Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Paragraphing Dialogue, Another Opinion

I just finished reading my Co-Queen's excellent post on paragraphs with dialogue, and she has inspired me to riff on this topic. I agree with what she said except for one small detail. You see, I'm more wary of dialogue that comes at the end of a paragraph.

One of the most fundamental rules for paragraphing dialogue is this: Begin a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. Like me, you may have learned that rule in your fifth grade English class. It's pretty basic stuff. And yet, my slush pile is replete with paragraphs containing multiple speakers, so I know there must be confusion on this topic.

Consider this made-up example:

"I'm not going to your mother's house for Christmas." Mary picked up her fork, set it back down, then smoothed the tablecloth as she waited for some response from John. "But she's expecting us."

The reason for the rule is probably made obvious by the example. We all assume that last bit of dialogue is spoken by Mary, right? And you'd probably be a little muddled if the next line in the narrative suggested that John was the speaker. Separating speakers, one per paragraph, makes it easier for the reader to track the conversation. It provides an obvious visual cue -- Hey reader! You see this here paragraph indent? That means something is changing here! So look sharp!

So, rule the first: New speaker, new paragraph.

Rule the second: You're generally better off putting the dialogue first.

Alicia talked to you about an exception to that rule. At least, I consider it to be an exception, but I might state the exception a little differently: when clarity requires the action to precede the dialogue, then the action should precede the dialogue. In all other cases, put the dialogue first.

There are three reasons for this. First, if a new speaker takes a new paragraph, then having a new speaker speaking at the end of a paragraph, after a bunch of description-action-interior monologue-whatever, seems like a violation of that rule. Well, maybe not a violation, because there are plenty of legitimate reasons to put dialogue last. What I'm really saying is that the new-speaker/new-paragraph rule creates a preference for placing dialogue at the front of the paragraph. This is the default, and shifting away from the default mode is permissible but should be done consciously to achieve a controlled effect.

Second, it's too easy to undercut the dialogue if you lay a foundation with some qualifying sentence at the front of the paragraph. Remember, dialogue has a high impact compared to other narrative elements. And good dialogue implies the emotional state of the speaker.


Mary threw her fork onto the table. "How dare you make that decision without even talking to me first?"

The dialogue implies outrage. The action of the fork-throw implies the exact same emotion. The action, coming first, telegraphs the emotion which might be better conveyed within the dialogue alone. Dialogue is high impact -- let it be high impact, without dilution.

This is quite different from,

Mary inspected her complexion in her compact mirror. "How dare you make that decision without talking to me first?"

Now we have complexity. We have a character fighting to maintain control (the emotional state implied by her action) but expressing outrage (in her dialogue). In this case, the emotion is not undercut by the preceding action, so it's not as much a problem to start with this action.

Do you think the emotional state is different if we have,

"How dare you make that decision without talking to me first?" Mary inspected her complexion in the compact mirror.

I do. I think the first example shows a woman fighting for control and losing that struggle, giving in to an emotional outburst in the dialogue. And I think the second shows a woman who vents, then tries to push past the emotion that triggered the dialogue. It's a subtle difference, but good controlled fiction never ignores these subtleties.

Finally, consider the basic stimulus-response pattern on the smallest scale (the sentence level). Because dialogue is high impact, the natural emphasis within a narrative will fall more on dialogue than on other elements. If the stimuli and responses are the bricks in your scenes, then the mortar would be things like emotions, transitions, interior monologue -- basically, anything that supports or qualifies either a stimulus or a response.

Within this model, dialogue is almost always a brick, and almost never the mortar. Because you want to make it easy for the reader to follow the chain of causation through your story, and because material at the beginning of a paragraph will carry more visual weight than material at the end of a paragraph (Yoo-hoo! Reader! Here's an indent! Look sharp!), the bricks are better placed at the beginnings of paragraphs.

Second best: at the very end of a paragraph. The reason for this has to do with the way the mind processes and recalls items in a list, and paragraphs are really nothing more than lists of sentences. A topic for another post, perhaps.

The worst: In the middle. Please, heaven, hear my cry, and spare me from dialogue buried in the middle of paragraphs! (Well, except that sometimes, very rarely -- really, very rarely -- there are legitimate reasons for burying dialogue. But I've run out of room to expound for today, so perhaps we'll talk about that one tomorrow.)



Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Great post. Thank you. I find it awkward to add dialogue of the same speaker later on in the paragraph.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the advice. It was most useful.

Adam J. Rickman said...

I try to NEVER write two characters' dialogue in the same paragraph. It's terrible--just terrible, I tell you.

Instead, I try to begin a new paragraph not only each time a new person speaks but also when they progress the scene through my POV character's "lense".

For example:

"Please leave," Jean said. He didn't like the attention.
Samantha stepped forward, raising a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. "You first, cutie."

or even without the dialogue:

"Please leave," Jean said. He didn't like the attention.
Samantha stepped forward, raising a perfectly sculpted eyebrow.

I handle paragraphing the old-school way. New subject, new paragraph. Without structure, everything would just fall apart (pun intended).