Paragraph Building Blocks, Part 2

Good morning, welcome to Friday, let’s get down to business.

Earlier this week, I began to answer some questions about paragraphs. Today, that discussion continues.

Looking at our list of questions:

a) What defines a paragraph?
b) How long should a paragraph be?
c) Should some paragraphs automatically be of a certain length because of where they are in the story?
d) How many paragraphs should there be in a chapter?
e) How many beats per paragraph?
f) When writing, should [the writer] be thinking about the bigger picture of story construction (as in I just wrote 4k, so that’s a chapter), or is it more important to get the story out whole then divide into chapters as an after-thought?

We’re halfway through, and I want to throw in a bonus question:

g) How do paragraphs affect dialogue?

i. How many paragraphs should there be in a chapter?
We need to define “chapter” I think, if we’re going to be able to answer this question. A chapter is a collection of scenes wherein some amount of plot and/or character development happens. What that “amount” is (and yes, that amount can be zero, though it really shouldn’t be) depends completely on the size of the development over the course of the whole manuscript, as well as how you want to present it.

If, for instance, you have a really short progression, something you can break into three steps, then each step would likely make sense as a chapter. But if these three steps require a lot of moving parts or there’s some complex imagery (I’m imagining a lady walking to her closet, picking a shirt, and wearing the shirt, but between the walking and picking there are some extensive thoughts about all the kinds of influencers on her choice), then you might have a chapter that isn’t the progression, but the build-up to progression.

That might be unclear. So let’s think about pizza. We can slice it into thirds. But if we need to feed more people, we can slice those thirds down the middle and get six slices. The act of subdivision is an option for extending (and slowing) progression so that you can give it more weight and emphasis. BUT (and this is a large one, like your mom’s) padding out the chapter count can also be a great way to bloat your manuscript and lose the readers when there’s too much padding and the pace slows to a crawl (again, like your mom).

Which is why a chapter has as many paragraphs as it needs. Because the chapter, and in turn the paragraphs, are delivering plot and/or character development.

ii. How many beats in a paragraph?
A beat, for those people who may not have checked out FiYoShiMo, or who might not know, is the smallest unit of storytelling information, and it’s when something happens, is felt, or is discovered.

A beat fits into a sentence, and yes, a beat can have multiple actions in it, so long as they’re all related to the same moment (like a guy who sees his friend get shot, screams, picks up his buddy’s gun, then shoots the aliens while tears stream down his face).

Since we can put a beat in a sentence, and a paragraph is made of sentence(s), then we should be able to put multiple beats in a paragraph, right?


Here’s why.

A beat is a snapshot of activity. It’s a moment in the story, it’s events or ideas that we visualize as we read, and we need those moments to be clear and distinct so that we can picture them, then add them to what we already have. These jigsaw puzzle pieces have to fit together to show us the whole picture, but each piece has its own curves and nubs and spaces. You could pull a beat out and have it stand on its own as a vignette, though I don’t know why, outside of marketing.

When you cram lots of beats back-to-back, even when they’re related, they’re not distinct. They lump together and congeal into a larger whole that might lack the definition and clarity of the individual pieces (like how you add eggs, flour, sugar, and water together to make a dough but once the blending happens it just becomes … dough). Keep your beats per paragraph to a low minimum of one, maybe two.

Of course there are edge cases and I’m sure someone on the internet will go to great lengths to prove me wrong.

iii. When writing, should [the writer] be thinking about the bigger picture of story construction (as in I just wrote 4k, so that’s a chapter), or is it more important to get the story out whole then divide into chapters as an after-thought?
When we’re drafting a story, it can be really tempting to take a day’s chunk of writing, especially when it’s large, and call it a chapter. That’s part of what this question is asking – is there an auto-cutoff for chapters based on wordcount? The other parts have to do with breaking the story into that progression I mentioned about then figuring out the chapters in advance or just writing the whole thing then slicing it up.

The answer has some different parts, all moving together. Chapters don’t have a set length, and when you’re thinking about writing the MS, the number of chapters isn’t a factor. Whether or not you think about what development happens in each chapter does matter though.

For instance, I tell clients to map out their development by chapter, because I want each chapter to have the beat(s) relative to how the story is playing out.

Like this:

1 – John wakes up, gets set up to start his day
2 – John reads the news, has breakfast, gets discouraged at the state of the world
3 – John puts his butt in the chair, clears his head, and starts writing

I could have easily condensed that into 1 chapter of “John starts his day and then gets to work”, but I can spread the whole concept out over multiple chapters and give the components some depth. In this example, the “gets discouraged at the state of the world” might have been only a sentence or two if this were in one chapter, but it can be the whole load-bearing pillar of its own chapter this way.

That said, you can divvy up the chapters after the fact, so long as you place the breaks in reasonably expected times – before or after major developments, mid-action moments so you create tension, spots where you shift from following one character to another, etc. It’s just not something I’m a fan of.


iv. How do paragraphs affect dialogue?
For a long time, there was an unspoken prohibition on dialogue being long and paragraph heavy, because people don’t speak in giant paragraphs. Even the most well-crafted political soundbite is a sentence or two. One of the reasons we call a Bond villain speech cliche is because it can be so cumbersome to work your way through the text and think that there’s supposed to be an actual human doing the speaking.

Paragraphs in dialogue aren’t verboten. No one will come kick you out of the writer clubhouse when they read your MS and find out that Marcelle spent a page and a half telling Julian where he can stick his infidelity and passive aggressive comments that her sister Lucia is hotter.

But a paragraph, even as a ramble, has to still sound like a person could say it. That’s the big rule for dialogue. No, I don’t care if the “person” saying the lines is a half-alien cyborg, the reader is presumably a human, and humanistic speech patterns make sense to us.

If you’re asking what that looks like on the page, here you go:

She looked out her window to watch her beloved city burn.
      “Everyone knows that out of all the Good Humor desserts on a stick, the Strawberry Shortcake is clearly the best because strawberry and the strange freeze-dried cake crumbly bits that sheath it in deliciousness.
     “Good Humor, has for years produced quality desserts on sticks, rich with nostalgia and taste alike, because what the world needs now is not our arguing on this, our veranda, but true love and cooperation before Emperor Trump’s cyborg racist troopers kick down our door because our gardener is slightly too swarthy according to National Color Gradient Chart 16.
     “So, here, do you want the damned ice cream or not?”

Start each paragraph with an opening quotation mark, and only close the quotations when you get to the end of the last paragraph.

If you’re gonna sneak tags in there, then punctuate just like you would if the dialogue and tag were on its own line.

See you guys next week. Enjoy your weekend. Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus



I want to read the rest of that dystopian future book with the ice cream. Please tell me it has a happy ending.

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