Make Paragraphs Your Bitch


One of the bad pieces of advice English teachers often give to their students is that old crap about paragraphs being a topic sentence, followed by 2 or 3 development sentences, and then a conclusion. For me the teacher was Mrs. Henderson, but you all have your own Mrs. Hendersons. It might have been a useful rubric to teach snot-nosed public school student to break their work up a little, but too many of those kids grow up to be impressionable adults who still cling to it like it was holy wisdom. And while topic sentences may apply to some specific forms of real writing—like journalism or Supreme Court decisions—in fiction, they’re a quick recipe for boring and unengaging prose. As a result, when I’m working with inexperienced fiction writers, this is one of the “rules” I am constantly having to unteach.

So, if you’re struggling with how to write a paragraph, let me break it down for you. No song and dance. No lengthy explanations. Just five simple rules you need to know. Memorize ’em now, and you’ll never have to wonder again.

  1. Any time you change to a new topic or idea, start a new paragraph.
  2. Any time a different character begins speaking, start a new paragraph.
  3. Any time you change to a new scene, setting, or time, start a new paragraph.
  4. Any time you think your readers might be getting bored by the humongous wall of text you’ve been laying down, start a new paragraph.
  5. Any time you think you have a good reason to break one or more of the rules above, keep on writing and do not start a new paragraph.

That’s all there is to it. Honest.

See, how you choose to break your thoughts into digestible chunks is part of how you express yourself. It’s a crucial component of your voice. Not my voice. Not Shakespeare’s voice. Not even Stephen King’s voice. Your voice. Nobody but you can say where the beats should fall in the unfolding of your story. Paragraphs are a tool. They’re your tool. So slap ’em around. Show ’em who’s boss. Make ’em do what you want ’em to do.

Want a pile of lines to go by in a stream of consciousness as your narrator just sits up there and lets the whole world flash by without taking a break or even really engaging in it, just talking and thinking and watching like a mental patient with his nose pressed up against the window, observing but never entering the world outside? Try keeping it all in one long, unbroken sentence of a paragraph and see if that does the trick. Or maybe you’ve got a really important single thought that needs to land with emphasis?

Make that one a paragraph all by itself.

But these are just a couple of quick examples. Nobody told me these things. I learned them for myself, and now they’re a part of my voice. How did I learn them? By following those five guidelines above, but I am decidedly not following Mrs. Henderson’s topic sentence rule. Beyond those 5 simple guidelines, you’ll just have to figure the rest out in your own way, and you can only do that by experimenting. Asking other people where your paragraphs should end is like asking us what adjective you should use to describe your protagonist. How the hell should we know?

But even if you don’t like my rules, do me a favor, will ya? Forget about topic sentences and concluding sentences, already. They’re training wheels. Time to throw them away and let the paragraph breaks fall wherever you damned.

Well please.

The Arcane Art of Notes To Self
The Pampered Protagonist

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.