Have you ever read a student narrative that was written as one long paragraph? Knowing when to make new paragraphs comes naturally to some students, but not others. This article goes over five rules to teach. Begin by downloading the teaching materials for this lesson.
Paragraphs Rule 1 – TOPIC CHANGE
Just as in writing nonfiction, begin a new paragraph when a new topic takes place. If the author describes the setting and moves on to describe the character’s thoughts or reactions to the setting, create a new paragraph. Here are some examples from literature:
Like the time Grandfather dressed up as the scarecrow out in the garden. It took little Willy an hour to catch on. Boy, did they laugh. Grandfather laughed so hard he cried. And when he cried his beard filled up with tears. (This paragraph tells about a time when Willy and Grandfather had fun.)
Grandfather always got up real early in the morning. So early that it was still dark outside. He would make a fire. Then he would make breakfast and call little Willy. “Hurry up or you’ll be eating with the chickens,” he would say. Then he would throw his head back and laugh. (This new paragraph clearly changes to another example.)
Once little Willy went back to sleep. When he woke up, he found his plate out in the chicken coop. It was picked clean. He never slept late again after that. (The punch line of the joke is in a paragraph by itself for emphasis.)
The City of Ember
The desks were arranged in four rows of six, one behind the other. In the last row sat a slender girl named Lina Mayfleet. She was winding a strand of her long, dark hair around her finger, winding and unwinding it again and again. Sometimes she plucked at a thread on her ragged cape or bent over to pull on her socks, which were loose and tended to slide down around her ankles. One of her feet tapped the floor softly. (This paragraph describes Lina, one of the main characters.)
In the second row was a boy named Doon Harrow. He sat with his shoulders hunched, his eyes squeezed shut in concentration, and his hands clasped tightly together. His hair looked rumpled, as if he hadn’t combed it for a while. He had dark, thick eyebrows, which made him look serious at the best of times and, when he was anxious or angry, came together to form a straight line across his forehead. His brown corduroy jacket was so old that its ridges had flattened out. (This paragraph describes Doon, another main character.)
Both the girl and the boy were making urgent wishes. Doon’s wish was very specific. He repeated it over and over again, his lips moving slightly, as if he could make it come true by saying it a thousand times. Lina was making her wish in pictures rather than in words. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself running through the streets of the city in a red jacket. She made this picture as bright and real as she could. (This paragraph compares the wishes of Lina and Doon.)
Paragraphs Rule 2 – SETTING CHANGE-SKIPPING TO A NEW TIME OR A NEW PLACE
Remember that setting includes both time and place. If the story shifts from one place to another or one time to another, begin a new paragraph. Scenes generally take place in one location. When the location changes, this means a new scene is about to take place.
Look for time clues:
- They waited and waited.
- An hour later,
- The next afternoon,
- At the eleventh hour…
- A week passed.
- The seconds seemed like hours.
- Once in a blue moon…
- In the months that passed,
Look for place clues:
- Meanwhile, back at…
- In Brooklyn,
- They moved around Chicago…
- It was difficult to carry the wide load down the narrow street.
- Across from the hospital,
- They boarded the plane,
- The house was situated…
- The taxi zipped through traffic.
It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice. He had seen it both times. Squinting toward the sky, he had seen the sleek jet, almost a blur at its high speed, go past, and a second later heard the blast of sound that followed. Then one more time, a moment later, from the opposite direction, the same plane. (This paragraph begins the story. It describes an event that frightened Jonas.)
At first, he had been only fascinated. He had never seen aircraft so close, for it was against the rules for Pilots to fly over the community. Occasionally, when supplies were delivered by cargo planes to the landing field across the river, the children rode their bicycles to the riverbank and watched, intrigued, the unloading and then the takeoff directed to the west, always away from the community. (A new paragraph is made to explain what is normal in Jonas’s community. A shift takes place from the past to the present.)
But the aircraft a year ago had been different. It was not a squat, fat-bellied cargo plane but a needle-nosed single-pilot jet. Jonas, looking around anxiously, had seen others—adults as well as children—stop what they were doing and wait, confused, for an explanation of the frightening event. (A new paragraph is created to go back to describing the event that took place in the past. Another time shift takes place.)
Paragraphs Rule 3 – IN DIALOGUE WHEN A NEW CHARACTER SPEAKS
Each time a different character speaks, create a new paragraph. Note that this is also true with thoughts. If the narrator is describing the thoughts of one character and a different character speaks or has his or her thoughts described, start a new paragraph.
“What are you talking about?” I said. (Auggie)
Mom looked surprised, like she hadn’t meant for me to hear that. (Narrator describes Mom.)
“You should tell him what you’ve been thinking, Isabel,” Dad said. He was on the other side of the living room talking to Christopher’s dad. (Dad)
“We should talk about this later,” said Mom. (Mom)
“No, I want to know what you were talking about,” I answered. (Auggie)
“Don’t you think you’re ready for school, Auggie?” Mom said. (Mom)
“No,” I said. (Auggie)
“I don’t, either,” said Dad. (Dad)
Paragraphs Rule 4 – TO BREAK UP LONG NARRATIVES INTO PARAGRAPHS
If a character gives a long speech, it is easier for the reader if the dialogue is broken up.
Teaching Moment – Encourage students to break up long bits of narration with action. For example, if a flashback is taking place, have the character come back to the present, describe what is taking place, and then go back to the flashback.
Gary Paulsen is a master at storytelling. He often breaks the principles of writing with sentence fragments and other unconventional methods. Many short paragraphs keep his writing sounding urgent. I have included an excerpt from Hatchet not to illustrate paragraph breaks but to show how a flashback can be interrupted with present events.
Now Brian sat, looking out the window with the roar thundering through his ears, and tried to catalog what had led up to his taking this flight. The thinking started. Always it started with a single word. Divorce.
It was an ugly word, he thought. A tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling, lawyers—God, he thought, how he hated lawyers who sat with their comfortable smiles and tried to explain to him in legal terms how all that he lived in was coming apart—and the breaking and shattering of all the solid things. His home, his life—all the solid things. Divorce. A breaking word, an ugly breaking word…
When he saw Brian look at him, the pilot seemed to open up a bit and he smiled. “Ever fly in the copilot’s seat before?” He leaned over and lifted the headset off his right ear and put it on his temple, yelling to overcome the sound of the engine…
But the pilot had put his headset back on and the gratitude was lost in the engine noise and things went back to Brian looking out the window at the ocean of trees and lakes. The burning eyes did not come back, but memories did, came flooding in. The words. Always the words.
Paragraphs Rule 5 – FOR EFFECT
Use a paragraph break to emphasize an important point, for a laugh, to drive a message, or gain some advantage.
Look again at the earlier examples. In the Stone Fox example, a new paragraph begins when the narrator gives the punch line.
Also, look at the Hatchet excerpt. Notice the word “Divorce.” and the phrase “The Secret.” are in paragraphs by themselves. This stresses their importance.