Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation

January 19, 2006
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An Excerpt from Noah Lukeman's latest book for writers
W.W. Norton, April 2006

Reprinted With Permission, January 2006

 

Chapter 7:

 

Paragraph and Section Breaks

(the Stoplight and the Town Line)

Look to the paragraphs, and the discourse will take care of itself.

—old maxim

Few people would think of the paragraph break as a punctuation mark, but it certainly is. In ancient times there were no paragraphs—sentences simply flowed into one another without interruption—but over time text became segmented into paragraphs, at first indicated by the capital letter "C." During medieval times this mark evolved into the paragraph symbol [ ¶] (called a pilcrow or a paraph) and this eventually evolved into the modern day paragraph break, which is, of course, indicated today by only a line break and indentation. The indentation we use today was originally there for early printers, so that they would have space for the large illuminated letter which used to herald paragraphs. The illuminated letter no longer exists, but, luckily for tired readers, the spacing does.

Today the paragraph break is indicated only by absence, which is perhaps why it is glossed over in discussions about punctuation. This is a shame, because it is one of the most crucial marks in the punctuation world. It is used thousands of times in any given book, and on its own it can make or break a work. Few places are more visible than the beginnings and endings of paragraphs: with their ample spacing, they are eye-catching. As such the paragraph break has an unparalleled ability to propel into the limelight, offering perpetual opportunities to grab readers with new hooks. It has the unique power to frame a cluster of sentences, to give them shape and meaning, to resolve the theme of the current paragraph and set the stage for the paragraph to come. Indeed, this is why some speed-reading courses teach readers to read merely the beginnings and endings of paragraphs.

The paragraph break is a big brother to the period: the period divides sentences, while the paragraph break divides groups of sentences. Just as a sentence must have a beginning and appropriate ending, so must a paragraph. Yet while the period is paid homage to as the backbone of punctuation, the paragraph break is largely ignored. This is ironic, since its role could be considered even more pivotal than the period, as it affects not just one sentence, but many. If the period is a stop sign, then the paragraph break is a stoplight.

"[The section break] signifies a major transition within a chapter, usually a change of time, place, or even viewpoint."

The section break (also known as the line space) is the most subjective of punctuation marks. It is rarely discussed, and there is not even a consensus on how to indicate it. In manuscript form, this mark is generally indicated by a blank line followed by text, or a single asterisk, or a set of asterisks, running across the page, centred and evenly spaced with a tab between each. In a bound book, it is usually indicated by a line space between two paragraphs, but you'll also find it indicated by a wide variety of symbols, from a star to some small graphic in line with the theme of the book, such as a miniature ship in a book about the sea. Regardless of the visual, they all serve the same purpose: to indicate a section break.

The section break is used to delineate sections within chapters, which might range from several paragraphs to several pages. It signifies a major transition within a chapter, usually a change of time, place, or even viewpoint. It indicates to readers that, although the chapter isn't finished, they can comfortably pause and digest what they've read. Make no doubt about it: it is a significant break, carrying nearly the weight of a chapter break. The only difference is that the section break defines a transition which, while significant, must fall under the umbrella of a single chapter.

Stronger than a paragraph break yet weaker than a chapter break, it is the semicolon of breaks. It is a big brother to the paragraph break, and a big big brother to the period. If the period is the stop sign and the paragraph break is the stop light, then the section break is the town line.

"The chief purpose of a paragraph break is to define and encapsulate

 

 

 

a theme."

How to use paragraph breaks

The chief purpose of a paragraph break is to define and encapsulate a theme. One of the first rules of composition is that every paragraph must have an argument or thesis, must begin with an idea, carry it through, and conclude with it. The opening sentence should set the stage, the middle sentences execute, and the final sentence concludes. A neat little package. This is easy to do when writing essays or academic papers, but when it comes to fiction or creative non-fiction, you cannot blatantly allow your work to progress so neatly, jumping from argument to argument, without being accused of writing in too linear a fashion, or in an inappropriately academic style. For example, creative writers are told to avoid beginning paragraphs with "thus" or "finally" the neat building blocks of an academic paper are too linear for the creative world. Which is understandable: readers don't want to feel as if they're progressing from one argument to the next. They want to get caught up in a story.

This leaves creative writers in a quandary: they must keep their paragraphs focused, yet without appearing to do so. When they open each paragraph they must subtly suggest a direction, and before its end they must bring it to (or toward) a conclusion. Mastering the paragraph break will help creative writers in this task. By placing one at just the right moment, writers can subtly encapsulate a theme and set the stage for a new theme in the paragraph to come.

Paragraphs are funny things in that they must be both independent and connected. They are like links in a chain, each complete in its own right, yet each attached to another. In order to accomplish this, the opening and closing sentences must inconspicuously act as hooks, propelling us from one paragraph to another. Indeed, the break itself must be thought of as a hook.

There is no comparison between a good paragraph break and a great one. A great one not only encapsulates a theme, but leaves you dangling, needing to turn to the next paragraph. Just as the opening and closing of chapters have hooks, so must you take this principle and apply it to the paragraph break. If a paragraph (like a chapter) ends on a note that is too self-encapsulated, readers can feel as if they've read enough and not feel compelled to read on. And it must be a two-pronged approach: ending a paragraph with a hook does little good if the following paragraph doesn't, in turn, begin with a strong sentence that ties into the previous ending. Consider the opening lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

Fitzgerald chooses to begin his novel with two single sentence paragraphs, a bold move. But it works. It helps to draw the reader in immediately. Notice how each of these paragraphs stands on its own, yet also feels connected to what follows.

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