Before publishing, hiring a professional copy editor or proofreader, or submitting to a literary agent or publisher, it is expected that basic story formatting conventions are implemented to help with ease of reading. Below I will outline the basic structure of a story, how to indent your paragraphs, how to start a new paragraph in a conversation, and how to use scene breaks to separate time, point of view, and events.
In theory, you can format your story any way you like regarding how you present your sentences, paragraphs, and scenes. It is your story after all. However, if you are planning on hiring a professional editor, publishing your story, or submitting it to agents then you will need to make sure your story conforms to standard formatting conventions.
What may be obvious to professionals familiar with book layout or the parts of a published book is not always easily apparent to some fiction writers, readers, or those unacquainted with the standard format of a book/ebook. When concentrating on your story, characters, and plot; which are where you should be concentrating as a writer; it’s easy to lose track of the required standard formatting. If these conventions are not adhered to then they may appear to be jarringly unfamiliar to readers, who are used to reading standard formats, and this may put them off reading your writing because the presentation may look unusual or unprofessional. As far as you’re concerned, as the writer you’ve done your job and in your own way you’re right, but when your story is complete it may be time to think of how your story will be received.
Not including preliminary matter or end matter (at the front or end of a story respectively), this is how your story should be arranged from the whole story down to its constituent elements:
1. Paragraph: first-line indents
An indent is an unobtrusive short space typically positioned to the left of the first word of the first sentence, in a new paragraph within the same scene or chapter. The size of this short space will be determined by the designer or increasingly an e/book formatter that will either adhere to a typographic specification or simply implement best practice. It is standard in fiction to have first-line indents placed at the onset of each new paragraph but not the first paragraph of a chapter or scene, which should be set full-out to the left-hand margin with no paragraph indentation.
The indentation at the start of a new paragraph makes it easy for readers to distinguish the progression of the writer’s thoughts and helps them mentally absorb the smaller blocks of text one at a time. Writers can structure the length of their paragraphs how they please. However, I recommend keeping the length of the paragraph equal to how long a reader’s attention span would likely be sustained. All paragraphs should have a different focus or meaning, from the preceding and subsequent paragraphs. If you have sentences that don’t move onto a new topic, but add to the point of the paragraph, I recommend connecting them to strengthen it. That’s not to say that every sentence will add something of value to a paragraph, as in some cases cutting out unnecessary or repetitive constructions may be advised.
First paragraph of a new chapter or scene is set full-out to the left-hand margin, as in this sentence.
New paragraph is indented, at an acceptable size, as in this sentence.
2. New paragraph for new character dialogue
When another person is speaking in a conversation, it is standard convention to start a new paragraph to indicate to the reader that the person speaking is not the same person as the original speaker.
Original speaker: ‘Isn’t it a nice day today?’
New speaker: ‘Yes, the flowers are in bloom.’
This also helps differentiate who is speaking at any given moment in time, which can get confusing if the same person speaks again after they have already spoken. In this case, do not add an ending quotation mark after the first sentence spoken, as indicated below. This tells the reader that the same person is still speaking. Only add the ending quotation mark after the original speaker has finished speaking and somebody else speaks or the narrative continues.
Original speaker: ‘I hate being at his beck and call all day.
Original speaker: ‘He doesn’t even appreciate the work I do.’
3. Scene breaks to separate periods of time, character point of view, or change in circumstances of an event
Chapters can sometimes reach great lengths, where events occur at different times and from the point of view of different characters. Without an effective break or distinction between these point of views or different times, the reader has to mentally digest a jumble of unorganised information concerning exactly what main event is happening, who it is being perceived by, and when it is occurring. When the reader returns to reading your story they could be lost.
Using scene breaks is a helpful way to organise the structure of your chapter so that it is clear, logical, and easy-to-follow for readers. But just how do you decide where to start a scene break in your chapter? It requires judgement, your editor’s or your own, and perhaps even friends can help you.
I like to add my scene breaks in when it is apparent that a period of time has passed from one set of paragraphs to another. Indeed, a scene may be considered to be a set of paragraphs following on smoothly from one to the next.
Point of view
Has the character whose point of view is important in a particular scene changed? Modern fiction recommends one character’s point of view per scene, and usually in the third-person (he, him, his, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs). There should be a good reason for a change in point of view, for example perhaps you’re trying to show the reader something new or interesting in your scene and you need another character’s perspective, or maybe you simply have more than one main character and their combined point of views are used to build the overall scene.
Are you now focusing on a different, yet related, event or set of circumstances in your chapter? Consider adding a scene break to separate your events. Too many events in a short space of time can be overwhelming, so it’s important to provide the necessary breaks. It can also help you focus on what is important in your scenes and chapters.