According to the Free Online Dictionary, a paragraph is defined as follows:
A distinct division of written or printed matter that begins on a new, usually indented line, consists of one or more sentences, and typically deals with a single thought or topic or quotes one speaker’s continuous words.
The other definitions deal with the symbol or the verb, but I’m thinking of the formation of a paragraph today.
In school, many of us learned to write a five-sentence paragraph just so we had an idea of what it meant to group a conglomeration of sentences around a single thought or topic. Writers know that a paragraph can be extremely short:
Jesus wept. – John 11:35
Or very long:
Basically, a paragraph is supposed to get you through a thought or topic, such as the description of a hero or a room. Or it might detail the inner workings of a villain’s mind as he approaches the scene of the crime.
But when you find that your paragraph is discussing the details of the room and the scene of the crime and a memory of the villain’s childhood involving his pet rat…
It’s probably time to divvy up the paragraph.
There are reasons for this.
In our current age of web-based communication, many people have grown accustomed to short paragraphs. Look around on your favorite content-based websites. Large blocks of text tend to discourage the modern reader from reading every word of a paragraph.
This has, alas, bled over into fiction and books.
Unlike the five-sentence paragraphs that we learned to write in school—along with the five-paragraph essay—a paragraph in fiction has no set length, just as a chapter hasn’t. Instead, the writer has to judge for themselves whether the paragraph has adequately communicated an idea. Or if it has run on too long in so doing.
“How do I know if my paragraphs are too long?”
It’s not so much length as it is focus. Best advice is first to do a read-aloud check. Hear the paragraph coming into your ear. Are you having to follow separate trains of thought? If so, check your paragraph.
When writing a first draft, the most important thing (in my opinion) is to get the story out on paper (or screen!) and get to The End. Checking your paragraphs should be happening, though, on your very first read-through thereafter.
And if you believe you have a problem in this area? Ask someone who reads good literature and whom you respect to help you out a little. It is a true thing that a writer shouldn’t be the only editor of their own work.