1. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Damn paragraphs!

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by OurJud, Sep 2, 2015.

    Why is it that when I'm reading a novel, paragraphs happen so naturally that I barely notice them, but when writing I can uum and ahh for minutes on end, trying to decide whether my next sentence should start a new paragraph or be a continuation of the current one?

    I've read up on their (supposed) correct usage, countless times, but what I read never really sinks in or explains anything, and is often contradicted by what I see in novels.

    Take this extract from chapter two of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic. Can someone please explain, as simply as possibly, why the paragraphs are where they are, and why they aren't where I've highlighted in red?

    ------------------------------

    Redrick Schuhart lay behind a tombstone and, holding a tree branch out of the way, looked at the road. The patrol car's searchlights darted around the cemetery, and when they flashed into his eyes, he squinted and held his breath.
    -----Two hours had already passed, but the situation on the road hadn't changed. The car, motor rumbling steadily as it idled, stood in the same place and continued to probe with its searchlights, combing the unkempt, neglected graves, the slanted rusty crosses, the overgrown ash tree, and the crest of the nine-foot wall that ended to the left. The patrols were afraid of the zone. They never got out of the car. Occasionally, Redrick heard muffled voices; sometimes he'd see the flash of a cigarette butt fly out of the car and roll along the road, bouncing up and down and scattering dim reddish sparks. It was very damp - it had already rained recently - and despite his waterproof coat, Redrick felt the the wet chill.
    -----He carefully let go of the branch, turned his head, and listened....

    -------------------------------
     
  2. General Daedalus
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    General Daedalus Active Member

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    I can understand your frustration but I've now thrown traditional paragraphing out of the window. I don't indent as you'd expect, and because of the large amounts of dialogue in my novel, I've adopted a more eBook-friendly approach where you see breaks much more often, despite the fact that I'm going down the traditional publishing route. It may sound odd, but it flows very nicely when you see it in writing.
     
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  3. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I've never thought much about it. I just break for a new paragraph when it feels right. Like @General Daedalus I err on the side of "shove one in if you're not sure" and I favour dialogue over description, so I end up with a lot of white space.

    One of my golden rules as an editor? Include lots of white space. Readers love white space.
     
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  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I just feel out paragraphs. I don't really think too much about them.
    Here's my guesses -
    To me paragraphs are about organizing information and directing the reader. I felt he was keeping the info together quite nicely.
     
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  5. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    So am I mistaken then?? Is there no 'hard and fast' rule when it comes to paragraphing?

    And is it something an editor would sort out anyway?

    It seems to me they're something no one truly understands.

    Sorry, peachalulu, I hadn't noticed you'd added your own notes to that extract. I thought you'd just quoted it. Can't honestly say I'm any the wider yet.
     
  6. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I'm a non-fiction editor but I'm not aware of hard and fast paragraph rules. Nobody's ever commented on my professional work to say I'm doing it wrong and I honestly don't think it's something a lot of people notice or care about.

    I agree with @peachalulu that it's about organising your writing in a way that makes sense and doesn't confuse the reader. In my professional work I start a new paragraph when I move on to a new idea or topic. In my novel I often use them for effect (e.g. when I want to separate a sentence that has significance, or one I want to have a greater impact) and I see others doing that too.
     
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  7. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I do have a kind of gut instinct for them, but sometimes I just find myself wondering. Something tells me a new paragraph is needed, but then another part of me says, 'But wait. You're still talking about the same subject...' putting doubt in my mind.
     
  8. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Go with your instinct. I bet it's right 99% of the time.
     
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  9. nastyjman
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    nastyjman Contributing Member

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    Here's something you can do:

    Get your favorite novel or short story. Next, get a pen and paper, then copy down a couple of pages of your favorite novel or short story. What you're doing here is to get a feel of how your favorite author writes, how they move from one sentence to the next, how they flow from one paragraph to the other.

    For me, I usually pick a passage that moved me or gave me a vivid image. I limit this little exercise to a half an hour, and I do this during lunch time or after I had finished my daily writing quota.
     
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  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Yes this, and logic.
    If your character is harping about clothes and then suddenly mentions gas prices it's going to throw a monkey wrench into the works unless you make it relate to something within the paragraph. Like she'd rather buy heels and hitchhike rather than get robbed at the gas pumps, besides with the heels she was sure to get a ride. That sort of thing.
    It's not as ridged as the topic sentence essay stuff it's more about building a small moment, idea, conclusion, information, revelation.
    Baby steps - ( couldn't resist a Bill Murray quote - lol. )
     
  11. Mumble Bee
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    Mumble Bee The writer formerly known as Chained. Contributor

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    My rule: when it doubt, break it out.

    I have a hard time reading a solid block of words; the unwritten (hahaha) agreement I've always had with my favorite authors is that they sort paragraphs for easy digestion, and I read every letter. Once thoughts get muddled I start to skip, lose focus, and eventually quit.

    Ultimately i believe paragraph separation is extremely important... but then again i'm the type of person that has to eat every type of food on my plate separately, so my opinion is very skewed.
     
  12. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    For me the paragraphing is natural, but I mostly throw them in whenever my brain stops.

    Although I'm also a big fan of paragraphing for pacing and single-sentence paragraphs for effect.

    Part of it is to think about how fast you want it read and the impact you want to have on a reader. I heard an audio-book narrator mention once that they train narrators to read punctuation by counting to one for a comma, counting to two for a period, and counting to three for a paragraph break.

    If in doubt maybe read your stuff back and decide how long you want the reader to pause using that formula.
     
