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Thread: A question about dialogue and when to start a new paragraph

  1. #1
    passionate dreamer WistfulWriter7's Avatar
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    A question about dialogue and when to start a new paragraph

    Hello people! I had a question about starting a new paragraph when a new person is speaking. I tried to look this question up, but I couldn't figure out the right way to word it. :/

    I guess my question is really when to start a new paragraph because to start a new one every time someone speaks doesn't feel right. It seems like it should be separated by character, not by character speech. But what do I know...

    I think it's easiest to ask this by an example so here are two passages to work with.

    Passage 1 Version A

    "That's not how it works, sweetie. You can't find me. You must not. Promise me you won't look for me. You'll only get your heart broken."

    I felt pressure in my chest and tears welled in my eyes. That was the worst thing she could have said. "Mom, I can't. Why would I ever promise that? I need answers. Why won't you explain why fire doesn't burn me? Why won't you tell me where you are?" I let the tears fall down my cheeks that I would have never let come down in real life.

    "You know why I can't tell you that. This isn't real. I'm not real."

    Passage 1 Version B

    "That's not how it works, sweetie. You can't find me. You must not. Promise me you won't look for me. You'll only get your heart broken."

    I felt pressure in my chest and tears welled in my eyes. That was the worst thing she could have said.

    "Mom, I can't. Why would I ever promise that? I need answers. Why won't you explain why fire doesn't burn me? Why won't you tell me where you are?"

    I let the tears fall down my cheeks that I would have never let come down in real life.

    "You know why I can't tell you that. This isn't real. I'm not real."

    Passage 2 Version A

    While I tried to keep my hair out of my eyes, Mark kept his gaze stubbornly straight on the road. Tension showed in the stiffness of his shoulders and his white-knuckled grip on the reigns. When he finally broke the silence he said, "I'm sorry."

    Instead if saying something stupid like "finally", I just looked at him and hoped he would elaborate.

    He kept his eyes firmly forward but continued to talk. "I should have tried harder. I just...I don't want you to think that Kristine and I don't care about you. We just don't have anything left to offer you."

    "I know. I get it." I didn't really, but he was trying so hard I couldn't be mean.

    Mark's face looked pained as he abruptly shifted the reigns to one hand and put his free hand over my own. He turned his dark brown eyes onto me and said the kindest thing I think he'd ever said to me. "I hope you do know, and I hope you don't forget where you came from."

    Passage 2 Version B

    While I tried to keep my hair out of my eyes, Mark kept his gaze stubbornly straight on the road. Tension showed in the stiffness of his shoulders and his white-knuckled grip on the reigns.

    When he finally broke the silence he said, "I'm sorry."

    Instead if saying something stupid like "finally", I just looked at him and hoped he would elaborate.

    He kept his eyes firmly forward but continued to talk.

    "I should have tried harder. I just...I don't want you to think that Kristine and I don't care about you. We just don't have anything left to offer you."

    "I know. I get it." I didn't really, but he was trying so hard I couldn't be mean.

    Mark's face looked pained as he abruptly shifted the reigns to one hand and put his free hand over my own. He turned his dark brown eyes onto me and said the kindest thing I think he'd ever said to me.

    "I hope you do know, and I hope you don't forget where you came from."

    I'm really having trouble with this so any advice would be great. Also, there is the option of Version C-none of the above/you suck at life Wistful. ;P
    Website: www.theeternallink.com
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  2. #2
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    I've shown my response below.

    Passage 1 Version A flows better than version B. My notes are self -explanatory re passage 2.

    You're perfectly right in your assumption, and the simplest piece of general advice I can offer is -same character - same paragraph. New speaker - new paragraph.

    Main thing is to aim for flow and clarity, and starting dialogue in a new paragraph usually implies it's a new speaker and not the one covered in the previous paragraph. Constantly starting a new paragraph for all dialogue immediately after a paragraph on that same character can become very confusing

    Another wee thing to look out for is that - as I'm sure you already know, but some readers may not - characters respond to each other's last action or last words, so it's preferable to try and end character A's paragraph with the stimulus of whatever it is to which we wish character B to respond.

