Though I may not like rules in writing, there are plenty of rules that exist for a good reason. If you want to write fiction that other people want to read, there are certain thing you must and must not do. One of these involves properly structuring paragraphs.
We all know how to write a paragraph for an essay. It has a topic sentence, a body sentence or two, and something that concludes the thought and connects it to the next paragraph. In fiction, however, we are telling a story and the paragraph format is a little different.
The biggest change from essay to fiction in terms of paragraph formatting is the inclusion of dialogue. Instead of changing paragraphs when you switch topics, you change paragraphs when you switch speakers. To show you what I mean, here’s a passage from The Great Gatsby with paragraph breaks deleted. It’s not very easy to read, is it?
Tom Buchanan, who had been hovering restlessly about the room, stopped and rested his hand on my shoulder. “What are you doing, Nick?” “I’m a bond man.” “Who with?” I told him. “Never heard of them,” he remarked decisively. This annoyed me. “You will, “I answered shortly. “You will if you stay in the East.”
The best way to get a feel for when to change paragraphs is to read well-written fiction. You can also refer to this lovely graphic I ran across on Pinterest (created by a woman named Susan Hutcherson). It gives a clear, concise reference for when to change paragraphs in fiction writing.
Not knowing when to change paragraphs was the most common formatting problem I encountered while taking creative writing workshop classes. Improper paragraph and dialogue formatting is a clear sign of being an amateur writer, so if you want to be published it’s a good idea to brush up on proper paragraph changes.
Breaking the rule?
Unless you think you’re William Faulkner, there is no reason to let paragraphs wander along for the length of a page or two or three. Stories are much easier to read, and therefore more likely to keep readers engaged, if you follow the accepted format for paragraph structure. There are few things more likely to frustrate me into stopping a story as realizing it is incorrectly structured because the writer didn’t know what they were doing.
For a specific story, there could be a reason for altering the usual paragraph format. But it’s one of those rules that should only be broken after you have experience following it, and if you have a very good reason for doing so.