The reasons to paragraph ...

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Feb 11, 2019
Some people say paragraphs must have one [something]. Some say to paragraph based on specific criteria.
A lead-in:
I've seen scene basics like G-M-C, G-C-S (or the last part as a frustrated expectation; don't know how to put that into the acronym, though), etc. I've seen scenes explained as up to fifteen different 'types' to explain their purposes and 'shapes'. And I basically understand these things, even though there seems to be many different forms of scene outline/structure, etc.

I think I understand why a character's dialogue has its own paragraph, even if there's an action beat rather than a speech tag. In which case, the action goes with the dialogue and is part of the 'beat'. Or Clip.
And therein lies the second part of this discussion.

When to paragraph in fiction?
Some people use an MRU (Motivation Reaction Unit). It's also known as cause-effect, Action-Reaction-More Action, a Beat (or bit, depending on where you first hear it), a Clip or possibly others (which I haven't seen yet - why do so many people use different words when they're talking about only one effect?).
Essentially, to my way of understanding, they all mean the same.

It's about clarity for the reader. That's how I understand it. This is how I think it goes for fiction:

For example, when the POV character's dialogue or changes from internal to an external view (they're about to/are experiencing non-internal moments), or a different character's dialogue.
When the POV internals change to an external action/event.
When a different character opens his mouth.
When something happens that 'moves' (or blocks) the actions/reactions within the scene.
The MRU: The motivation causes a reaction and each of these is represented in a different paragraph. It's a unit because it's a cause and effect moment (which should take care of cause and effect - the cause comes first and must be experienced before the effect can be shown).
The word 'beat' came from a Russian director with an accent and in order for people (acters [yes, that's deliberate]) to understand what he meant, they interpreted 'bit' as beat. And his interpretation of beat is one piece of the scene that holds the pieces before and after together but isn't part of either of them. Complex, but what do we expect from a Director, let alone a perfectionist Russian?
A beat is a change of the camera view, and used in the movie-making business. Novels and stories have the added bonus of internals (thoughts, feelings, internal dialogue), so my interpretation of a beat for fiction includes more than a change of camera focus. It considers how the POV character in the scene is experiencing things.
If the POV char is thinking, feeling, emoting in some way, it's an internal beat. As soon as the POV char changes the focus from internal to external, that then becomes a new para. If they're experiencing the setting, which is external, that's an external clip/beat. How they react to that can be external (run away reaction) or internal (freeze and panic).

In short, that makes the need to change a para the same as the expectations for changing a para when there's a change of character who speaks or acts. But it's not consistent, either in the way these things are defined, written, or spoken about.

And worse, it's also a lot like the ways I see 'telling' defined.
Narrative Summary seems to cover all forms of telling, and yet it's only one.
Summary is used to summarise actions, dialogue, feelings, thoughts and descriptions, etc.
Narrative - is this the same as Narrative Summary or not? To me, if I have a third person POV, that person is the narrator of the scene. That's his/her narrative (yes, I know there are short moments when a bit of distance is created by moving away, getting a bit of distance, etc. but that's a different matter - I'm happy to call them camera shots (from panoramic to close-up), but you can tell me what it really is and give a few examples, yes?).
Telling can be description that isn't written from the perspective of the POV character. It's not connected, and therefore, doesn't add to mood or theme.
Exposition is similar to description if it's a dump of information that isn't dramatised by the characters. It may not be summary, but it could be, and yet it's often lumped in as an explanation of narrative summary. However, exposition is an explanation of facts, often separate from character or dramatisation.
Summary, as I understand it, is a shortened space of events. It may feel distant from the POV character, or it may not. In a way, some of the discussion around transitions may enlighten on this definition. A shortening of events that don't move the story forward, but that need to be there to show the movement of something. I think I understand that.

Narrative Summary? No idea, because putting these two words together is like concatenating POV and Cut, or am I missing something?

Does anyone have a simple explanation for these words and what they mean?

Beat, Clip, ARM, MRU, and how they define when a new para is req'd?
Narrative Summary.
Tells: Summary, Exposition, Description - or is it easier to define all these as 'tells' and therefore some form of summary - but don't say Narrative Summary!?

