Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Paragraphs and Chapters

How long should a paragraph be? It depends.

Journalistic writing has very short paragraphs, often containing one sentence. You can see examples of this on any news site, such as this one from the BBC news pages. Academic writing tends to have longer paragraphs that can last a page, or, occasionally, two. In fiction writing the general rule of thumb is, if a paragraph lasts for more than half a page it's too long.

The length of your paragraphs can help determine the pace of your scene and your chapter. Longer paragraphs give a relaxed feel, while shorter ones ramp up the tension. One thing you should do is to have each person's dialogue in a new paragraph. You can see this at work in any modern novel.

My guiding rule of thumb is to start each new thought in a new paragraph, but paragraph lengths are as much art as science.

The guidelines that apply to paragraphs also apply to chapters and scenes. Short chapters tend to be fast paced pieces of action while longer chapters are deep and thoughtful. That said, there are books with 80 chapters with some that are thoughtful and other books with a dozen that have some action running through each. Terry Pratchett doesn't use chapters at all and divides his books into scenes of varying length that get shorter at the end of the book.

In short, there are no hard and fast rules regarding paragraphs, scenes or chapters, just the guidelines mentioned above.

8 comments:

Kelley Lynn said...

I must admit. I'm a fan of shorter. Shorter paragraphs, shorter chapters. But its just a preference. :)

Lisa Shafer said...

William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust has SENTENCES that are 4 1/2 pages long.
I hate reading stuff like that.

defcon said...

I prefer short paragraphs as well. 1-2 sentences, depending on the length. Of course, that depends how I'm pacing the story. Slower parts will have larger paragraphs, tense parts will have shorter.

Martin Willoughby said...

Kelley: Long paragraphs remind me of the dull books I had to study at school.

Lisa: Now that's ridiculous.

Defcon: Shorter, punchier paragraphs are the way modern 'tense' novels (Thrillers etc) tend to be written. Long paragrpahs remain in general fiction and romance.

Nick Wilford said...

With chapter books, I tend to prefer shorter ones as I usually read in small bites. And shorter paragraphs tend to make for a pacier read.

But the rules go out of the window when it comes to Terry. I can't get enough of anything he does!

Martin Willoughby said...

Nick: I don't mind longer chapters if they break down into separate scenes. (And Terry rocks)

Patti said...

I like shorter paragraphs. More white space seems to make we want to keep reading.

Martin Willoughby said...

Patti: White space is also less daunting to a reader.