Paragraphing in Dialogue

This is my response to Shard‘s comment on my NaNoWriMo Week 1 Update. I thought the question was a good one, so I wanted to share my thoughts on it with everyone. As always, please comment with your own opinions, it’s always appreciated.

Shard’s question:

I also learned that I am slightly unsure about matters of dialogue, particularly of paragraphing when the speaker doesn’t change, and whether or not to paragraph when there’s a sentence or two in between lines of dialogue from the same character. Blah.

I particularly like the “Blah” at the end. It accurately describes the uncertainty of such situations.

My answer is below, but I will apologize for the inaccurate indentations. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a bit difficult to indent only the first line on WordPress. Bugger, that.

Paragraphing is largely up to you. I tend to follow Randy Ingermanson’s advice on MRUs, which essentially means when the next person does an action, change the paragraph. So instead of:

“Person A talking,” person B doing/noticing something, “Person A talking again.”

You would have:

“Person A talking.”
Person B doing/noticing something.
“Person A talking again.”

However if you have something more like:

“Person A talking,” Person A does something, “Person A talking again.”

It’s usually good to have it in the same paragraph. Actually, it’s good to break up the dialogue with action.

If Person A does several things between portions of dialogue, it’s up to your discretion to break paragraph. Keep white space in mind (it’s easier to read smaller paragraphs) as well as pacing. How much time passes between Person A talking and Person A talking again? Splitting it up into separate paragraphs will give the impression of more time passing, whereas lumping it together will make it seem faster.

Also, if someone is talking a lot and their needs to be a paragraph break within their dialogue, leave off the closing quotations marks on the first paragraph such as:

“Long-winded Person A won’t shut up.
“And just keeps talking on and on in a new paragraph.”

You can also break it up with an actions or observation.

“Long-winded Person A won’t shut up.”
Person A performs an action. Narrator observes something about the environment.
“And just keeps talking on and on in a new paragraph.”

Again, it’s up to you.

As a reminder for those who recently turned their clocks back: Don’t forget to change the time on you NaNoWriMo user settings! I forgot and thus my word count from yesterday (uploaded shortly after 11pm) was considered part of today. Not that it particularly matters in the long-run, but a good thing to note regardless.


About Squishy

Writer, dancer, gamer, and admirer of all that is beautiful.

Posted on November 9, 2010, in Ishy Writes! and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Is it okay to repeat ‘said’ many times?
    And how much is “many times”?
    Thanks for this post by the way. I really needed this.

    • Dialogue tags are tricky. Using “said” is better than being creative with other verbs, and you should refrain from using colorful adverbs and adjectives. However, I’ll admit I frequently use the somewhat flashy verbs of “asked,” “responded,” and “answered.”

      Blair Hurley has suggestions on how to avoid overuse of “said” in her article How to Use Dialogue Correctly. Randy Ingermanson also has several good dialogue-related articles in his e-zine archive if you feel like searching.

      • Funny that you are writing this now. My next assignment for the workshop is actually to write a dialogue scene.

        Nice article from Blair Hurley by the way. Rule #5 is my favorite. I love using action or observation to show who is talking. Just don’t overdo it. You probably don’t want to do that for every ‘switch’ if you have a long dialogue going on.

        I read back some of my own stories, and I actually found that I use a large variety of techniques, even some that do not adhere to any of the rules mentioned by Hurley. In the end, if it is clear to the reader who is speaking at all times, and the dialogue itself feels natural, then it’s probably fine.

        And I agree, using ‘said’ multiple times is ok, although I sometimes use ‘exclaimed’ or ‘cried’ to indicate a more dramatic response. But you would want to drop the verb in a long dialogue and only occasionally add it in the dialogue just to make sure the reader can still keep track of who is talking.

      • Thanks for the links. 🙂

  2. Thanks for giving me such a thorough reply! I think I’ve been playing around with the two styles inconsistently so far, but mostly tending to contain small actions within a paragraph with dialogue. I’d completely forgotten the technique of not closing quotations, though, which I can remember seeing before.

    “I know full well that said is the best verb for dialogue,” Shard exclaimed. “I know it, but I still go out of my way to avoid it.” He sighed. “That’s what editing’s for,” he mused. “Shouted, cried, replied, added, declared, whispered, screamed, roared, growled, mumbled, sighed, asked, wondered, mused, conceded, argued, etc.,” he said matter-of factly. “And adverbs are a sneaky way to inject filler into your writing,” he admitted sheepishly.

    • Best form of filler ever: description. No lie. Also: using full names. Especially if you’re like me and just had to give a character a name like Katharina Reitz Engelin.

      If you read the Odyssey, you’ll see the multi-paragraph quotations. Your second paragraph in that comment just completed my night, thank you!

      • Glad to help, heh. A friend of mine (at Harvard, actually) and I had a lengthy discussion about long names as filler. I envisioned a world where the aristocracy takes the names of debtors as a form of taxation, and it would of course by social suicide to refer to one of them by anything less than their full name of whatever length. Characters that digress heavily, or feel the need to re-tell their story from the beginning to everyone they meet were also brought up.

        The Odyssey is the sort of thing (one of many) that I’m sure I would enjoy reading, but haven’t managed to read yet. Lord of the Rings is also on this list, but I’ve read The Hobbit. Mr. Tolkien certainly knows how to bog one down in descriptions…

        Oh, and I finally fixed my timezone. I had accidentally switched it to Newfoundland time, which is the only (pseudo-)timezone in the world that is shifted by a half hour in place of a full one. That’ll teach me to read things more closely!

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