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Signalling a Change in Setting

Okay, pay attention: In this lesson, I'm going to discuss one of the most common mistakes that I see at the 7th grade level.

Let's see if you can spot it:

On Saturday I went to my cousin's house. We played video games all day. We also watched a movie on TV. On Sunday I stayed home. In the morning I did homework. Later I went for a walk with my family.


Did you spot the mistake?

That paragraph stinks, because the student has failed to use one of the most powerful tools in any writer's toolbox: the paragraph break. Properly written, that paragraph should be broken up into two paragraphs, like this:

On Saturday I went to my cousin's house. We played video games all day. We also watched a movie on TV.

On Sunday I stayed home. In the morning I did homework. Later I went for a walk with my family.


Why?

Why not! Whenever you make a jump in time or place—that is, whenever you change the setting of your story—start a new paragraph! That's a basic rule of writing. (Okay, it's not exactly a "rule", but it should be). In the example above, the narrative has jumped from Saturday at the cousins house, to Sunday spent at home. Why wouldn't the author signal that change by inserting a paragraph break? Failing to do so is a big mistake.

I can already hear your protests: "But Mr. Hall, I was able to understand that first paragraph perfectly. It doesn't need a paragraph break!"

And my answer to that, is this: Your job as a writer is to cut up the steak that you're serving to your reader. You shouldn't expect your reader to do it himself!

Don't like that analogy? Then let me say it differently: Your job as a writer is to make it as easy as possible for readers to follow your thoughts. And while it's certainly possible to make a mental jump from Saturday at your cousin's house to Sunday spent at home, within the same paragraph, it's more mental work.

Furthermore, if you continue to ask your readers to make such unnanounced leaps—that is, to follow your thoughts, without giving them a proper "heads up" each time you change direction—soon enough your readers will start to notice the extra effort it takes to read your stuff. And then they're going to turn on the TV.

Readers aren't always aware of why they like one writer's style more than another's. But they are very much aware of how much effort it takes to absorb a piece of writing. When we say that something is written smoothly, or written clearly, that's what we're really talking about. It's easy to follow, and therefore it's enjoyable to read.

A paragraph break gives the reader's mind a rest, and it also sends an important signal: "Hey, something new is coming up! I'm about to ask you to make a mental leap: from here to there, or from last week to this week, or from this topic to that. Are you ready? Okay, here we go!"

Readers appreciate paragraph breaks. So memorize this rule and never forget it:

Whenever you make a jump in space or time—that is, whenever you change the setting of your story—start a new paragraph!


This rule applies to letters, journal entries, blog posts, book reports, short stories—any type of writing in which you describe a series of events.

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.

Quiz