The End of the Line

Saltpan

Putting end-of-lines or newlines in the right place can be quite challenging. If you do it wrong, your story will suffer. Let’s have a look at this end of the line smell.

What is it?

When writing anything, it is important to put line endings in the correct places. A story or article isn’t a continuous flow of text, but a set of distinct pieces separated by pauses. There are chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences, and clauses. Each of these is delineated by a pause: a page-end, empty line, end of line, full stop, or a comma, respectively (I’m leaving out the semi-colon, which is in the grey area between full stop and comma).

It’s quite clear how they work, but it’s far harder to know when to use them. When to end paragraphs is one of the trickiest of these, mostly becauseĀ  a paragraph is not such a clear chunk of text. It can be a section of dialogue, a piece of description, a dialogue with dialogue tags, or a sequence of actions.

So when to end them? The answer is essentially: whenever you need to signal a change to the reader. The end of line makes us readers pause, collect our thoughts, then move to the next paragraph.

Without this pause, action can get mixed with dialogue, description with speech, and even the actions of two characters can feel muddled together.

When this happens, you’re smelling the end of the line smell.

Some examples

Let’s string together some text. First up, some dialogue without proper paragraphs:

“Please stop,” Jeff said. Alice replied, “Don’t tell me what to do.”

It feels wrong to have characters speaking together like this. There is a change of focus from one to the other, but without an adequate break.

Now another one, where description changes to action:

The canals in Venice were a prime attractions. As the ancient city slowly sank beneath the water, millions of tourists were trying to get a taste before the inevitable disappearance of this wonderful place. John stepped onto one of the bridges and smiled.

A third problem can be a changing from one time to another:

His father had always brought him to this place when he was young. Every week, if the weather allowed, then bought him one ice cream. After, they would go to watch the harbour down the block. Today it was a run-down diner.

And you can go on and on.

How to fix it

Whenever there is a change, you need to end the paragraph. Change of viewpoint, change of speaker in dialogue, change from description to action, and any other change where you need the reader to pay attention.

This is still open to interpretation, but that is why writing isn’t done by computers but by writers.

Let’s fix the examples from above.

“Please stop,” Jeff said.

Alice replied, “Don’t tell me what to do.”

Better, isn’t it. The next one:

The canals in Venice were a prime attractions. As the ancient city slowly sank beneath the water, millions of tourists were trying to get a taste before the inevitable disappearance of this wonderful place.

John stepped onto one of the bridges and smiled.

And the last:

His father had always brought him to this place when he was young. Every week, if the weather allowed, then bought him one ice cream. After, they would go to watch the harbour down the block.

Today it was a run-down diner.

And that’s all there is to it.

A bonus tip

There is one last technique I think is good to know. An end of line signals a reader to pay attention. A paragraph consisting of only a single line enhances this effect. This can be a powerful tool to grab attention.

Watch:

Sweat ran down Craig’s brow. They were going from door to door. Each one they kicked open then checked the corners, guns raised.

Then the bomb went off.

There was a flash, then a roar, followed by a wave of dust and pieces of plaster. Craig thought this was it.

Happy writing.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands