Formatting Dialogue

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has a question about formatting dialogue in a novel:

I have some confusion regarding speakers when writing dialog, and when you should start new lines. The logic I remember being taught is that every time the speaker changes in a story we should start a new paragraph. Is that always the case, or is it possible to have a quick line from another character or speaker in a paragraph where another character spoke?

When I read a novel for pleasure—as opposed to studying a novel that does not appeal to me—I don’t want to have to work at it. I want to enter the fictional dream and not be pulled out of it by inappropriate diction, faulty grammar, or unconventional formatting.

The time-honored way to present dialogue in a novel is to signal a new speaker by beginning a new line.

Jane Austen did it. George Eliot did it. Mark Twain did it. The modern novelists I read do it. Combining the direct speech of multiple characters in one paragraph can be done, but even with the help of quotation marks and tags, the reader would find it slow going. For example, read the following conversation that appears in the novel Little Night by Luanne Rice:

The phone rang, and they heard Clare answer in the kitchen. After a few minutes, Clare came back in. She was smiling. “Was that Paul?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah,” Clare said. “He’s in the park, tracking an owl.” “He called to tell you that”
Clare nodded, her smile growing. “Grit, I think you’ve brought us luck.” “I doubt that,” Grit said, before she could stop herself.

Now read the same exchange presented conventionally:

After a few minutes, Clare came back in. She was smiling.

“Was that Paul?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah,” Clare said. “He’s in the park, tracking an owl.”

“He called to tell you that”

Clare nodded, her smile growing. “Grit, I think you’ve brought us luck.”

“I doubt that,” Grit said, before she could stop herself.

Writers of experimental fiction—Thomas Pynchon, for example,—don’t hesitate to break the rules; that’s what experimental writing is about.

Writers whose goal is to entertain readers by keeping them in the fictional dream don’t distract them with that kind of originality. They observe the conventions. The convention for dialogue is “new speaker, new line.”

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2 Responses to “Formatting Dialogue”

  • Jim Porter

    I appreciate your spot-on answer to the question about formatting dialog.

    Here’s MY problem. I have a problem reading fiction written by UK authors: it’s that *#)I#& usage of the single quote in dialog. I realize that UK authors have as much right to stick to the format(s) they’ve been reading, using and writing all of their lives.

    But as for me and my house, reading a UK novel is one that I, as you say, have to study, rather than simply enjoy.

    Odd that I write this on the day before Independence Day.

  • Lee San

    I personal like the conventional way of writing. It makes it easier to follow who is speaking and their action(s), in relationship with the other characters and or the scene. When the dialogue is clustered together, you spend more time trying to figure out who is speaking and to whom, especially if there is more than one character in the scene. I have seen where so called ‘amateur writers’ won’t even use quotation marks and expect readers to follow. On those special ventures of total destruction of the English language, I wonder what the English or any other language did to them besides provide a means of communication, why they have decided to treat it as such?

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