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2015
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  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    There is lots online about writing paragraphs. Some of the advice is good, some is too sketchy to be of much help at all. I've spent the last half hour reading some of the offerings, and I think this is the best one so far. It deals with what paragraphs do to the reader, as well as what they contain. I'm in favour of going with your instinct, rather than overthinking the subject, though. And it's always a good idea to vary paragraph length, just as you would vary sentence length. Remember a short paragraph has a punchy effect, while a longer one is more thoughtful.

    http://howtowritebetter.net/how-to-write-fiction-without-the-fuss-paragraphs/
     
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  14. Kata_Misashi
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    Kata_Misashi Active Member

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    For me I use paragraphs when people are talking to each other or a scene change. I feel it helps to not have dialogue so cluttered. With me being a fictional writer (albeit; not a good one >w>) I use this technique all the time.
     
  15. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks, jannert, as you say that did a better job of explaining than most articles do.

    One (slightly off-topic) thing I learned from that, however, is that most editors and publishers prefer you not to indent the paragraphs, but to use a line break instead.

    When I started a thread recently on early preparations for submitting, paragraph indents and tabs were discussed at length, and not a single person suggested omitting the indent completely.

    If the indent is omitted, and a line break used instead, how is a sudden passing of notable time formatted (usually line break with no indent)?
     
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  16. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Seriously? I have never heard that anybody prefers line break paragraphs—which she says they do. (Except on this forum, of course!) Good grief. Well, maybe it makes it easier to read online from an email, which is the way most stuff gets submitted these days.

    I assume the scene breaks would need to have some symbol to indicate, and maybe a couple of extra lines. It seems clunky, though. Certainly I've not seen any books published that way, and that includes eBooks, like Kindle, etc. They all use conventional indents.

    Here is a recent (December 22, 2014) article by Writers' Digest's Brian Klems, about formatting an MS for submission. He clearly states that the MS should be double-spaced and that the paragraphs should have 5-space indentations. Writers' Digest certainly has its finger on the pulse of what modern agents and publishers want, so I think I'd go with his ideas. Mind you, each company will have their own submission guidelines. Something that stands out as much as putting a single space between paragraphs will certainly be mentioned in them, if this is required.

    http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/what-are-the-guidelines-for-formating-a-manuscript
     
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2015
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  17. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm rather glad, that on searching google for opinions on this, I couldn't find a single other website suggesting line breaks instead of indents for paragraphing.

    I did learn, however, how to set up the paragraph option in my WP so that the indents were inserted properly, instead of me pressing the tab key (even though I only pressed it for the first and it seemed to do it automatically after this anyway)
     
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  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I learned that one the hard way. I had to go back through my entire completed manuscript, remove all the tabs, and change them all to automatic indents. One by one. Never again. I now use a custom designed template--designed by me--that has built-in paragraph indents.
     
  19. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's strange. I feared I might have to do the same, but when it came down to it, all I did was highlight the entire chapter and set auto indents in the paragraph options and it set them all as instructed.

    Having said that, although my paragraph indents were not set to automatic prior to this, I wasn't having to press tab every time I started a new paragraph anyway. I think I used tab for the very first one, but after that it put the indent in by itself, so maybe it was set up correctly anyway.
     
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  20. historymom
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    historymom Member

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    I can think of several novels I've read - actually some authors in particular - full of really dense, unending paragraphs. I would turn a page and go, "Holy crap!" It was daunting just to look at. So I'd say lean toward breaking it up. Also I think typing in a word processor makes for smaller-looking paragraphs than when it gets transferred to a printed page.
     
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  21. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I try to set the width of my document and font size to such that it replicates the page of a standard paperback (about 11/12 words per line) so that I can get a better idea of whether I'm overdoing paragraph length.
     
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  22. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    I say write paragraphs the way that you feel they should be written.

    Just don't publish it in some ungodly small font for the sake of us visually impaired peoples. The standard size will do fine thanks. So if it ends up a wall of text bring it on, love to read a good long spiel if need be. Naked pages make me think the author really isn't into what they created, or lacks confidence in their abilities to depict what is going on.

    As for the kindle. I wish it had more than approximately 100 words per page. The gapping is like each word is living in a bloody mansion, when they should be closer filling up a damned page.

    So any who, write how it feels natural for you. If I wanted to read white space, I have a brand new sketch pad 100 11x14 sheets. :p
     
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  23. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Well, I did that too. However, while the highlight-and-set-auto-indent manoevre worked at adding the automatic indents, it did not remove the tab stops! So I had to do each one of them manually. Mind you, I also had to remove all the double-stops after sentences as well.

    I could have tried doing that with my search/replace function, but decided to do it manually instead. And I was glad I did, because I caught other spacing errors I would have missed. I've got a lovely beta reading the MS at the moment, and she's still finding a few errors of that type. Mostly errors where I got too enthusiastic removing spaces, and removed the end punctuation as well. Dang.
     
  24. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, that's when taking time out to play around with font size and page shape can pay off. It's a lot of fun to see what your story will look like on a printed page, and seeing it with a finished 'look' can also help you spot places where paragraph sizes need to be changed. Paragraph choices need to make sense from a storytelling angle, but they also need to look 'right' to the eye.

    If you're a voracious and experienced reader, this will probably come naturally to you. There is nothing like reading to give you a feel for what a story should look like.
     
  25. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Sounds like I'm going to have to go through and remove the ten million line breaks. *Cries and hopes there is an automatic way to do it*
     
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