The Paragraph as a Narrative Tool

by Bill Henderson

paragraph symbolI don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of long paragraphs in fiction.

There’s something dulling about an otherwise lively and gripping piece of prose fiction that never makes a pit stop. I find myself noticing where I would re-paragraph, and that’s not right: it pulls part of my attention out of the bubble, the kind of distraction all our labors are intended to stave off.

So why would you not paragraph freely and fluently for comprehension, pace, and effect? Why would you not use one of the most powerful tools in the novelist’s arsenal?

Early indoctrination, for one reason.

We learned in school that the paragraph represents a complete block of presentational thought. It’s an organizing principle for presenting a brief, making a point, advancing an argument. But what we learned in school––though it’s usually taught as “the right way” to write––is actually only one way, a special use of the language, one among many. It is writing to convince, persuade, prove, demonstrate, inform.

Language has whole other uses for which “the right way” is hardly appropriate. Prayer, seduction, cursing, singing, praising, damning, and so on–none of these benefit much from the paragraphing meant to apply to expository prose. But you won’t hear that in middle school, where you’d better make sure each paragraph contains a topic sentence, three points, and a summary.

One reason we resist short, articulate paragraphing is history, specifically the history of our literature as (again) taught in school. For many of us, the introduction to great writing was study of the classics–books written over a century ago. Long paragraphs were in fashion back then. This was right because it reflected the realities of culture at the time.

But history is a river that never stops flowing. As readers (and writers) we’re always in a changed place on that river. Culturally, for better or worse, our style of concentration has evolved, and our expectations and demands are different from those of, say, 1860.

Kurt Vonnegut was a master user of the articulate paragraph. He came to fiction from public relations copywriting, which is famous (or infamous, if you are an English teacher) for short, punchy paragraphing. Frankly, readers have become used to this kind of flow because we’re used to newer, faster, more prevalent modes of communication, especially advertising, movies, and TV.

This inconvenient truth tends to irk literary purists, but let’s face it: thy are a dying breed. In today’s split-second culture, every day is new and fast-moving. Long paragraphs are ancient, Victorian.

Take a look at the fiction you’re working on. Are you fully utilizing the paragraph as a fluent form of macro punctuation? Think about it.

Still thinking?

Take your time.

But not too much, or… You just lost me.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 lukeraftl January 5, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Hi Bill,

I think that, like all literary tools, the paragraph can be pulled and pushed in many ways to suit a style. Vonnegut’s articulate paragraphs were perfect for his style and his witticisms and his offbeat humour, and he used his shorter blocks perfectly.

On the other end of the spectrum, i just recently read Hubert Selby Junior’s ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’ (also known for ‘Requiem for a Dream’). While published years ago, he uses much longer paragraph blocks, with minimal punctuation, and his words tumbled off the page in an excited frenzy, pulling me along to the end of each paragraph with no thought for their length at all. His style is one of action and excitement and his longer paragraphs are just as effective as Vonnegut’s in his writing.

I agree the old stuffy style can bog you down as a reader (I’ve never gone in for the English classics myself!) and shorter paragraphs are almost invariably more fun to read, but when used effectively a long paragraph here and there can be just as wonderful!

great article!


2 Bill Henderson January 6, 2011 at 10:49 pm

@ Luke. I agree–if that long paragraph represents an unbroken flow of events or inner experience. But if beats come and go, scenes end, new scenes begin, there are shifts of location, point-of-view etc. — and all with no break, I start to wonder why. It’s worth pointing out that Selby was an adherent of the modernist no-paragraph convention rooted in “stream of consciousness.” The idea was that if life flows without a break, shouldn’t fiction mirror that? But we’ve recycled several times since. I think we’re back to an implicit acceptance of fiction as artifice. That’s a good thing, in my opinion, because it places story back at the top of the pyramid.

@James. Those are good guidelines, but I it’s still tricky to know when enough revision is enough, i.e. when it’s over. Every time I’ve told myself that, it wasn’t.

3 April January 7, 2011 at 5:14 am

Thank you for this. Another reason for shorter paragraphs could be less eye fatigue. As more and more electronic reading material is available, the use of shorter paragraphs can be a welcome relief giving readers the opportunity to pause briefly and blink.

4 James Thayer January 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Shorter paragraphs are more appealing on the page to the eye. Ever notice that when flipping through a book at a bookstore, we usually stop at a page with a lot of paragraphs, often dialogue? Five paragraphs on the page look better than two paragraphs. I’m not sure why, but they do. Maybe because a page filled with shorter paragraphs looks more energetic and fun. These days the old rule that a paragraph should contain a complete thought doesn’t have much sway, and new paragraphs in fiction can begin almost anywhere.

5 David Sandrock June 9, 2013 at 8:44 am

What is your favorite paragraph format if you were to spell it out like the English textbooks spell out theirs?

6 Bill Henderson July 24, 2013 at 7:59 am

Truthfully, I’ve paid very little attention to those books because they never addressed my needs as a storyteller. Their governing premise is: clear informational prose–and there are a million reasons why that’s a good idea. But fiction has different aims and needs. To say I like the formula of “topic sentence, hypothesis, 3 supporting examples, summary sentence,” for instance, would be meaningless. In fiction there are too many different kinds of paragraphs and reasons for using them. I do respect such formulae, and probably can write better paragraphs of my own design because of it, but I would never advance one to new fiction writers as as a governing principle.

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