We all know that to write a good story, we need to have a clear structure. But how do we structure our stories? If your answer is, “by having paragraphs”, then you are very nearly correct.
It is not enough just to have paragraphs. More importantly, you need to know whether you are using paragraphs appropriately. Some of us have problems with paragraphs that are too long or too short. The crux of the matter is that most of us are unclear as to when a new paragraph is needed. That’s why in this post, I am going to focus on showing you the occasions when you should start a new paragraph.
When a story has no paragraphs…
Before we start, let’s take a brief look at why we need to use paragraphs when we write. Imagine having to read a long section of text without any break in between. Your mind will probably feel tired and catching up with the details may become a challenge. When you wish to reread a part to clarify what you have understood, that also becomes difficult because you will have to pore through the whole chunk to find the part you are looking for. All in all, it is like eating your salad, spaghetti and chocolate lava cake at one go without stopping all. I think most of us will find it hard to digest all the information if it is presented in that manner. As such, breaking the information up into paragraphs helps the reader to process it much easier as the information is organised in meaningful chunks.
Let’s begin by trying to answer the following questions which many of my students often ask me when they are writing their stories
Q: How many paragraphs do I need for my story?
My answer to the first question is that you need to be clear about the structure of a story. At Lil’ But Mighty, we teach our students that the most basic story needs to have 5 parts - Introduction, Build up, Problem, Solution and Conclusion. In this instance, you can have 5 paragraphs for your story, one for each part. The number of paragraphs will then grow as you develop and add more details to the basic structure.
Q: How do I know if my paragraph is too short or too long?
I will answer the next two questions together. If your paragraph is too short, it could be a sign that you need to add more details to the situation you are describing, for example adding the character’s thoughts or emotions, or even adding dialogue.
Q: How do I know when to start a new paragraph?
However, if your paragraph is too long, it could be because you have gotten carried away with providing irrelevant details. Another reason for this is probably because you do not know when a new paragraph should be formed.
To answer this question, I will list the 5 occasions when a new paragraph is needed:
1. When location or time changes
This is when your character moves on to a new place or when you want to show some time has passed. Look at the example below:
Note how the writer breaks into the second and third paragraphs since some time has passed (James had completed his homework) and since the character is now at a different location (he left the classroom to go to the canteen).
2. When a character is introduced
Very often, when you introduce a new character, a new paragraph will need to be formed. This tends to happen at the earlier part of your story since you will usually need to introduce your important characters earlier on.
In the example above, the writer starts a new paragraph to introduce a new character (the angry man) who is going to cause a problem to the main character (later he would scold and terrify the narrator in the cinema).
Other than introducing new characters, if a character had exited the scene and appeared again later, that will be another instance when a new paragraph is started. For instance, if a teacher returned to the scene to help an injured pupil after he had given instructions at the beginning and the pupils were left to work on their own.
3. When a new idea occurs
As shown in the example above, you can start a new paragraph when the character has a new idea (Zack thought about climbing the fence so he could see the fishes clearer). This new idea can also be suggested to the main character by another character in the story.
4. When a decision is being made (dilemma)
This often happens in stories when your main character faces a dilemma and has to make a tough choice. Use a new paragraph to describe the dilemma the character has to deal with. The example below shows how Sarah was torn between keeping the wallet she had stolen or returning it to its rightful owner:
5. When a decision is made
This is connected to the previous point. As soon as your character has made up his or her mind following a dilemma, you should introduce the decision and the follow-up actions in a new paragraph. Here we see the same character Sarah returning the wallet to the teenage boy, after she had made up her mind in the previous paragraph:
I hope the list above is helpful in indicating to you when to start a new paragraph. At Lil’ But Mighty, It is our belief that for a story to be well-developed, it will take about 7 paragraphs. Therefore, we not only teach our students to plan their stories according to the story structure, but also in these 7 essential paragraphs. This certainly helps our students with paragraphing because each part represents the paragraph that should be included in the story. In this way, once they begin to write, they already know what each paragraph should contain.
Here is an example of the planning template that our students use in class:
Are you keen to learn more about how to plan your story according to this structure and how to use the template? If you are, the good news is that the cart for The Write Recipe, our online writing course, is now open again!
Thank you for reading. Till next we meet, take care!
About the Author: Nora is an English Teacher at Lil' but Mighty. She is committed to providing students with a dynamic and nurturing environment in which they can grow and develop. One of her greatest strengths as an educator is instilling a love for the English Language in her students.