Paragraph structure

Paragraphs are the building blocks writers use to construct their writing; however, that does not mean there is one, pre-determined way to create them (Trimbur, 2008, p. 541). Just as paragraphs are the building blocks of a whole text, paragraphs are made up of different elements that should be arranged in a manner relevant to their content.

Paragraph Elements

These are some basic paragraph elements. Every paragraph will be different. Some may be mostly background, while another may not have any background at all. Some may be mostly analysis, while others may have only a sentence or two of analysis. The structure of each paragraph will depend on its content as well as its role in the overall text.

  • Topic Sentence: Every paragraph should be about one main idea. A topic sentence informs the reader what each paragraph is about.
  • Background: Depending on the paragraph’s topic, you may need to provide background information or context to help your reader understand the topic.
  • Evidence: The topic of your paragraph will often be an argument or claim, which require supporting evidence.
  • Analysis: Once you’ve made your paragraph’s main idea clear and provided evidence, you need to explain how that evidence relates to your paragraph’s main idea and how the main idea and evidence relate to your thesis.
  • Transitions: Transitions make connections between ideas. You need transitions to create a sense of unity between different paragraphs as well as between the elements inside a paragraph. Without them, your writing can feel choppy, and readers may be confused why you’re moving from one idea to the next.


The MEAL plan is a straightforward way to structure body paragraphs, starting with a main idea and then expanding on it in a logical order (Duke University).

  • Main idea: Start with a topic sentence that clearly states the paragraph’s main point or argument.
  • Evidence: Provide evidence to support the paragraph’s main idea.
  • Analysis: Expand on your evidence and show how it connects to your main idea
  • Link back: Connect the paragraph’s main idea to your thesis. You may also see the L listed as “lead out,” referring to transitioning to the next paragraph (Walden University).

The paragraph below is an example of body paragraph from an essay analyzing the movie Black Panther. It follows the MEAL plan exactly. Notice how it starts with a claim; provides evidence for that claim; analyzes what that evidence means; and then links back to the thesis/broader point of the text it’s a part of.

  • (M) One of the most effective examples of how the film Black Panther repurposes classic conventions of the superhero genre is through its use of one-liners. While one-liners typically only serve to add comic relief or make a character seem cool (think Bruce Willis’ classic “Yippee ki-yay” line from Die Hard), the one-liners in Black Panther are also used as social commentary. (E) During the chase scene in Busan, as one of the villains fires a machine gun at Okoye and Nakia’s car, Okoye scoffs, “Guns…so primitive.” (A) This line deflects the stereotype of African people as primitive and redirects it back at the barbaric behavior of the European men who are trying to steal Wakanda’s resources. (L) Through subtle moments like this, Black Panther maintains the features of its genre that audiences have come to expect and love while also capitalizing on opportunities to do something more than simply entertain.

The MEAL plan doesn’t have to come in this exact order, however. The paragraph below has its main idea in the middle. It starts out with background information that links back to a more general concept and could also work as a transition from the paragraph before it.

  • (L) The satirical political talk show has exploded in popularity in the last few years. Following the success of The Daily Show, numerous networks have looked to mimic Jon Stewart’s format, with most recruiting former Daily Show correspondents: Full Frontal with Samantha Bee; Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver; The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert; and Late Night with Seth Meyers. (M) However, it seems these spinoffs (including Stewart’s old show now hosted by Trevor Noah) are missing what always made Stewart so compelling–his willingness to challenge both sides. (E) Stewart, of course, always showed a strong left-leaning bias, but he wasn’t afraid to go after Democrats as he did when criticizing Barrack Obama for his use of drones, the disastrous launch of, and his lack of control of the NSA. Stewart even challenged Obama during a face-to-face interview about his escalation of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. (A) In this way, Stewart’s approach was much more journalistic than those who have come after him. While Stewart always seemed broadly interested in challenging those in power, this new generation of satirists only seem interested in attacking political opponents.

The following paragraph starts off with evidence and puts the main idea last. This emphasizes the facts and frames the main idea as a conclusion based on those facts. (Since this paragraph finishes with a hard stop, the paragraph that follows it will need to start with a transition.)

  • (E) When asked in a 1966 poll, “All in all, do you feel the demonstrations by Negroes on civil rights have helped more or hurt more in the advancement of Negro rights,” 85% of white respondents said actions like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lunch-counter sit-ins, and the March on Washington were doing more harm than good. Other polls from the Civil Rights Era found that less than 25% of Americans had a favorable view of the Freedom Riders or the March On Washington (as cited in Izadi, 2016). In 1964, J. Edgar Hoover (then the director of the FBI) called Martin Luther King Jr. “the most notorious liar in the country” (as cited in Ruane, 2017). (A) We like to remember MLK as a beloved cultural icon who, through a message of peace and togetherness, was able to bring white and black Americans together. The reality, however, is MLK was a highly controversial figure during his life and was considered a dangerous extremist by his own government. (M) All of this is to say there was no golden age of civil-rights discourse where all of America came together in pursuit of a shared dream of true racial equality. Civil-rights struggles have always been controversial, unpopular, and divisive, and it is important to remember this reality when teaching the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

The way a paragraph is structured depends on its content and what you are trying to say. If you want to be direct and to the point, following the MEAL plan in order does the job. If you think your audience will need background to understand your main idea, put the background first. If you want to emphasize evidence or analysis, start with those. Remember, though, each paragraph should address one idea, and everything else in that paragraph should serve to support that idea and the broader focus of your text.


Duke University. (n.d.). Paragraphing: The MEAL plan. Retrieved from plan.original.pdf

Izadi, E. (2016, Apr. 19). Black Lives Matter and America’s long history of resisting civil rights protesters. Washington Post. Retrieved from protesters/?utm_term=.df66e7286f9e

Ruane, M. E. (2017, Dec. 13). ‘You are done’: A secret letter to Martin Luther King Jr. sheds light on FBI’s malice. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Trimbur, J. (2008). The call to write (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Walden University. (n.d.). Paragraphs: Organization (MEAL plan). Retrieved from

Contributor: Tony DeFilippo