Every writer has an enemy in the dreaded “wall of text.” Here’s how to defeat it with only one simple acronym: TIPTOP!
A “wall of text” is an intimidatingly large block of writing, particularly one with few or no paragraph breaks. It goes on and on and—especially when coupled with faulty or non-existent use of punctuation—becomes illegible quickly. The simple solution is to hack the writing up in paragraphs, but there is more to a good paragraph break than just taking an axe to a wall of text. As with any part of writing there are rules that, if you adhere to them, will make the reading experience a lot more enjoyable.
First things first: a paragraph is a self-contained unit of a discourse in writing dealing with a particular point or idea. Paragraphs are divided by paragraph breaks, which are usually a single line space or an indentation (or both). In online texts, the preferred paragraph break is a line space, as I have used between this paragraph and the previous. Online texts very rarely make use of indentations. In narrative writing the preferred paragraph break indicator is a new line with an indent but no line space.
The most important rule when it comes to paragraph breaks is to stick to TIPTOP. This acronym stands for TIme, Person, TOpic, and Place. If you start a new paragraph whenever there is a change in time, person, topic, or place, you’re set.
“The most important rule when
it comes to paragraph breaks
is to stick to TIPTOP.“
Very rarely will only the time, place, or topic change. These three, you’ll often find changing in conjunction. The person can change on its own, but often one of the others will change too. An example from Survival Instincts:
“Sorry, boy.” She started to walk again. An exit came up just after the surprisingly sturdy bridge, and she went down it, crawling over cars to do so.
Skeever planned his own route. Once down, he darted ahead, although he checked on her every few seconds.
They were quickly swallowed by New York City’s maze of buildings. They surrounded her, intact, crumbled, and everywhere in between. A brick building towered over her to the left. Tree branches emerged from its shattered windows. The row of houses to her right was in ruins and completely overgrown by an assortment of tall grasses, low bushes, and large oak trees.
This snippet has three paragraphs and two paragraph breaks. From the first to the second, the perspective changes from main character Lynn to dog Skeever, the time changes, and the place changes as well. We’ve gone from the top of the interstate ramp to the bottom, which took time and is another location.
From the second to the third paragraph, the person changes again: we’re back in Lynn’s perspective, looking out through her eyes at the world around her. There is also a topic change. No longer are we dealing with the exit ramp, the focus is now on the remnants of New York in all its dystopian glory.
“Very rarely will only the time,
place, or topic change. The person
can change on its own, but often
one of the others will change too.“
The most important reasons to break paragraphs at TIPTOP points are focus, simplicity, and dramatic effect. If every paragraph is about a single subject, readers will never have to figure out what they are reading and—when it’s spoken text—who is saying it. This focus ties in with simplicity, because a good paragraph structure will often allow you to forego dialogue tags.
I’ll go deeper into the topic of dialogue tags in a future blog post, but for now, let me suffice by saying they are the bits of text that indicate dialogue. The most used (and it should really be the only-used!) is “I/she/he/you/they said.” If you always break your paragraphs when a new person talks, or the focus shifts to them, you can leave out all dialogue tags. Another Survival Instincts example:
Slowly, she reached down, slid the blade from her boot, and turned it around so she could hand him the hilt.
He took it. “Is that it?”
“The bare minimum.”
Even without a single “said” in the mix, you know who’s saying and doing what. Since I’d also established who the “he” and “she” in this scene were, I didn’t have to clarify that in this piece of dialogue. Without paragraph breaks on every person switch, it would have been a lot more difficult to grasp who says what.
“The most important reasons to break
paragraphs at TIPTOP points are
focus, simplicity, and dramatic effect.“
By breaking on TIPTOP points, we also tell the reader “this new bit is important.” If you do that over and over again, you build up momentum and tension. This is also why you can play with paragraph breaks a little. Take, for example, this bit of text:
Answering howls echoed through the entryway, and Lynn knew what was coming. She swallowed down bile. Memories wore her nerves ragged.
We never leave Lynn as a person, the time doesn’t change, nor does the place, and the topic is still the discovery of what’s coming, but by placing Lynn’s thoughts in a separate, very short paragraph, the announcement that she’s about to be attacked by wolves (again) becomes much more momentous. This is paragraph breaking for dramatic effect. If used sporadically, it can have a huge impact on the reader.
“By breaking on TIPTOP points,
we tell the reader ‘this new bit is important.’
If you do that over and over again,
you build up momentum and tension.”
There is another time you are allowed to break the TIPTOP rule: when it would actually hamper legibility. This occurs when the POV character takes in the actions of a lot of people or events at once. Technically, all these people and events would need their own paragraph, but it would disrupt the flow if you did. An example:
One of the hunters either did not see or did not pay attention to Skeever as she jumped atop the fallen animal and sank a spear deep into its neck. The machete-wielder, however, stopped dead in her tracks. The man named Cody managed to yank her back just in time to avoid a lashing of the animal’s trunk as it flew past, lifting Skeever off his legs.
This is a paragraph from a very action packed scene which already has a lot of one sentence paragraphs to ramp up the urgency. In a situation like that, combining actions into a single paragraph can help pull the reader back in after being hit with so much staccato writing. In this case, everything that happens revolves around Lynn as she watches people (and an elephant) react to something Skeever did, so it doesn’t feel discombobulated to lump everyone’s reaction together.
“There is another time you are allowed
to break this rule: when it would actually
TIPTOP is a tool, not a commandment. You can definitely play with it, but it’ll be a great boon to your writing if you apply it about ninety-five percent of the time. Then, when you break the rule, it’ll have an impact on the reader far beyond the actual words.