Formatting dialogue: when do you need a new line?

Earlier this morning I had reason to look for this post from December, 2016, in which I talked about dialogue and reactions. In it, I said I’d be writing another one “soon(ish)” about when dialogue needs to start on a new line.

It’s soon(ish) now. (Hey, it hasn’t been a year yet. That has to count for something, right?)

I’m still seeing the thing that caused me to say this post was needed. No surprise there; the way teachers address dialogue in standard English classes (from, let’s say, middle school on through college) is sorely lacking in nuance and clarity, from my experience. They drill this information into students’ heads: “Always begin dialogue on a new line.” The missing part is “from a new speaker.” The way dialogue appears on the page is a cue to the readers about who’s talking. Every new line indicates a change of speaker.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. 

This discussion at Writers Stack Exchange is excellent, and hits all the points I think need hitting.

Still, I’ll write my own piece about it. It’ll be the same information, but presented in a slightly different way (because it’s me, after all). That seems to help a lot of people who benefit from seeing the same information from different sources. It’s all about the presentation, the register, the words.

It always comes down to words.

Right. Onward.

If a character is speaking, and that character does something (takes an action), there’s probably no reason to begin their next statement (quoted speech, direct speech) on a new line unless there’s an obvious shift in topic. If that character’s speaking for two or more paragraphs, you might not even have closing quotes at the end of each one! The quotation marks work together with the new-line formatting to lead the reader through the speech. As is said at that Stack Exchange link: “Don’t confuse the reader.” That’s paramount.

Look at this. (I’ve said it before, but know that I am not a writer. I’m an editor. My craft at writing is abysmal, but I can create examples that show what I’m trying to teach. They aren’t stellar examples of fiction; they’re not meant to be.)

“STOP!” Mary dropped the paper bag, sending oranges rolling everywhere on the sidewalk. “There’s a dog behind your truck!”

The driver slammed on the brakes and glowered at her, then stuck his head out the window. “What are you yelling about, lady? What dog?” He looked back at the rear tires and saw a tail. With a grunt, he heaved open his door and dropped heavily to the pavement.

“It’s scared, and it’s not moving!”

“Yeah, yeah, keep your pants on. I see it. C’mere, fella …” The driver walked slowly toward the cowering mutt, one hand out, palm down, fingers lightly cupped.

At least he seems to know how to handle a frightened dog, Mary thought. She stood motionless, so as not to scare the poor thing any further.

“C’mere. That’s a good boy. Whose dog are you, anyway?” The driver knelt by the shivering animal and glanced around. “No collar, so no tags. What are we gonna do with you?

“Hey, lady, anything in that bag this guy might eat? He looks pretty hungry to me.”

All right. We have two speakers, Mary and the driver. Everything goes pretty much as we’d expect, with each person’s speech beginning a new line to indicate the change. The first exception occurs in the second paragraph, where the driver’s utterance is sandwiched between actions. There’s no good reason to break the dialogue out onto its own line; we know who’s acting, and it’s clear that same person is speaking; the second action follows naturally from the first and the speech, so the paragraph is cohesive. Readers are very unlikely to be confused by that.

Then we’re back to what we expect, with new paragraphs for each change of speaker (including Mary’s internal dialogue, her thoughts), until we get to the last two paragraphs. There, the driver is first addressing the dog. Then he changes direction and speaks to Mary directly (“Hey, lady”). That warrants a new paragraph to indicate the shift in direction. Notice that there are no closing quotation marks after “with you” in the penultimate paragraph. That’s because the speaker’s not changing; it’s still the truck driver’s speech. The change is in focus, in direction. He’s no longer addressing the dog, but Mary. However, it’s still his speech; the lack of quotation marks after
“with you?” indicates to the reader that there is no change of speaker for the last quoted (direct) speech. We still begin with opening quotes, though, because–it’s still speech, and we’re still quoting it.

Start a new paragraph when the speaker changes. It’s perfectly legal in fiction writing to put quoted speech in the same paragraph as actions, if the actions and speech are of the same character and they flow naturally as a unit.

Above all, don’t confuse the reader.

16 thoughts on “Formatting dialogue: when do you need a new line?

  1. Is there anyone who will read just two paragraphs of mine and tell me what they think I ought to do? I’ve now just finished my second Speculative Fiction, using rules I learned at school. It seems that EVERYTHING I’ve done is wrong. I need to talk to someone. Please help. Asking Google gets me conflicting answers, that can be absolute opposites. Mike Edmonds.


    1. Mike, what I present here is the standard method of dialogue formatting. I don’t know what you were taught, but I do know that often teachers are mistaken. (I was one. I can say that.) Everything I write about here on the blog is standard for American grammar, usage, and mechanics (spelling and punctuation) unless I specify otherwise. You’re right that Google can be a disaster; you need to know which sites to trust and which to ignore.


  2. “Is the Scooby gang a metaphor for drugs?” Mark asked.

    Mary nodded. “That was my understanding.”


    “Is the Scooby gang a metaphor for drugs?” Mark asked.
    Mary nodded.
    “That was my understanding.”

    Which is correct?


    1. There’s no need to put Mary’s speech on a new line. You’ve made it clear with her action that she’s the speaker.


    2. There shouldn’t be a space in between lines unless there is a break or your showing what your reader is reading (Like your showing the article they are reading. And you want to show your readers what’s on it.)
      Chapter 1.
      “Is the Scooby gang a metaphor for drugs?” Mark Asked.
      Mary nodded. “That was my understanding.”
      First line is always never indented if is first line after a break or a beginning of a chapter.
      By the way I think this would sound better.
      “Is the Scooby gang a metaphor for drugs?” Mark wondered.
      Mary nodded. “That was my understanding.”


      1. I disagree about spacing. A new line means a space has been placed after the old one, inserting a blank line. This is standard manuscript formatting.

        First-line indenting is a design choice, as is block formatting. Neither is better, only different.

        You are free to prefer whatever you wish. Be aware that a professional editor may well have different preferences and be able to provide reasons for them.


    3. I messed up. In regard to what I meant about showing what your reader is reading I meant to say to show something your character is reading and you want to show that to a reader. An example:
      Your main protagonist is reading from a newspaper. Let’s say you what to specifically show what it is their reading.
      Mark read the article on the weather which read:
      “Todays forecast is looking good. More updates soon.”
      This is not a good example, but works and I have deadlines to meet so I do not have a lot of time to provide clearly.
      Hope you’ll understand.


  3. Jorie, her little sister, was twirling around in her little red dress singing, “The festival, the festival, we’re going to the festival!” over and over again.
    Kaia’s mother stepped back to examine her work. “Oh! Don’t you look Wonderful!” And she did.

    Is there anything wrong with this?


      1. “Oh, dear!” cried Chloe’s mother. Kayla spinned around to her friend on the floor.
        Is this grammatically correct?


      2. Grammatically, the past tense of “spin” is “spun.” Aside from that, I would tend toward separating the speech and the reaction by a line space. It never hurts to err on the side of clarity.


  4. “Oh, dear!” cried Chloe’s mother. Chloe spinned around to see her friend lying on the floor.

    Do you think “Chloe spinned around to see her friend lying on the floor” should be moved to the second line?


    1. If I were editing it, yes, I would put her reaction on the next line.

      Also, I would correct “spinned” to “spun,” which is the past tense of “spin.”


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