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I am currently working on a novel. currently two girls are the only active characters. I am curious if I need to separate the dialogue and action when one character is acting and another is acting but not speaking. For example:

Evie tousled her sister’s hair as she said, “You’re a mess. Did you remember to put on some shorts with that dress?” Maddy pulled up her dress and showed that she did. “Good. Grab your bike, let’s go.”

I don't feel this is confusing and I feel that it adds unnecessary spacing. if I am missing some rule or stylization please let me know. Thanks.

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The common rule is to start a new paragraph when the speaker changes during dialog or the topic changes during narrative passages.

The confusion here stems from the fact that when Maddy non-verbally answers Evie's question, she doesn't say anything. And since there is no direct speech, apparently there is no dialog. But that is wrong. Dialog is a concept that we have taken from drama, where it usually consists of words alone. But humans communicate on many levels, and verbal communication is only one of them. Dialog in novels usually takes this into account and adds descriptions of non-verbal communicative behavior to verbal dialog. And when non-verbal communication is so unambiguous and clear that it can easily be rephrased with words (here: "Yes."), it is in itself turn-taking in the two characters' conversation.

Your passage therefore represents dialog and may be broken into paragraphs representing the different "speakers" (or communicators):

Evie tousled her sister’s hair as she said, “You’re a mess. Did you remember to put on some shorts with that dress?”

Maddy pulled up her dress and showed that she did.

“Good. Grab your bike, let’s go.”

But paragraphs, as I stated initially, aren't just defined by a single speaker, they are also defined by a consistend topic and end when the topic changes. So when does a consistent topic overrule different speakers taking turns and combine their verbal (or non-verbal) utterances into a single paragraph?

Usually, when

  • utterances are short, and
  • they are embedded in narration.

Daniel Cann's answer provides a clear but incomplete example for this:

Calpurnia picked up Aunty's heavy suitcase and opened the door. 'I'll take it,' said Jem, and took it. I heard the suitcase hit the bedroom floor with a thump. The sound had a dull permanence about it.

What we have here is what you might call an utterance of the narrator that is unified by the single and consistent topic. This passage is not dialog, although it contains direct speech, but a narrative description of the journey of the suitcase from outside the house to the bedroom.

It is an incomplete example, because it contains only one speaker's utterance. Calpurnia and "I" do not speak, neither verbally, nor non-verbally. Therefore the example does not really provide the argument that Daniel Cann claims it does. But we can use it to create a similar example from Connor's question:

Impatiently I watch as the girls are getting ready to leave. Why does Evie always have to play with her sister’s hair? “You’re a mess,” she says dreamily, and I shake with suppressed urgency as she draws Maddy's locks through her fingers with a lazy smile. I'm just about to explode, when Evie lets Maddy's hair go and asks, if she has put on her shorts. In a haze of adrenalin I see Maddy pull up her dress to show that she has. “Good. Let’s go.” I can no longer tell who is speaking. They trample out the door and I am finally alone.

I'm so relieved, that I start to cry.

Not the best writing, but you get the idea. This paragraph is not about what the girls say. It is about them saying anything at all instead of leaving quickly. As such, their speeches are just part of the narration of the viewpoint character's distress and need to be alone.

Since the utterances in your example do not have such a unifying overlay of the narrator's thoughts, I would break it into paragraphs as dialog.

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Yes, it is completely fine to have the responses of different characters in a single paragraph, after one characters dialogue. I use this method of formatting all the time. Heres an extract from To Kill a Mocking Bird that demonstrates it in published work:

Calpurnia picked up Aunty's heavy suitcase and opened the door. 'I'll take it,' said Jem, and took it. I heard the suitcase hit the bedroom floor with a thump. The sound had a dull permanence about it. ~The start of Chapter XIII

I hope this helped.

  • Your example has only one speaker and therefore is not an example for dialog. – user5645 Nov 5 '16 at 15:33
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You need to think about where the reader's attention is supposed to be. You are painting a picture with words, asking the reader to build a picture in their head based solely on the words on the page. If your text hops about all over the place that gets to be much more difficult to do.

If you want them to focus on the substance of a conversation, you probably want to avoid interpolating much if any action because it will distract both from the momentum and the substance of the conversation.

If you want them to focus on action -- to follow the action sequence and its consequences based solely on your words -- you probably do not want to be interpolating any significant dialogue into that.

However, speech is sometimes incidental to action. In the passage from To Kill a Mockingbird that Daniel Cann cites, Jem's "I'll take it" is part of the action. It is not a piece of significant dialog that reveals character of advances the plot. It is just the sort of thing that people say when they are doing something. It is part of the action.

The reverse can also be true. An action can be incidental to a conversation. A person can respond to a question with an action rather than words, as Maddy does in your example. Essentially this is conversation by a kind of ad hoc sign language. The action is part of the conversation.

Personally, I would tend to put "Maddy pulled up her dress and showed that she did." on a separate line to visually emphasize that this is her response in the conversation. I think this would make it read more like a response to the question rather than a bit of distracting background action.

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