5

I have a technical question.

In my story, I've several chunks of dialog where one character's response is a grunt or a groan or rude sound or a swear word, or whatever, but is not in quotes. As a fake example:

William said, “Sweetie, raising greyhounds is not easy. But it is the family business.” Elisabeth groaned at the turn in conversation. She rubbed the back of her neck. William said, “Of course, you don’t need to take over the family business.”

Is this better as is, ^^^ shown above, a single paragraph, or should it be broken into three, as below?

William said, “Sweetie, raising greyhounds is not easy. But it is the family business.”

Elisabeth groaned at the turn in conversation. She rubbed the back of her neck.

William said, “Of course, you don’t need to take over the family business.”

I assume either is OK (but don't really know) and am curious if one is better than the other. Thanks in advance.

5

Your first paragraph is fine and best. The rule is to start a new paragraph if a new person speaks.1 In your case, you are just relaying circumstances of Elisabeth's reactions in relation to William's verbalized statements, but she is not herself speaking. The final source I give below notes the big, basic rules of needing a new paragraph (I've added numbers here for reference, they are bullet points in the source):

  1. When you start in on a new topic
  2. When you skip to a new time
  3. When you skip to a new place
  4. When a new person begins to speak
  5. When you want to produce a dramatic effect

Going through that checklist in your example, you are still on the topic of the family business (#1), have not changed time (#2) or place (#3), do not change speakers (#4), and then #5 is really a stylistic determination. Do you want to emphasize the groan. If not, what you have as a single paragraph is fine. If so, then possibly making a new paragraph would matter. In such a case, you would perhaps say even less to make the effect more dramatic, so:

William said, “Sweetie, raising greyhounds is not easy. But it is the family business.”

Elisabeth groaned.

William continued, “Of course, you don’t need to take over the family business.”

However, a verbalized swear word technically does require the paragraph switch, as then you are changing speakers. So consider these two examples, depending on how you relay Elisabeth swearing:

William said, “Sweetie, raising greyhounds is not easy. But it is the family business.” Elisabeth swore under her breath at the turn in conversation. She rubbed the back of her neck. William said, “Of course, you don’t need to take over the family business.”


William said, “Sweetie, raising greyhounds is not easy. But it is the family business.”

Elisabeth muttered, "$*'+!".

William continued, “Of course, you don’t need to take over the family business.”


1 Some sources that note this:

4

Despite the sources that ScottS cites, I believe this idea that you should use a new paragraph for a new person speaking is bogus. Paragraph rules are paragraph rules. You use a new paragraph for a new thought. A new person speaking is often a new thought, but not always. In particular, dialogue that is incidental to action can often involve more than one person speaking in the course of a single moment of action that should clearly be written in one paragraph.

Tom said "Hello, baby," while Harry whistled and Dick tipped his hat to the lady.

Splitting that into three paragraphs would clearly be absurd. As would splitting the following:

Tom said "Hello, baby," while Harry exclaimed "Yowza!" and Dick whispered "Oh boy!" under his breath.

1
  • I agree with your second example (well, your first also, but that matches exactly what I noted about circumstances not warranting a new paragraph), as it is a case of simultaneous speaking (and that is why for my final example that does split it, I noted that "technically" it should be split ... but rules can be broken, and done right, I think even a single, injected swear word could be kept in the same paragraph.
    – ScottS
    Apr 3 '18 at 0:24
1

Fundamentally, from a grammatical point of view, each paragraph has its own subject. Whenever you change to a new idea or complex of meaning, you create a new paragraph. When you narrate events, every new actor or every new action of a single actor is presented in its own paragraph.

Dialogue formatting is just based off of this priciple. Each speaker is a new actor doing (in this case, speaking) something new. So each speaker receives a new paragraph.

What confuses you in your example is that Elizabeth doesn't speak. But she clearly does something, and you can even view her groaning and body language as non-verbal communication. People do not only "speak" using words, but also using facial expressions, gestures, and other behavior.

For example:

"Excuse me, can you show me the way to the train station?"
The man pointed to the left and smiled.
"Thank you," John said and went where the man had pointed.

Clearly the man takes a turn in the conversation, so his reply is given its own paragraph, although he does not speak with words.

The events in your example can be told with switching subjects as you have done (William speaks, Elizabeth replies to what he said with a groan, and William speaks again) and formatted in three paragraphs. For this, the second formatting example is the correct one.

But you can also tell the events with a single subject and in one paragraph:

William said, “Sweetie, raising greyhounds is not easy. But it is the family business.” He paused and looked at Elizabeth. She just groaned and rubbed the back of her neck. William went on, “Of course, you don’t need to take over the family business.”

Note that there are a few changes. First, I mention that William pauses. This signifies that his turn in the conversation is not over. Also, we are not told about Elizabeth from her point of view, but we look at her from Williams eyes, that is, seeing what she does is something that William does. But for that purpose, we have to delete everything he cannot see. William does not know that Elizabeth groans "at the turn in conversation", only that she groans. We could have had William guess ("Elizabeth groaned. He guessed at the turn in conversation.").

1

Personally, either may be correct, but visually the second broken up option is better. It better redirects the reader's mental view from William, to Elizabeth, then back to William.

Breaking paragraphs does this, and as an author it is your prerogative, a new paragraph is a signal to the reader to reset what they are looking at (in their imagination). Our natural inclination, in a conversation, is to look at the person we expect to speak next, or at the person that begins speaking. After William talks, it is better to break paragraph and look at Elizabeth to see her reaction (in speech or otherwise), how she received that information. After Elizabeth "answers" (with action or words or sound), we should break paragraph as we look back at William to see how he reacts.

This is the nature of how we talk, people that watch the face of a speaker have far higher comprehension rates than when they can only hear the same speaker.

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