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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