Yes, frustrated, but I bet you couldn't tell that at a glance ...o_O
Blimey Cage, this is all far too technical for me. I go with what seem like natural breaks to start a new para. If I started considering all your stuff my head would explode. :)
natural breaks

But what is a 'natural' break? Is it because you 'sense' the change of view? Is it that it covers enough lines?

I've been on a forced break - so I'm reading! A lot. And finding it difficult to wade through paragraphs that break concentration, go on for too long, or are so muddy in purpose that I give up and DNF the story. I read one paragraph in a fiction/thriller that covered 72 lines. In small print. Three different 'visual aspects' (at least). It tires the eyes, and makes it hard to get a feel for the movements.

I don't want to do that to anyone who reads my stories. I've used the 'clips' definition (which is really 'beats' but includes internalisations) to separate internal from external because it makes it easier to read.
But it annoys me that a simple concept can become so ill-defined, or over-defined, that none of it makes sense anymore. Why can't the 'experts' stick to the same definition for a word?
Summary seems simple enough ... until it becomes something different in the next three text books.
I'm not what your acronyms mean. What are GMC, GCS?

As far as paragraphing goes, I work with the idea of "focus". An action or thought has a key theme or focus, and when that changes is a great time to add a paragraph break. Sometimes, for me, this means that things go together others would recommend be separated into new paragraphs. To wit:

Non POV character action > POV character thoughts relating to that action > Non POV character continues or finishes action.
POV character responds.

Whenever the POV character's thought subject changes is when I paragraph. I don't worry so much about internal and external. Everything on the page is internal (it's part of the thought processes and experiences of the POV character). I've had beta readers comment try to attribute the reaction to the non-POV character, and thus consider it to be a POV slip. I'm willing to take that risk. I believe most readers should be able to tell the difference between an external character's actions and my MC's responses even if they're in the same paragraph.

Regarding summary: you can have narrative summary without breaking out of POV. "He told them about his journey on the Tube" is narrative summary from the POV character. Summary can also be outside of POV. Exposition almost always is told by an author to the reader. I think the difference is this: is it something the character is thinking about? "He told them..." relates to the character's lived experience and is in POV. "The Tube is an underground tunnel through which trains run, allegedly on time" is not part of the character's thoughts or experiences, even if it is known by him, and so is not in POV.

I don't worry so much about definitions and terminology. Letting your writing be dictated by technical terminology is a recipe for prose that you have to force into being, and that's not what writing - or reading - is about.
If 'I' am looking at something, doing something, thinking about something, and then 'I' look away, and follow up with a response, ponder it, or forget about it, then in writing terms I will translate that shift into a new paragraph. The bat and ball of dialogue too.
That's all very technical, Cage!

Screenshot 2019-10-31 at 11.45.20.png

The above is is what I teach at school.

But as a writer, I also use paragraphing for effect. A one-sentence paragraph can be a useful way of making something stand out, even if it's part of an internal monologue which is essentially on one topic.

Here's how I use paragraphing in my own writing (this is from my current WIP):

I take refuge in my room after a tongue-lashing from Mum, who is deeply unimpressed with my unexplained absence. Returning sans milk puts paid to any possible mitigation, especially as the shops are all closed by the time I make it home, so there’s no chance of getting any white stuff for the evening or morning cuppas. Overall, I’d say the crowning moment of today was sitting next to a cheese plant in the vet’s waiting room.

I open a few school books and make a vague attempt to do some revision ahead of the mock exams tomorrow, but my thoughts keep skittering away. Visions of Josh and Tyla on the bench mix into the piercing memory of Sophie / Sparkle Girl’s death threats...Jonty’s furtive exit from the cafe and the knife. Sticky and dark with blood, on Dave’s coffee table.

A nameless, faceless danger swirls around me. It prickles under my skin, blows a chill breath across the back of my neck.

Restless with anxiety, I go to the window. The street is sepia-toned and deserted, apart from a lone motorbike. The bike is too far away to make out any detail on the rider’s helmet, but something about it flushes my veins with adrenaline. Could it be Steve? I hide behind the faded curtain and track the bike as it indicates right and swings onto the High Street. I keep watch for a while longer, but it doesn’t return.

