Paragraph Structure: Pacing & Rhythm

In school, you probably learned how to construct the classic, academic paragraph. The O.G. paragraph, if you will. You’ve got your topic sentence, your supporting sentences, and then your concluding sentence. A nice snug package of information. Also, a total bore.

In fiction, paragraphs never have to be this structured. Indeed, paragraphing is an author’s playground. You have near total freedom as to when you hit ‘enter’ and start a new little family of sentences. Depending on where and how often you do this, you can create a unique visual organization for your page, control the pacing of the scenes, and create a rhythm to enhance your storytelling.

The Practicals

In print publishing, a new paragraph traditionally begins with an indentation. With today’s online and e-reader publishing, this is increasingly not being used. Case in point: this article.

In theory, a paragraph can be as long as you want, though typically they won’t be bigger than ⅔ of a page.

On the short end, it’s common to see one-word sentences given status as their own paragraphs.

The Power

There is power in your enter key. By cutting off the end of a paragraph and starting afresh, you are organizing and structuring the way the story unfolds in the gaze of your reader.

You can emphasize specific words or phrases. You can even hide clues. 

Our brains are predictable. Your readers will remember the opening and closing clauses of each paragraph more than the middle section. Need to draw home a point? Put it at the end of the paragraph. Need to include a clue that is important later in the story but shouldn't draw attention to itself? Put it in the middle of the paragraph.

And remember to keep your focus on what you’re trying to get across to readers. What does the specific paragraph need to accomplish? Is it providing story development, revealing information, simply containing dialogue? 

If you need to trim your word count, it can be helpful to examine each paragraph for redundant phrases or sentences. It’s easy for an author to find themselves rambling in the middle of a beefy paragraph. Cutting out the gristle will not only decrease your overall word count, it will make your prose clearer and cleaner.

The Playground

Let’s have some fun with paragraph structure.

Consider the following chunk of story...

A twig snapped. Jen awoke with a gasp and sat up, reaching instinctively for the bow beside her sleeping bag. She placed an arrow on the string. Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she crawled out from the tent and let her gaze wander the surrounding woodland. The sun was just about to rise and the predawn glow revealed the twisted thistles, the stark white trunks of birch trees, and the blue needles of pines. Jen held her breath, pulling the bowstring taut. She waited. Silence. Not even birdsong. But then, softly at first and growing louder, she heard a creeping noise. Something was dragging itself along the forest floor, scraping over moss and roots. It breathed in shallow rasps that made the hairs on the back of Jen’s neck stand on end. She aimed her bow in the direction of the sounds. “Come on, then, you blood-thirsty beast,” Jen whispered, squinting down the arrow’s shaft at the approaching shadow. “This time...this time, I’m ready for you.”

Does the text work as one chunk? No. But the only paragraph break that the rules dictate must be included is right before Jen’s dialogue at the end. All that beginning stuff could theoretically be left alone, but that wouldn’t be very exciting or effective. So, just what is the best way to structure it for optimal pacing and rhythm? Let’s chop it up and see what changes…

A twig snapped. 

Jen awoke with a gasp and sat up, reaching instinctively for the bow beside her sleeping bag. She placed an arrow on the string. Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she crawled out from the tent and let her gaze wander the surrounding woodland. 

The sun was just about to rise and the predawn glow revealed the twisted thistles, the stark white trunks of birch trees, and the blue needles of pines. Jen held her breath, pulling the bowstring taut. She waited. 

Silence. Not even birdsong. 

But then, softly at first and growing louder, she heard a creeping noise. Something was dragging itself along the forest floor, scraping over moss and roots. It breathed in shallow rasps that made the hairs on the back of Jen’s neck stand on end. 

She aimed her bow in the direction of the sounds. 

“Come on, then, you blood-thirsty beast,” Jen whispered, squinting down the arrow’s shaft at the approaching shadow. “This time...this time, I’m ready for you.”

You might disagree with where I’ve divided up the paragraphs. Awesome. Do it differently. Pay attention to how altering the structure can set the mood, amplify the author’s voice, or create an aesthetically-pleasing visual page. Play with the pacing. Play with the rhythm. Find a way to structure it that works best for you.

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Dave Kavanaugh

Dave likes to write about ancient aliens, newborn gods, and really big swords. He is the author of the serial "Age of Omicron" and lots of speculative short fiction. To learn more, head over to www.davekavanaugh.com.

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