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.

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