“Fi?” I jump when Mum’s shout from downstairs breaks the silence. “I’m going to put a wash on. Have you got anything you want to add? When did you last change your bed?”

For me, paragraphing breaks up text and prevents it from being too dense. Modern readers, especially younger ones, generally prefer the text in manageable chunks. And mixing short paragraphs with longer ones can add to dramatic tension.

Like Steve, I do it by feel.
Well I know what we learned in school but honestly I don’t give it too much though anymore. It’s instinctual. An editor is going to look at them with a critical eye, especially if they are all very long or very short. But even then, sometimes those long or short ones are simply a matter of author style.

I wouldn’t overthink this one, @CageSage. @KateESal’s cool graphic up there looks really useful. The rest of that stuff... well... it sure is technical and even too complicated for my simple soul. :)
Thanks, @KateESal - I just stole the graphic.
I think the frustration came from trying to 'review' work from Indie authors. The issue of 'white-space' is critical to reading ease, but it's hard to find something simple to share with them. And it's amazing how so many of the works were dense with dark characters and no white-space to make the changes in perspective to keep my head-space clear on who's doing what.

The biggest problem is with a work from a non-English speaking writer, and I'm doing both 'ease of reading' editing and proofreading. The paragraph break comes with a new chapter ... and it's impossible to get my reader head around where change happens. The editor side of me died, groaned after that death, and then prayed the printer had some ink left ...

What most of you have intimated/said is that it's the 'beat' (or my understanding of it) that feels instinctual, so I'll use that terminology.

And for:
What are GMC, GCS?
Goal-Motivation-Conflict and Goal-Conflict-Setback. There are many more. ARM is Action-Reaction-More action. They all basically mean the same thing (Cause and Effect for Storytelling) - structure a scene so the goal is clear (or clear to the reader, at least), get trouble happening in the middle of the scene, and end with another bump/bruise or defined need for the character to keep on keeping on.
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I don't worry so much about definitions and terminology. Letting your writing be dictated by technical terminology is a recipe for prose that you have to force into being, and that's not what writing - or reading - is about.
Spot on
But isn't that what grammar is? Spelling? Things like Aristotle's Incline? These are also tools to make the writing into a form that is easier to read and understand. That's what I'm looking for, not a formula, but a tool to enable ease for the reader. White space needs clarity and definition that makes it easier to understand how to use the tools to create that effect.
I'm not being obstreperous, I'm looking for clarity, and having searched high and low and found only puffs of smoke and mirrors hidden down dark alleys ... well, I find the journey to be convoluted and misrepresented. Fiction isn't an essay, so the definition of a paragraph for an essay is necessarily different. I want the same type of definition we give to things like structure, beginning with the simplicity of 'beginning, middle, end' and going up to the more complex definitions (no more examples of these, I promise). I want to find the first piece of the puzzle so I can then build on it to make the best use of the words I'm using to influence the reader without giving them eye-strain, or worse.
I can't really talk about scene structure or story structure - like all of us, I'm still learning. (Until two minutes ago, I'd never heard of 'Aristotle's Incline'.) But rules of grammar and spelling are conventions that must be bent and broken if we're to write effective fiction. Characters never speak in grammatically pure English, and the most technically clear way of writing something is not always the most emotional way of writing it.

At the sentence and paragraph level, I haven't found any better resource than Dona Hickey's Developing a Written Voice. It's specifically about how you structure your sentences, your paragraphs, select your words, how to use and effectively break rules of grammar... If you're looking for clarity, she is simply b****y excellent. She provides an exhaustive and systematic breakdown of rhetorical tools and the effects they have on how the written voice sounds, and backs them up with examples and exercises. Have a look at this review if you've not previously come across this book, then try to find a copy. (It's not available in ebook form, unfortunately.)

I think it's valuable to learn the rules. Put them at the bedrock of your writing. Then be ready to break them with abandon if they're not producing the effect you want from your writing. Following the rules makes your writing trend towards sameness: the more strict you are about your grammar, spelling, scene structure, story arc, the more similar your work will be to another author who follows the same rules. Breaking the rules is where individuality lies. Of course, the art to writing lies in finding the balance between following the rules that make your work understandable, and following your own rules that make it challenging!

