If the last time you thought about paragraphing was when you learned that a paragraph was comprised of a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a conclusion, listen up: that staid structure will not have the power to draw readers into your story.
A paragraph in fiction is rarely used to convey information, as our earliest grammar school compositions were intended to do. The reader didn’t come to your novel to find out what kind of cattle produces the juiciest steaks; she can google that. She wants to know what happens when your aging cowboy, still facing hours in the saddle, has overestimated the stability of his reconstructed knee while an unexpected winter storm is blowing in.
What readers want most of story is to be moved, quite literally—transported, from one place to another. Paragraph structure can boost that sense of story movement. These tips should help.
1. A paragraph should develop only one idea. This sounds simple in theory, but while your mind is juggling god-knows-how-many aspects of story, execution can be fraught. As an editor, it often feels like I’m bringing my pen into the midst of a cattle drive to cut out an errant all-terrain vehicle. The ATV is a distraction, obscuring the reader’s perception of where the cowboy is directing the cattle.
You might argue that the ATV is relevant because the novel is about old methods butting heads with the new. If that’s your point, great—but most readers will miss it if you bury that ATV in the middle of a paragraph. That leads me to my next point. (A paragraph should always set up your next point.)
2. A paragraph should help the reader remember important information. If a beta reader calls you out for reiteration—or worse, if she missed an important aspect of characterization or plot altogether—take a closer look at your paragraphing. A paragraph should support memorability.
My motto: Say it once, with impact, and you won’t have to repeat it.
If your beta reader missed the point of that ATV altogether, pull it from its herd of words, place it in a new paragraph, and give it an entrance to be remembered.
Have your aging cowboy swatting around his head, sure that only an insect wanting a bite out of his ear could create a buzz annoying enough to be heard above the thumping of cattle hooves. It grows louder—now the cowboy and even some of the cattle are looking over their shoulders. The herd shies away from the growing sound. The cowboy’s horse fidgets, necessitating that the cowboy apply pressure from his compromised knee. Then have the four-wheeler come over the rise in a cloud of dust, and give us our first glimpse of the damn fool who lives next door.
3. Order paragraphs so that each sentence builds upon the last. While editing fiction, I’m often re-ordering sentences for maximum impact. When I do, I always suspect the writer came to fiction through journalism.