Knowing when to start a new paragraph in a novel or short story should be a simple matter, but for many writers—especially beginning writers—it’s anything but. Like most aspects of writing, when it comes to paragraphs, there are rules, and then there are interpretations of the rules. So there’s definitely some room for flexibility here. To keep things simple, let’s start with a few basic rules and then look at how you can stretch, bend or break them to your liking.
Three occasions when you must start a new paragraph
When you start a new topic: You may think this is only true of non-fiction, but it’s also true of fiction. Just as you don’t want run-on sentences—sentences that mash two separate thoughts together—you don’t want run-on paragraphs either. So if you have a paragraph that sets the scene for the exterior of an eerie haunted house, don’t jam in a description of the protagonist’s angst about whether or not he should accept the challenge to spend the night inside. Use your first paragraph to establish the house and a separate paragraph to establish your protagonist’s feelings about it.
When you change time or location: Whenever you skip forward or backward in time or move from one location to another, start a new paragraph. Going back to our haunted house example, if the action starts outside the house, begin a new paragraph as soon as the action moves inside. Alternatively, if you move from the protagonist’s impressions of the present moment to an incident in his past when he faced a similar challenge, begin a new paragraph.
When a new character begins to speak: This one is pretty straightforward. When it comes to dialogue, only one speaker per paragraph.
Two occasions when you may want to start a new paragraph
When a speech is running long: Ideally, you’re not going to have your characters rattle off paragraphs of uninterrupted dialogue for pages at a stretch. However, sometimes a longer speech is required. To help make it easier on the reader, it’s a good idea to break up longer speeches with snippets of action. These breaks help things flow and allows for non-verbal communication, which is a key part of speech.
To emphasize something for dramatic effect: Sometimes starting a new paragraph or allowing a single sentence to stand on its own is a great way to emphasize a key point, get a laugh, or otherwise control the pace of the story to your advantage. A word to the wise though: This technique will only produce a dramatic effect if used sparingly.
DAVID CATHCART has worked as a writer, editor, publisher, journalist, screenwriter, blogger, copyeditor, copywriter, art director, and proofreader for almost 20 years.