(Of course, my personal opinion.)
Sorry, Dan, but that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for non-academic, practical applications/explanations. There is one, I know there is, because:
A sentence has a structure, with an opening subject, an action, and an object (simplest version, built on from that state). A sentence can be played with to create a power position either at start or end. If it's in the middle, the power is dissipated due to the build up and wind down being on either side.
A paragraph is a similar animal. It needs a hook, a central area (or arena), and an end-point. One of these positions can be a power point, with the same effects as the sentence. The beginning hook can be the power that draws the eye on, the ending power play can shock or evoke other emotions. If it's in the middle, the power is dissipated (it can be done deliberately to good effect).
A scene has an opening gambit, a hook, that leads into the action, and winds up with a defined end. One of these positions will have the power play, usually the end, to keep the reader going, but the hook can be just as compelling. If it's in the middle, the power is softened (okay, dissipated).
If chapters of scenes are done, the scenes build in the same manner. The first scene has a big hook, and the last scene is the big payoff for the chapter. The middle is the muddle that leads to the big flourish at the end.
A story is the same. It starts with a hook, goes through a series of setups and payoffs until the final big payoff at the end.
There's a pattern, but that doesn't mean it's a formula.

However, I have yet to find a good explanation for fiction-based paragraph structure (making white-space). I'd like some backup so when I give an example to the non-English speaker, I can show evidence, that it's not just my opinion, but something that empowers the writing (as well as making it easier to read - it was a long read with no effective spacing).
I like simple; like a simple sentence structure, it can be built on from that basic state.
I'll keep looking.
Thanks, everyone.
I don't think there are any rules when it comes to writing other than the one that says don't upset your reader or make things difficult for them. The great writers do things their way and then others examine their technique and think they can identify rules. It's kind of a chicken and egg thing. If something reads well to you then all you can do is hope readers agree. Craft is undoubtedly important but so is flexibility in its application.
I understand why you're looking for this @CageSage and for who, but I can't say I've seen anything written sorry, but this video touches on white space when he talks of 2+2: , not really paragraphs though.
It's interesting to see it broken down in that way, @CageSage

Personally, I think the finer aspects of crafting and technique really come into their own when revising and redrafting. If a certain chapter isn't working, or the story has a saggy middle, or there's something unsatisfying about the denouement, etc. The kind of guidelines/rules/whatever that you outline in your post can be very helpful when it comes to diagnosing and curing problems in narrative writing.
revising and redrafting
This is where it all started. I'm 'proofreading with an eye to editing' a translation from another language into English. It's frustrating for several reasons, one of which is how grammar in other languages translates to English badly. I can cope with that. However, the other issues and how to explain them so the editing process can move forward without 'changing' the style or overwriting the intent of the author ...
I've decided on a strategy using your graphic and have asked for a maximum of [number] words per sentence, and max [number] sentences per para, using the graphic as a guide. This strategy gives me time to do NaNo without panicking about finishing the edit/translation.
And it will demonstrate to the writer the purpose of paragraph breaks. :crossed-fingers:


the writer isn't someone anyone here knows.
It took a while, but I found the simplicity of what I needed [when I no longer need it, of course]:

Respect the concept of singularity—a single idea to a sentence, a single topic to a paragraph, a single purpose to each scene, a single, dominant central story line to your work of fiction.

Smith, Jim. Writer's Little Helper . F+W Media.
And then, of course, there's this:
RULE OF THUMB: When one character acts or thinks in the same paragraph as a segment of dialogue, there’s no need to attribute. Your readers will assume that the character speaks the line.

Smith, Jim. Writer's Little Helper . F+W Media.

yes, I know it comes earlier in the book than the previous quote, but that's what happens when you read a book back to front.
There's only one thing in the book I thoroughly disagree with, and that's a record for me - there are usually five or six for the good books, dozens for the 'meh' books, and I don't get beyond 50 for the others, which is quite sufficient. Not that I'm picky or anything, I just like everyone to agree with me.
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