    Keep a dialogue ending to the paragraph if it is the dialogue to which character B is responding. Keep an action ending to the paragraph if it is to the action that character B is responding - whether his response is by another action or by dialogue.

    Kindest.


    Hello people! I had a question about starting a new paragraph when a new person is speaking. I tried to look this question up, but I couldn't figure out the right way to word it. :/

    I guess my question is really when to start a new paragraph because to start a new one every time someone speaks doesn't feel right. It seems like it should be separated by character, not by character speech. But what do I know...

    I think it's easiest to ask this by an example so here are two passages to work with.

    Passage 1 Version A

    "That's not how it works, sweetie. You can't find me. You must not. Promise me you won't look for me. You'll only get your heart broken."

    I felt pressure in my chest and tears welled in my eyes. That was the worst thing she could have said. "Mom, I can't. Why would I ever promise that? I need answers. Why won't you explain why fire doesn't burn me? Why won't you tell me where you are?" [I let the tears fall down my cheeks that I would have never let come down in real life.Re this last sentence -see my final two paragraphs above re stimulus and response.]

    "You know why I can't tell you that. This isn't real. I'm not real."

    Passage 1 Version B

    "That's not how it works, sweetie. You can't find me. You must not. Promise me you won't look for me. You'll only get your heart broken."

    I felt pressure in my chest and tears welled in my eyes. That was the worst thing she could have said.

    "Mom, I can't. Why would I ever promise that? I need answers. Why won't you explain why fire doesn't burn me? Why won't you tell me where you are?"

    I let the tears fall down my cheeks that I would have never let come down in real life.

    "You know why I can't tell you that. This isn't real. I'm not real."


    Passage 2 Version A [This version is okay]

    While I tried to keep my hair out of my eyes, Mark kept his gaze stubbornly straight on the road. Tension showed in the stiffness of his shoulders and his white-knuckled grip on the [reigns. typo?] When he finally broke the silence he said, "I'm sorry."

    Instead if saying something stupid like "finally", I just looked at him and hoped he would elaborate.

    He kept his eyes firmly forward but continued to talk. "I should have tried harder. I just...I don't want you to think that Kristine and I don't care about you. We just don't have anything left to offer you."

    "I know. I get it." I didn't really, but he was trying so hard I couldn't be mean.

    Mark's face looked pained as he abruptly shifted the reigns to one hand and put his free hand over my own. He turned his dark brown eyes onto me and said the kindest thing I think he'd ever said to me. "I hope you do know, and I hope you don't forget where you came from."

    Passage 2 Version B - I've commented below on this version in case it helps you

    While I tried to keep my hair out of my eyes, Mark kept his gaze stubbornly straight on the road. Tension showed in the stiffness of his shoulders and his white-knuckled grip on the reigns.

    When he finally broke the silence he said, "I'm sorry."

    Instead if saying something stupid like "finally", I just looked at him and hoped he would elaborate.

    He kept his eyes firmly forward but continued to talk. Join these two into one paragraph. Then you don't need that 'but continued to talk' because it's obvious he is talking because it's still HIS paragraph. "I should have tried harder. I just...I don't want you to think that Kristine and I don't care about you. We just don't have anything left to offer you."

    "I know. I get it." I didn't really, but he was trying so hard I couldn't be mean.

    Mark's face looked pained as he abruptly shifted the reigns to one hand and put his free hand over my own. He turned his dark brown eyes onto me and said the kindest thing I think he'd ever said to me. And join these to make one paragraph, too. "I hope you do know, and I hope you don't forget where you came from."

    I'm really having trouble with this so any advice would be great. Nah! You're worrying too much -you are very, very close. Also, there is the option of Version C-none of the above/you suck at life Wistful. ;P
    Last edited by Bufty; 08-09-2010 at 03:43 PM.
    Everything yields to treatment.

