If you’re unsure about how many sentences are in a paragraph, then this post is for you. You’ll find out what the purpose of a paragraph is in nonfiction and fiction writing, how paragraphs should be structured, their typical length, and the number of sentences in a typical paragraph.
What’s the Purpose of a Paragraph?
A paragraph is a group of sentences that are related to each other. Most of the time they’re related by subject – that is, every sentence in a paragraph is connected to the same topic. Most topics require multiple paragraphs to explore fully, but each paragraph should, by itself, fully encapsulate a single idea.
Sometimes a paragraph will introduce a new idea without fully exploring it, instead providing a transition into the next paragraph where that idea will be examined.
How Are Paragraphs Structured?
Paragraph structure depends on whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. A typical paragraph in fiction will capture a single idea in the drama. Examples include: a description of the scene; the complete movement of the character (such as entering the room, or completing a fight move); the complete thought process of a character; the description of a single item in the drama (such as the journey down a road, or the description of a dinner party).
Sometimes a fiction paragraph is very short – even a single sentence or even a partial sentence. This technique is used to add suspense or tension, either by adding stark emphasis on what has just happened, or interrupting the narrative with a surprise.
In nonfiction, the most common type of paragraph is the topic-sentence paragraph, which opens with introductory material related to the subject before transitioning into the supporting details. This sort of paragraph will typically have three main sections, introduction, support (or body), and conclusion.
How Many Sentences Are In A Paragraph?
The length of a paragraph varies depending on what style you’re writing in.
Because fiction writing varies so much based on style, it’s difficult to give a single answer to this question for all of fiction. But there are some guidelines we can consider.
First, the general style of fiction writing in recent decades has continued to move toward brevity. Many classics of English literature, such as the works of Charles Dickens, contain very long, descriptive paragraphs.
Others, such as the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, move forward at a leisurely pace, giving ample description not only of the scene but also of the character’s thoughts and even backstory.
Today, fiction writing is considered best when it’s brief. The reader is expected to use their imagination to “fill in the details” of a scene, which the author will describe in a few well-chosen sentences that provide more of a feel for the scene rather than every specific detail.
You certainly can provide specific details, but only do so if that detail is crucial to the story. In modern fiction writing, highlighting a detail is a signal to the reader that they need to remember that detail for later.
The move toward brevity also demands shorter paragraphs, so when you consider which idea your paragraph is going to encapsulate, think smaller rather than larger. If, for example, your narrative requires you to describe an entire school gymnasium during a basketball game in some detail, don’t try to fit it all into a single, massive paragraph.
Have one paragraph to describe the overall look and feel of the gym, a second to describe the two teams playing and a third to describe the cheering fans.
A good rule of thumb is to limit your fiction paragraphs to four or five sentences. It’s fine to occasionally stretch to six or even seven, but do so sparingly. Also try to mix up the narrative with shorter sentences as well, especially when your scene is high-tension and demands a brisk pace.
Dialog is an important part of fiction, and it obeys its own rules for paragraphs. In general, always start a new paragraph when a new person begins to speak. Sometimes dialog paragraphs can last for several sentences, but more often each one is short – often one or two sentences.
A line of dialog is sometimes only one word! Even so, you still need to start a new paragraph when the next person begins to speak.
You can combine dialog and narrative into a single paragraph, but only if the two ideas are directly connected. Usually the narrative sentence will describe an action by the character who is speaking that line of dialog.
It’s best to have the dialog come first and be followed by the narrative companion sentence, but it is acceptable to reverse this if the action must precede the speech.
In nonfiction writing, the first sentence of a paragraph typically introduces its topic and subsequent sentences discuss it in more detail, followed if necessary by a concluding sentence.
As in fiction the number of sentences in a typical paragraph can vary based on the style or subject matter of the writing. Nonfiction can generally get away with longer paragraphs than fiction because of the more coherent structure of nonfiction paragraphs, but even so the modern move toward brevity applies to nonfiction as well.
Think about how many times you’ve had to read a painfully boring (or confusing) nonfiction work. One of the biggest reasons readers get lost in nonfiction writing is over-long paragraphs that try to deliver either too many ideas or too many details supporting a single idea.
Because nonfiction very often is about the details, the need for in-depth paragraphs is real. But even so, it’s usually possible to break down a big idea into several sub-ideas and give each one of them its own paragraph. These sorts of linked paragraphs often don’t need a concluding sentence, because the subject matter moves clearly and smoothly from one paragraph to the next, but topic sentences are still very important.
Transition paragraphs should be short, with few details on offer. Their purpose is to reorient the reader to a new topic, but not to delve into that topic. A short transition paragraph – two or three sentences – is sufficient to set up the next paragraph, which properly explores the new topic.
When writing nonfiction be sure to study other works in your field to get a sense of what the norms are. Self-help nonfiction is very different from investigative journalism, for example, and nonfiction audiences are less forgiving than fiction audiences if you unintentionally ignore the conventions of your genre.
As a rule of thumb, though, start with six to seven sentences for a typical nonfiction paragraph. This is enough room for your topic sentence and the supporting details you need to fully expand your idea (or sub-idea).
On occasion you can stretch this to eight or nine sentences if required to get your idea across, but try to save this sort of length for key points or chapter conclusions. And no-one will ever fault you for shorter paragraphs, so long as they contain a complete and coherent thought.
Determining the right number of sentences for your paragraph is more of an art than a science, and it can be affected by your subject matter and the style of writing expected in your genre.
But if you can use the above rules of thumb for fiction and nonfiction you’ll be in good shape to build your narrative around well-organized and easily digestible topics which your reader will enjoy.
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.