 3rd printing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1985.

Madden, David. Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers. New York and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, 1988.

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