  3. #3
    It's green they say FennelGiraffe's Avatar
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    It's fine to have narrative in the same paragraph as dialog, as long as the narrative describes actions (or internalization) performed by the same character who is speaking. You can break the paragraphs if pacing or flow calls for it, but it isn't required.

    Do start a new paragraph for actions performed by a different character, as well as dialog spoken by a different character.
    In a science fiction novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will use this to figure out the level of technology in the society.

    In a mystery novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand that one of those objects is a clue.

    In a literary novel, if I describe what's on a desk, the reader will understand it to be a metaphor for the protagonist's mental state.
    - James D. Macdonald, discussing Reading Protocols, 6 Apr 2009

  4. #4
    passionate dreamer WistfulWriter7's Avatar
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    Oh good! I'm glad I wasn't too far off. Thank you both!
    Website: www.theeternallink.com
    Blog: http://www.theeternallink.com/apps/blog/
    Final Pre-Agent Edits: The Eternal Link ~90,000 words
    "The Sentinel's Son"-Emerald Tales Magazine (Dec 09)
    "The After Picture"-Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You (Dec 10)

  5. #5
    The moving hand, having writ... AW Moderator Maryn's Avatar
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    The rule that works for me is that I cannot mix characters unless not a word is spoken.

    So I can have my POV character and those in the scene with him/her all in the same paragraph, but if somebody talks, new rules kick in.

    If Guy One speaks, only his actions, thoughts, memories, hopes, facial expressions, etc. can be in the same paragraph as the words he says.

    If Guy Two replies, a new paragraph is required. In fact, if Guy Two reacts in any way--say he makes a fist, or laughs, or if overcome with memories of his own (assuming we can enter his head because he's the POV character), even if he does not speak, he gets his own paragraph.

    "Hey," Guy One said. He arched one eyebrow.

    Didn't he see how stupid that looked? It wasn't Guy Two's job to tell him. "Hey."


    The new paragraph started before Guy Two said a word, because it was his thought. Two's thought can't be in the same paragraph as One's words.

    "Hey," Guy One said. He arched one eyebrow.

    Guy Two arched both eyebrows and said nothing.


    And obviously, Two's actions can't be in the paragraph with One's words, either.

    Maryn, hoping to help
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  6. #6
    Oracle of Poultry LauraAnnSwanson's Avatar
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    This is possibly my most difficult area of writing.
    I graduated from high school at barely 15 because they let me take college courses for free during the summers, and in jr high I was in gifted classes that got to be free range creative, and in college I was a science major... so I never learned punctuation and grammar rules beyond elementary level.

    I am really considering paying for someone to edit my WIP towards the end for punctuation and structure errors...
    Author, Mother, Gimp

  7. #7
    passionate dreamer WistfulWriter7's Avatar
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    Thanks Maryn, that does help!

    And SuthernYankee, I totally understand. I breezed through school and didn't learn much about grammar and syntax at all. I didn't see the point if I was getting straight As. I wish I knew then that I would actually want to know all those rules. =(
    Website: www.theeternallink.com
    Blog: http://www.theeternallink.com/apps/blog/
    Final Pre-Agent Edits: The Eternal Link ~90,000 words
    "The Sentinel's Son"-Emerald Tales Magazine (Dec 09)
    "The After Picture"-Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You (Dec 10)

  8. #8
    Sheriff Bullwinkle the Poet says: RJK's Avatar
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    There's another guideline that helps liven up your dialog when it is mixed in a paragraph with narrative. The dialog shouldn't be burried in the middle. The best placement for your dialog is at the beginning of the paragraph (Dialog - Narrative). The second best is at the end (Narrative - Dialog), or at both ends (Dialog - Narrative - Dialog). The worst place is burried in the middle (Narrative - Dialog - Narrative).
    Many times, the reader misses the quotes and doesn't realize the character is speaking when the dialog is burried in the middle.

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