Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Paragraphing for Dialogue

Alicia says:
I'm wary of dialogue paragraphs that end with the action. For example:

She said, "I am not going with you. I'm staying here for Christmas." She picked up her fork and pretended to study it.


To me, the action sounds anticlimatic, especially since if it came first, we'd read the quote differently-- we'd realize she's pretending to study the fork in order to seem nonchalant as she makes her announcements. That is, with the fork action first, we're going to know as we read what she says that it's not quite a defiant declaration of independence.

Sometimes the action actually has to take place after the speech, as it is the fruition of the speech:

She said, "I am not going with you. I hate Christmas!" She looked wildly around, saw the wrapped gift near the open door, picked it up and threw it off the porch into the snow.


So I'd say, think about why you're putting what you're putting first first, and remember that means another element comes last in the paragraph. Imagine yourself as a reader-- what nuance will the placement create? Try switching it and see if it makes a difference.

I just read a mystery novel where the author, in two-person conversation scenes, kept putting the action of one character at the end of the speech of the other:

Like (making up the example)
She said, "I'm not going to your house for Christmas. That's it. No argument." He stared at her, wondering what happened to his compliant little girlfriend.


That's likely to confuse the reader, because we assume that the identified speaker is responsible for the action as well as the speech in the paragraph. So start another paragraph for him. Flesh out each paragraph if needed for length:

Deliberately, Mary shoved the needle into her crewelwork and then yanked it out. She said, "I'm not going to your house for Christmas. That's it. No argument."

He stared at her, wondering what happened to his compliant little girlfriend. "No argument? What do you mean? ThatI don't have any say in this?"

She didn't look up at him. She just bit off the end of her thread and tied it with quick, jerky movements. Finally she said, "Right. You don't have any say in this."


Vicki said...

Great post! Actually it's a great blog all together. I'm adding you to my links on mine.

Anonymous said...

Very educational. Thank you for this blog.

Um, one point on this post - it doesn't render correctly in Firefox, and it isn't formatted well in IE 6. Something about the font, maybe?

Anonymous said...

I think it's just a margin issue--
let me fix and see if it works better.

Jude Mason said...

Great post! You're stating an obvious that's missed by so many authors. Thanks so much.

Edittorrent said...

Hi Dave,

Alicia's post picked up some random non-blogger html from somewhere. We're not sure how that happened, but the code has been cleaned and so the post should load properly now. It wasn't your browser. It was our post.

Sorry about that!
And thanks for letting us know!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for cleaning it up - it's now as lovely as the rest of your blog. ;-)

Saskia Walker said...

These are such great examples, really helpful, thank you.

If I picked up a novel that had the action of one character after the speech of another, I'd have to give up on it. These things are so important.

Anonymous said...

Here's where I get confused. If character 1 speaks, 2 reacts and 1 speaks again. Such as.

Sam is speaking.

"I love Top Chef." Phoebe raised an eyebrow at him. "I mean it. I watch every week."

Should that be three paragraphs or one?