It is a long time since I was at school and I know things change a lot over the years, but has English grammar really changed that much? New words, yes. New sentence structure, not so much.
So what is the problem?
There is one problem I seem to keep coming across in the books I beta read, edit, proofread, review or just read for pleasure, and that is a basic rule of writing that gets broken all the time.
When to start a new paragraph.
I’m beginning to realise it is not always taught in school these days, or even in college. One lady author I beta read for lately was somewhat embarrassed to tell me that she was a qualified English teacher for many years, had degrees in creative writing as well as English Literature, yet had never been taught the basic rule:
New Person, New Paragraph.
Another way of putting it is New Subject, New Paragraph.
To be complete, a sentence only needs to have a subject and a verb. – He ran. She jumped.
The verb is the fundamental part of the sentence. It can describe the action or state of the subject. – He ran. She jumped. He was handsome. She was beautiful.
The subject is the star of the sentence: the person or thing the sentence is ‘about’. – He, she or it.
We group together a number of sentences to form a paragraph. That paragraph is about one subject – one person or one thing – and what the subject is doing or being.
So, when it comes to forming paragraphs, each time we are talking about a new subject (person or thing) we start a new paragraph.
According to https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/606/01/
“A paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic. Learning to write good paragraphs will help you as a writer stay on track during your drafting and revision stages. Good paragraphing also greatly assists your readers in following a piece of writing. You can have fantastic ideas, but if those ideas aren’t presented in an organized fashion, you will lose your readers (and fail to achieve your goals in writing). The basic rule of thumb with paragraphing is to keep one idea to one paragraph.”
This is especially important in dialogue. A paragraphos (Ancient Greek: from para-, “beside”, and graphein, “to write”) was a mark in ancient Greek punctuation, marking a division in a text (as between speakers in a dialogue or drama).
There are few hard-and-fast rules for paragraphing. Often times, there are different ways to structure paragraphs, and they all might be “correct.” However, there are guidelines that will help you to create paragraphs that don’t confuse readers.
But there is one hard-and-fast rule of paragraph structure.
Never, ever mix what one character says or does with the dialogue or actions of another character in the same paragraph or the reader will have trouble keeping up with who’s talking. For the other character’s answer, switch to a new paragraph. Also, keep in mind that sometimes, the other character might answer nonverbally or with an action—start a new paragraph for those kinds of answers too.
“Are you not speaking to me?” Sally asked.
Bess looked away.
“Oh, come on. Don’t go in the huff.”
“Leave me alone.” Bess ran from the room.
You’ll notice that correct paragraphing make the use of dialogue tags in every line unnecessary. Readers can keep track of who’s talking because every new speaker has a paragraph of its own.
The actions and thoughts of a speaker belong to the same paragraph as the character’s dialogue. Keep what one character says, does, and thinks in the same paragraph; otherwise, readers will think the action or thought belongs to a different character.
“What on earth’s that smell?” Sally asked.
Bess looked up from her book. “Oh, no,” she said, remembering she had meant to surprise Sally. “I forgot the stew!”
I like to illustrate it this way:
Imagine you are watching a tennis match on TV. You’ll no doubt notice how everyone looks the same way, turning their heads to look the other way in almost perfect unison. That is because they follow the ball from player to player each time it crosses the net. So let’s imagine we are reporting about that tennis match.
Let’s start with player X. He receives a ball from the ballboy. He throws it in the air and serves it to his opponent.
We all turn to look at player Y as he hits it back.
Again, we turn to look at X as he smashes it into the net.
Each time we turn our heads, it is a new paragraph in our report.
What about a different scenario?
We watch as player X receives another ball from the ballboy, bounces it a few times, throws it up in the air, lets it drop from there, catches it, looks at it, decides he doesn’t like it, throws it back for another ball which he puts in his pocket while he bends to tie his shoelaces before straightening up, taking the ball out of his pocket and bouncing it a few times. Then he looks across the net to make sure his opponent is ready, sees that he is, throws the ball up and serves.
Still we stay with the player who has the ball. Yes, we make note that he’s checked on his opponent. Yes, we make note that he nodded to the ballboy. But we stayed with him till the ball crossed the net, because he was the one all these verbs were talking about. He was the subject of each sentence. He receives, he bounces, he throws, he lets drop, he catches, he looks, he decides, he bends, he straightens, he looks, he sees, he throws, he serves.
It doesn’t matter what he bounces, where he looks, who he looks at, who he sees, he is still the subject of the sentences. The ball, the ballboy, the other player, these are all the objects of the sentences. The verbs are not about them.
If we decide when player X looks across at the ballboy that we want to see what the ballboy is going to do and we look at him, and report that he throws the ball, he would become the subject of the new sentence that tells the reader, ‘The ballboy throws another ball.’ We would need a new paragraph.
If we decide when players X checks to see if his opponent is ready that we want to check for ourselves and we look over and report that he is jumping up and down and looks to be ready, he would become the subject of the new sentence that tells our readers, ‘Player Y is jumping up and down. He is ready to receive.’ We would need a new paragraph.
Because, very importantly, player Y, his opponent, NEVER, EVER joins player X on his side of the court. They are never standing together on the same side – we do not write about what X did and said in the same paragraph as what Y did and said.
We give each player, each subject, each person his own side of the net, his own place, his own paragraph.
Clear as mud?
Maybe that illustration is not the one that works for you. Perhaps the camera lens is the one you use to explain when to use a new paragraph, perhaps something else. But whatever illustration you prefer, whatever explanation you use, it all comes back to the one simple rule:
New Person, New Paragraph.
If none of that helps you, there are any number of grammar books and grammar sites you can look up. Please do check them out. Getting this aspect of formatting your novel right, does make a difference. It makes the difference between your novel looking professional or not.