When to start a new paragraph?

I feel funny asking about this, because part of me thinks it should be obvious, but it’s something that honestly trips me up and that past beta readers have had to correct, so here I am.

I know the basic rule, where one character speaks, and if a second (or third or fourth, etc) character speaks, you start a new paragraph.

I remember seeing a trick for remembering when to start a new paragraph…TIP TOP, I believe: Time Person Topic Place still have difficulty with distinguishing when it would be appropriate to end one paragraph and start a new one.

I guess what I’m looking for is additional advice or insight fellow writers and nanoers might have regarding this topic. As I said, it’s been an ongoing issue for me, not just in writing creatively, but with my essays in high school, as well.

Feedback is greatly appreciated!

One take on one idea = one paragraph.

New paragraph:John’s thinking about delicious creamy chocolate pudding.
New paragraph: John’s thinking about the gas and bloating from delicious creamy chocolate pudding because he’s lactose intolerant.

Of course, that’s not written in stone or anything. If both ideas (or takes on the same idea) are really short or not very important, you can shove them together into the same paragraph. And if your one idea runs really long, then you can break it up.

Read some of your favorite books, but read like a writer. Study the structure and flow. Figure out how the book was built, just like you might if you were tearing down a barn. Ask yourself Why did the author break the paragraph there?

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At it’s core, a paragraph is “a sentence or group of sentences that support a main idea.” So, an example:

NaNoWriMo is fun. Many people take part across the world and communicate together on a forum. Not all people like NaNoWriMo for a variety of reasons.

See, that third sentence doesn’t support the main idea of “NaNoWriMo is fun”; so it should be a separate paragraph.

This is of course, a super basic example written at 9:30 in the evening after a long day during which I am at a work workshop…so, grains of salt. I will give you this link I found for The Writing Center at UNC. Hope that helps!

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To start a new paragraph you…

Well, you make sure the paragraph is one set of ideas then…

Well crap. I’m finding that I have NO idea how to articulate this! Honestly, I’ve been writing prose for so long at this point I’ve internalized how to start a new paragraph, I just do it when the souls of my ancestors whisper “Stop.”

Which is… unhelpful at best.

My go-to source for all things academic (particularly specific formats like MLA or APA) is Purdue Owl.

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I’ve always adhered to one idea per paragraph, and similarly one character speaking per paragraph.

I have a related question to this. If character A speaks, character B reacts to that (without dialogue), then character A keeps speaking, is that three paragraphs or one?

Depends on the amount of reaction?

“I like eating peanut butter on my eggs,” I watched Remy’s face twist in horror. “Hey, don’t knock it till you try it.”

VS.

“I like eating peanut butter on my eggs.”
Remy’s face became a twist of horror. His eyes widened, his lips parted and curled back exposing his front teeth. He was an electric shock away from his hair standing on end.
“Hey,” I continued, “don’t knock it till you try it.”

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yep agreed, it depends on how it’s done… if person A is also aware of the reaction and it’s their view of it, so character A is still the subject of the sentence and character B merely the object ie above example “I” am still watching , the object being watched is Remy, then it can string together. I(object) watched Remy’s(subject) face twist in horror.
Whereas if character B’s reaction has Character B AS the subject and is the one doing stuff as their own reaction, it’s the next line. Ie It’s Remy’s(subject) face(object) that’s twisting, his(subject) eyes(object) widening etc. Remy is subject, new line.

also lol coz my dog’s called Remi but he eats everything and wouldn’t show such horror at all

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See, I was always taught that in first person POV, you should cut out things like “I watched” and “I saw” because if it’s something the reader can see happening, it’s something the POV character can see too. That’s how the POV works.

So the question is, is it:
“I like eating peanut butter on my eggs.” Remy’s face twisted in horror. “Hey, don’t knock it till you try it.”

or

“I like eating peanut butter on my eggs.” [optional dialogue tag]
Remy’s face twisted in horror.
“Hey, don’t knock it until you try it.”

yeeehh but thing about rules, right? … you learn them so you can break em. :slight_smile:
They’re more like guidelines to prevent sloppy writing from uncertain amateurs who might otherwise create a mess - with experience and practice, it becomes apparent that following rules too much leads to even sloppier/generic writing, so you gotta know what to follow, and why, and therefore also when it’s not needed. Comes with practice, and a lot of reading, a lot of writing, even more reading, and learning to ignore taught rules coz unfortunately they’re… not always entirely correct (my fave example of this issue; schools teach kids not to use “said” in a fiction story, then a publishing house commented that they don’t even bother with manuscripts which avoid “said” because they’ll know it’s an unnatural, amateurish production. oops…! :open_mouth: )
Following the rules can create bad writing when it interrupts flow, tone, ease of reading, interferes with intention/angle, or causes confusion etc - true, it might be “better” to avoid in general, but sometimes (depending on example) there is something else to be added by keeping it. “I watched” - in this example with peanut butter and eggs, it almost becomes amusement, purposefully highlighting the first person POV again, as if it’s important that they are very specifically watching within their spoken words, not just that they’re “aware of” or “noticing” the other person’s actions only because they are literally right there seeing all this. So there’s more to keep in mind than a rule. There’s a different angle of information given by keeping “I watched” in this case. Following rules will limit writing coz it limits the angles you can access (which is exactly the point, it’s to try and stop beginner writers from creating a mess so that’s when it’s a good thing, but with time, a good writer knows when the rule is now just a hindrance and does not need to be kept).

