How long is a paragraph?
Any length it needs to be.
Ernest Gower wrote The Complete Plain Words, a guide to writing good English. He said that the paragraph was, ‘a unit of thought, not of length…’
In other words, each paragraph is a summing up of a train of thought. When the thought shifts slightly, then another paragraph begins. For example –
There was once a little boy named Hansel, and a little girl named Gretel. They lived with their parents in a house at the edge of a great forest.
One year there was a dreadful famine. Everyone was starving. The children’s mother said to their father, ‘Take the children into the forest and lose them there. I don’t want to watch them starve.’
The first paragraph sums up what you need to know about the characters in the story.
The second paragraph begins the story’s action. It might go on –
The next day, the children’s father took them deep into the forest, far from any path they knew, and left them there. The children wandered all day, but couldn’t find their way home. When they were tired out, they lay down at the foot of a tree. Darkness came.
Then they saw a light flickering through the trees…
The third paragraph is about the children being lost in the forest. When they give up trying to find their way home, a new paragraph begins.
Another example, this time from a recent blog of mine.
“My job is to make things up, and the best way to make things up is to make them out of real things…” Terry Pratchett.
I love Terry Pratchett’s books. I’ve probably read every one, and most of them several times. One of the things I love most about his stories is their exuberant inventiveness – and yet here he is, in his note for I SHALL WEAR MIDNIGHT, saying that he ‘makes them up out of real things’.
And I love him even more for saying this, because it’s exactly what I think myself; and exactly what I do with my own writing.
The first paragraph is a direct quote – the quote that inspired the blog.
Then I begin a new paragraph, to tell you why that quote interested me. I could have made the third paragraph part of the second, but chose not to, because there is a slight shift in thought. I’ve moved from telling you why I love Pratchett’s work to telling you that I identify with his quote from the first paragraph.
ANOTHER REASON FOR USING PARAGRAPHS. This brings up another reason for using paragraphs. They break up a page and help it to look more inviting. Because the above is from a blog, there are more paragraphs and they are shorter. This is because reading on a computer is more distracting than quietly reading a book.
Paragraphs help to break up the points of an argument and help the reader to understand it. My blog continued:-
Diana Wynne-Jones – another writer I greatly admire – had a lot of fun in her ‘Rough Guide to Fantasy Land’ with writers who populate their world with heroes and sorcerers, without ever considering what they eat, or how their food gets onto their plates, or who rears the animals to provide the meat or grows the grain for the bread.
Many novice fantasy writers would benefit from reading her book - and have a good laugh too – but Pratchett never needed the lesson. His disc-world is full of farmers and blacksmiths, shop-keepers, cart-drivers and sellers of dodgy sausages. The Unseen University has wizards, but also cooks, a housekeeper and maids. (A librarian too.) He never forgets that the heroic struggles, the fights with dragons, the magic wars, are nothing but a nuisance to most people, who are simply trying to make a living. As a result, his comic world is far more convincing and solid than that of most ‘heroic fantasy’.
One of his greatest creations, Granny Weatherwax – as courageous, strong and honourable as any sword-bearing hero – is an old lady who spends much of her time midwifing, tending to her goats and bees, and to all the sore-throats, broken legs and petty squabbles in her village. She only rarely, in her spare time, bothers to save the world.
In my own writing, I never make anything up without taking a firm grip on the closest reality I can find.
My argument is that fantasy is more convincing if it’s rooted in realilty. So, in the fourth paragraph I move away from Pratchett to quote another fantasy writer, Wynne-Jones, who makes the same point.
Having quoted Wynne-Jones, I return to Pratchett, so I begin another paragraph. This makes the point that Pratchett’s fantasies have always included the farmers, cooks, maids and coppers besides the wizards and dragons.
The sixth paragraph shifts in thought. It makes the point that even one of Pratchett’s major characters – who is herself a powerful witch – is nevertheless rooted in ordinary village life, and spends most of her time looking after her smallholding and the minor ailments of her neighbours.
Finally, the last paragraph – only a single line, note - I return to the reason why the original quote from Pratchett interested me, by stating again that I agree with him, and approach 'making things up' in the same way.