This month we’re celebrating our second anniversary here on the “Death Star,” but we’ve not gotten so big for our britches that we won’t take your requests. We will. And we won’t even charge for them. Well, not as much as we used to, although our attorneys, Cantwell, Wyer, and Bowersock, have advised us not to talk about that.
One reader asked for some tips on paragraphing and wrote, “Sometimes it’s difficult for me to determine when to hit that return button, especially with dialogue mixed in.” You got it.
Paragraphs are the building blocks of your magnum opus, but we tend to take them for granted. Poor, sad little things, always standing in the back of the line while sexier literary constructs such as metaphors strut their stuff like fresh-caught rainbow trout on market day. Here are a few reasons to hit that return button:
1. To indicate that a different character is speaking. Changing paragraphs makes it easier for your reader to determine which character is speaking, thinking, or generally has the floor. This is especially useful when multiple characters are in the scene. For instance:
Suzie flew into the lab and plunked a cardboard cup of coffee on Dr. Katydid’s desk. “Sorry it took so long.” She shrugged out of her jacket, nearly knocking over Joey the Intern and the leaning tower of Entomology Today magazines, both of which had been bugging her all week.
Joey steadied the precarious publications. “I would have gone out for that.”
She glared at him. Like we’d ever see you again? You couldn’t find your butt with a road map and a flashlight. Fixing her attention on her boss, she said, “I’ll get right on that Madagascar hissing cockroach article.”
“Oh, no need.” Katydid took a tentative sip and smiled, pushing up the corners of his caterpillar-thick mustache. “As I thought you’d gone to the Amazonian rainforest for this concoction, I let young Joseph take care of it.”
She turned. The little putz wouldn’t meet her eye.
2. To organize your narrative flow. You probably learned the basic rules of writing themes in English 101: one thought to a paragraph, keep your thoughts unified in each paragraph, change paragraphs when you end your introduction or begin your conclusion, blah, blah, blah, snore. I’m sorry, where were we? Oh, right. Novels and creative nonfiction are not themes, and the rules are more fluid. We’re not trying to compare and contrast the symbolism of the color red as used in The Scarlet Letter versus Scarlett Johansson and the burning of Atlanta, but you are still writing for readers and some of the same organizational constructs apply. For instance:
After everyone else had gone home, Suzie started drafting an abstract for Dr. Katydid’s latest double-blind study but instead kept playing the morning’s events over in her mind. It wasn’t fair! In her ten years at the university, she’d brought in more grant money than anyone else, and she hadn’t done so merely to have some pipsqueak intern ruin her plans. Although she could hardly fault Katydid for not seeing it—he had tunnel vision when it came to his work. If only she could find a way to eliminate the little pest and make it look like an accident.
Then a flicker caught her peripheral vision and she turned to the cages of insects that lined the right side of the lab. Hottentotta tamulus. The deadliest scorpion on earth.
Yes. It just might work.
3. Visual appeal and readability. From a visual standpoint, paragraphs break up what could look like daunting blocks of text. Science proves with it. Effective graphic design (at its bare bones, the art of making visual information easier to read and comprehend) relies on contrast and variety to help move the eye across the page. It’s a small thing, but it makes for an easier reading experience. After two hundred-odd pages of unrelieved lines of text, a reader might want to reach through his or her Kindle and strangle you.
I hope this helped. We’d hate to lose anyone.