Admittedly, for first person dialogue, putting the other person’s reaction within the speech of the speaker is messy and confusing looking - and rather misleading. it starts to feel like a replacement of a dialogue tag… or the action of the speaker. which means it shifts the speaker to suddenly be Remy speaking and pulling this face at the same time. THUS why, depending on how much of Remy’s horror needs to be shown, how much “scene-time” you wanna dedicate to Remy’s reaction, etc etc , it can be (at times) better to keep to a S-O-V sentence where you’ve allowed the speaker/first person pov to be the subject of that sentence.

i mean, really… there’s a lot of thinking involved once you start to pull it all apart… but again, with practice etc it all becomes automatic, even what rules need to be followed and when (i admit, i don’t even view those guides as “rules” and that’s the biggest help. what the story/paragraph/clause ACTUALLY need takes priority… with enough books and experience, choosing what is “correct” becomes easier because it’s no longer hindered by rules, only by what works and what doesn’t work… which is much simpler to follow than rules… :slight_smile: )

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I’m coming at this from a poet’s perspective as much as a fiction author’s:

Line breaks and stanza breaks are multipurpose tools, of course. One of the functions each serves is to emphasize what falls on either side.

Example from my current in-progress. Note how there’s only one speaker, for practical purposes there’s only one person taking action, and these are the same person. The only sentence where the grammatical subject is not Ladybug is three words long. (Adrien is the PoV character, if that matters.) As @Samma_Jaye explains, putting these sentences as a single paragraph works just fine:

Kind of reads like Adrien might not want to go home, but he doesn’t really have basis to argue with the friendly local superhero either, since it’s a matter of his personal safety. Right?

But in my actual draft, it looks a bit different:

Now the fact that Adrien says and does nothing here seems a bit more significant, doesn’t it? More pointed, perhaps? And Ladybug’s stated reasoning for getting Adrien home pops out a bit more?

@Mei_Mia and @Rose_Hill, the thing about “[character] watched” type phrases in any PoV? They tell you what the character is paying attention to. Sometimes more than one character, if the character watching in that sentence and the PoV character are different people!

Here, it’s Chat’s PoV, and a couple paragraphs earlier it’s clear he’s facing away from the latched skylight:

You understand why it matters that I say he hears the latch and he can see the bedding moving, I hope? And that could all be one paragraph too–all the actions in that paragraph that Rena isn’t taking, Chat is taking at Rena’s instruction, and he has no dialogue–and I’m not sure if I have any particular reason to put the paragraph break in the middle other than it seems like it’d be too long a paragraph if I didn’t.

Here is a definitely wrong:

Looks like she’s the first speaker, right? She’s not. She’s the second. (This is clearer with a few more paragraphs of context.) So I definitely want my draft to read this way:

Because that keeps what she’s doing in the paragraph with what she’s saying, rather than, as in the first version, putting what she’s doing in with what he’s saying.

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It is definitely instinctive…

And I can’t explain it either!

Normally you’d avoid including too many instances of the POV character just “seeing” something, although it can be appropriate for them to “watch” something depending on context. However, as Mei_Mia points out, trying to do this in this particular instance leads to something you should never ever do, and I mean never. (Hyperbole aside…)

A paragraph shouldn’t just contain only one character speaking, but also only one character acting. The person speaking must be the subject of any sentence in that paragraph. That is, the one performing the action. Otherwise it seems like a “tag” or “beat” involving the wrong subject. Hence, if you’ve got to mention what another character is doing, it needs to be framed in a way in which the speaker is the subject of the sentence, such as with “I watched” or the like. (Or something like “I smirked at Remy’s horrified expression.”)

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It’s the second one,

In the first one,

Remy’s reaction reads like action attached to the dialogue, like he’s the one who’s saying it, with a horrified expression on his face. Granted, in that particular example, his reaction is so different than the dialogue that it’s easy to figure out that he’s not the speaker, but if you use an example where the reaction is similar to the speaker’s emotions, it’s a lot less clear:

“I asked Sue out today.” Remy cheered. “We have a date on Friday.”

Going back to TiPToP, the person has changed, because the person speaking is not the same as the person acting.

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