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I'm going through an editing something I wrote and am stuck on where to break paragraphs containing dialogue. I know I need to break when a new character speaks, but I'm not sure where to start a new paragraph when there is description mixed with dialogue.

For example:

He nodded. "Thank you for returning the bicycle. You see it was my son's and he would love to ride it one more time."1 My heart pained at this, and I looked up at my dad who seemed unmoved.2 I looked back at Mr. Houston.3 "Of course. I apologize I didn't give it back in time. I was scared."

Where is the best place to split this paragraph?

  1. After the first speaker finishes
  2. Between the two non-dialogue sentences
  3. Just before the second speaker begins
  4. Somewhere else?
  • You might want to wait a bit before accepting an answer; other people might have better ideas than me. – FlyingPiMonster Mar 15 '17 at 2:00
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    May I request that it be restored to on-topic? I very frequently see this very issue in the wriing of others, including established professionalwriters (and myself). The particular example is a good one for the nature of the question. – user23046 Mar 15 '17 at 22:48
  • @RobtA I agree. I come across this all the time, personally. Maybe the question should be edited to make it more generic? – FlyingPiMonster Mar 16 '17 at 1:31
  • I'm voting to reopen now the question has been edited to make it more general. Besides, it needs to be explained why do don't always have to break when a new character speaks. – user16226 Mar 19 '17 at 15:07
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Personally, I would break it after Mr. Houston finishes speaking (your first example). This way, the first paragraph is about what Mr. Houston said, and the second paragraph is about the speaker's response, both in his thoughts and out loud.

He nodded. "Thank you for returning the bicycle. You see it was my son's and he would love to ride it one more time."

My heart pained at this, and I looked up at my dad, who seemed unmoved. I looked back at Mr. Houston. "Of course. I apologize I didn't give it back in time. I was scared."

This is just based on the dialogue you've posted. There might be a better way to do this depending on the rest of the conversation. For example, if you want to build a bit of tension, you might split it into three paragraphs:

He nodded. "Thank you for returning the bicycle. You see it was my son's and he would love to ride it one more time."

My heart pained at this, and I looked up at my dad, who seemed unmoved. I looked back at Mr. Houston.

"Of course. I apologize I didn't give it back in time. I was scared."

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I would suggest that unless you have a strong reason to do otherwise, it would best be split like this:

He nodded. "Thank you for returning the bicycle. You see it was my son's and he would love to ride it one more time."

My heart pained at this, and I looked up at my dad who seemed unmoved. I looked back at Mr. Houston. "Of course. I apologize I didn't give it back in time. I was scared."

As noted by FlyingPiMonster, each concept should get its own paragraph, and in this case one concept is "what he did" and the other is "what I did." Beyond that, though, I think it's worth noting that combining dialog and actions within a single paragraph creates a kind of implied attribution, and that in conversations in particular, a certain back and forth rhythm is naturally expected, so typically each paragraph will alternate between the two speakers. This means combining two different characters' actions into one paragraph, or splitting one character's actions into multiple paragraphs during a conversation, can create confusion as to who's doing what.

Both of those factor in here, and that's why this sample works as well as it does despite the lack of any explicit speaker attribution (e.g., "he said"/"I said"), especially with the paragraph break suggested above.

In this case it's a simple enough exchange, and the shift in pronouns provides enough clarity, that you could probably get away with tweaking the paragraph breaks for pacing without sacrificing much clarity, if you felt the need, but when in doubt, I've always found one character to one paragraph to be a good rule of thumb.

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I have seen this sort of thing done in many different ways, in fiction. My informed guess is that it is a matter of current fashion.

In works from a century ago, when lengthy sentences and paragraphs were more fashionable, the place to break would be where the speaker changes. But in more modern popular fiction, where is seems that the few people who still read books have a limited attention span, the fashion is to break as often as possible.

That's essentially the difference between the two versions offered by FlyingPiMonster, above.

Aside: Presumably, the first person is a child, in the story. "My heart pained at this" is not really a child's emotion. He might be frightened, or blush, or just look at dad.

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You should follow normal paragraph rules, which are, essentially, that a paragraph contains a complete thought. Of course, this is a fuzzy definition. What makes a thought complete? A sentence, a chapter, or an entire book are all in different senses the expressions of a complete thought. Paragraph is a somewhat fuzzy intermediate division between sentence and chapter, and the trend over the last century has been towards much shorter paragraphs. In short, you have a fair amount of leeway in deciding what constitutes a complete thought and therefore a paragraph.

A complete thought, in fiction, can easily include the speech of more than one character.

Dan wanted to go to the ice cream parlour but Mary said, "I'm too busy," and Tom said "I just ate," and Jenny said, "I feel sick," so we went to the burger joint instead.

The speech and action of one character can together form a complete thought:

Mandrake reached into his hat, cried "Alaczam!" in a loud voice, and pulled out a large white rhinoceros.

Alternately, the speech and action of a single character can form two different complete thoughts.

Sir Roland came up to the castle gate, dismounted, and walked across the drawbridge.

"Where is my daughter," he demanded.

In short, the existence of dialogue is orthogonal to the question of where to break paragraphs. Simply follow normal paragraphing practice and break on a complete thought.

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