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I am getting confused about whether rules determine new paragraph positions or if it's sometimes arbitrary. Some choices seem clear cut, but in the sentence: 'I regarded...' it reads fine to me in both the first 2 options; it appears to me a paragraph could end in more than one place and the sense is virtually the same. Is this right?

Is the 3rd better? I feel it is and allows for intended meaning.

1- ACTIONS AFTER DIALOGUE

'Do not lose hope, the day is yet young my sleepy chicas.' I regarded the non-committal air of resignation before me. A fidgety Norman Dive two rows back was frowning at me.

'Stick to Science if I was you Mr Newman.' A loud interjection came from a group in the far corner.

'Is Dive still that trombone thing Sir?' I spied who appeared to be the central figure, a surly boy called Feakins.

'I’m the trumpet ain’t I?' Dive answered.

2- ACTIONS BEFORE DIALOGUE

'Do not lose hope, the day is yet young my sleepy chicas.'

I regarded the non-committal air of resignation before me. A fidgety Norman Dive two rows back was frowning at me. 'Stick to Science if I was you Mr Newman.'

A loud interjection came from a group in the far corner. 'Is Dive still that trombone thing Sir?'

I spied who appeared to be the central figure, a surly boy called Feakins. 'I’m the trumpet ain’t I?' Dive answered.

[3- BEORE AND AFTER DEPENDENT ON CONTEXT]

'Do not lose hope, the day is yet young my sleepy chicas.' I regarded the non-committal air of resignation before me.

A fidgety Norman Dive two rows back was frowning at me. 'Stick to Science if I was you Mr Newman.'

A loud interjection came from a group in the far corner. 'Is Dive still that trombone thing Sir?' I spied who appeared to be the central figure, a surly boy called Feakins.

'I’m the trumpet ain’t I?' Dive answered.

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    Welcome to Writing.SE! The formatting you were using - prepending a line with four spaces - is intended for code, which is why your text was wrapping. I've amended your post to use proper quote markup.
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 10 at 11:31
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    cheers. Was sending me mad! If I wanted an indent though how do I get that? Apr 10 at 11:42
  • I'm not sure you can, sadly. It's just a limitation of the Markdown system the site uses. If I do find a way, I'll let you know.
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 10 at 11:55
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I suggest you always start a new paragraph when you change: speaker; place; time; topic; or character. Consider if the person doing the action is also responsible for the action. If they say it and do it, shouldn't it be in the same paragraph, unless there is a time gap? If the person who says it doesn't do the action, shouldn't it be a separate paragraph?

Having said that, paragraphing is an art. You need to use line breaks to your advantage: what do you want your readers to link? Where do you want your beats? Paragraph breaks create rhythm. For example, secondary school students are often taught to use a one-word paragraph to create pace.

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  • Thank you for all that information. I like the idea that it is an art, but find in some cases it could almost work in more than one way and feels arbitrary. Your ideas are very useful though. Apr 15 at 23:08
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The third one reads the most natural to me -- except I would move "I spied..." to a new line, because "I" isn't who is speaking in the previous sentence.

As I understand it (I'm still learning this myself, though), there are two things to consider: focus, and chronology.

Chronology

What happened first? Or rather, what did your POV character notice first?

This is pivotal in dialogue. Did she notice who is talking first, or did she hear the voice, and then recognize the speaker? Did he raise his brow before words left his mouth or after?

Being aware of this ensures that the reader's attention, their "mental movie", moves the way you want.

Focus

Where is the focus in a given sentence? Did the focus change from the previous one?

When does focus change?

  • A different character speaks
  • A different character does something
  • The topic of the narration (the "idea" we're exploring) changes
  • A POV character has a random thought (I'm talking deep third-person narrative, where thoughts aren't in italics but seamlessly merged into the narrative, and it isn't explicitly stated that "she thought" -- a character may think "What an idiot" about another character right in the narrative, and it'll be a separate paragraph unless it's connected to their other thoughts and opinions)
  • Time or place changes (for example, "They arrived at the hospital" or "Five minutes later, she was still angry.")

This ensures that the reader focuses on the details of their "mental movie" you want them focusing on. And, most importantly, that there's no confusion about who does what to whom.

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  • Thank you for all that info. I felt the 3rd option read best too, and was also considering the extra break after ‘I spied... ‘ as it was a change in focus towards new character. Sometimes thought it really feels arbitrary, and sort of bothers me there is no hard and fast rule! Apr 15 at 23:04
  • @Bertbarber I know how it works in theory, yet I still catch myself breaking the rules while I edit. I mean, I have to be really conscious about paragraphs, it's so easy to slip. Paragraphing is difficult.
    – Arie
    Apr 16 at 7:41

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