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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Writing and Paragraph Length

There are many aspects of writing that you hear discussed again and again. Voice. Character. Plot. Dialogue. But let’s talk about one part of craft that you may not have thought about recently (or ever?): Paragraph length.

Ok. Did you fall asleep? I hope you’re still with me. I know this topic may sound dry, but I promise you that careful consideration of how long your paragraphs are can have a big impact on your manuscript.

There’s only one hard and fast rule that (practically) all writers agree to. If the dialogue shifts from one speaker to another, you should start a new paragraph. But there’s so much more to consider!

For example, maybe you want to shift the tone in a certain scene. Say you’re talking about something super serious in a paragraph and want to shift the tone to something lighter. That’s a great time for a new paragraph. Want a specific line to have a big impact on your reader? Don’t want them to miss how important this one sentence is? Ding ding ding! Time for a new paragraph. Maybe you want the reader to pause on a certain sentence and really take it in before moving on. What time is it? New paragraph time!

Take a look at this section of Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann. The paragraphs are short and intentional; Claire is using each new paragraph to document a moment in Alice’s life with a particular love interest. By using new paragraphs for these examples, each moment stands out and feels important, and letting the final line stand on its own—as two short sentences—emphasizes the importance of this specific situation.


In elementary school, while all of Alice’s friends had talked about boys
they liked, she had kept quiet.

In middle school, she had pretended to have a crush on Patrick Furlong
so she would have someone to talk about too.

(This was where she had begun to perfect the art of playing along.)

In high school, Alice had gone all out, pretending to be hopelessly in
love with Sam Oliphant. She had damn near snatched the This Love Is
Our Destiny
crown right off of Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald Crane Winthrop’s
head.

(Passions remained the only soap opera Alice had ever watched).

But this had been where Alice messed up. Turns out, Sam had a thing for
Alice, too. A different kind of thing, but a thing nonetheless.

He had asked her out. She had to say yes.


Now let’s consider what these sentences would look like in one paragraph.

In elementary school, while all of Alice’s friends had talked about boys
they liked, she had kept quiet. In middle school, she had pretended to have
a crush on Patrick Furlong so she would have someone to talk about too.
(This was where she had begun to perfect the art of playing along.) In high
school, Alice had gone all out, pretending to be hopelessly in love with Sam
Oliphant. She had damn near snatched the This Love Is Our Destiny crown
right off of Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald Crane Winthrop’s head. (Passions
remained the only soap opera Alice had ever watched). But this had been
where Alice messed up. Turns out, Sam had a thing for Alice, too. A different
kind of thing, but a thing nonetheless. He had asked her out. She had to say yes.


What do we lose here? Humor, definitely—the sentences in parentheses aren’t nearly as funny when they aren’t alone. But we also like the important list-like format of the first example, with each moment feeling less important than when they’re given space to breathe.

Short paragraphs can be your friend, because they help the reader move along the page quickly. It’s easy to get bogged down in long paragraphs that seem to go on for forever and ever. But that doesn’t mean every paragraph should be only a sentence (and not only because your manuscript would be really, really long). As with everything in life and in writing, variety is key. Aim to mix paragraphs of different lengths to keep the page interesting.

Struggling with keeping a scene moving along? Try re-paragraphing! You may find that something as simple as hitting the “enter” key a few times makes the whole scene read differently. If you play with your paragraphs length as much as I do when I edit, you’ll soon find the topic fascinating too—or your money back.

Do you have questions about paragraph length? Let us know in the comments below!

Author spotlight

Kat Brzozowski

Native New Hampshirite. Broadway musical nerd. Work team softball slugger. Embroidery aficionado. I’m one part Ramona, one part the monkeys ...

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