6

If a person is giving instructions to separate individuals and it's all spoken in quotes, should the spoken words for each new person start a new paragraph or if the commands are connected to a single theme, should they all be together in a single paragraph?

For example, should this be in one paragraph:

Marc realized time was short. "He's bleeding. It's bad. Joan, go get the bandages from the cabinet. Steve, look for a pair of scissors so we can cut open his clothes. Beth, grab the bottle of Everclear from the bar. Oren, call 911."

or should each new addressee get a new paragraph:

Marc realized time was short. "He's bleeding. It's bad. Joan, go get the bandages from the cabinet.

"Steve, look for a pair of scissors so we can cut open his clothes.

"Beth, grab the bottle of Everclear from the bar.

"Oren, call 911."

I can't find anything in any style guide on this, so I suspect it's a matter of personal preference, but just as likely that I'm just not searching properly and missed it. If there is any general standard or rule on this, I have no need to pave new ground and would prefer to just go with the standard, recommended method.

1
  • The single paragraph version is nicer, but if you do go with multiple paragraphs at least give the first addressee their own new paragraph too: "He's bleeding. It's bad. // Joan, go get ..."
    – minseong
    Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 12:22

4 Answers 4

12

In my view, either is correct. The two factors that I would consider in selecting either alternative are:

One, how urgent do you as the author want it to sound; orders in a single paragraph signal urgency and perhaps confidence whereas orders in separate paragraphs signal deliberation and maybe lack of confidence.

Two, what do you as an author want to embellish the speech with physical context such as movement, posture, facial expressions, and so on; It is hard to do that in a single paragraph, and easy to add those factors within the context of each interaction in separate paragraphs.

A single paragraph speeds up the narration and multiple paragraphs slow down the narrative flow.

6
  • Thanks. I think this nails it from all sides for me. Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 3:17
  • Then, please mark it as accepted. Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 11:09
  • My only problem with multiple paragraphs is that it could be misinterpreted to be a different person talking at each line. In this case it's pretty obvious from the context that it's just one speaker, but that isn't always true. Often in dialogue, paragraph breaks with no identification of the speaker are used to alternate between two speakers. It generally doesn't work like that with more than two characters though, since there'd be ambiguity as to who's talking each time. Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 20:12
  • I agree that this is a problem but I think that the expressed physical context could resolve that ambiguity. For example, "Marc turned to Steve who stood alertly, waiting for his leader to issue an order." Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 22:56
  • 2
    @DarrelHoffman the punctuation disambiguates it. There's no ambiguity, but you're right that it's less obvious at a glance.
    – minseong
    Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 12:16
7

To break it off into paragraphs is to imply that there were breaks in the speech. If the commands were rattled off one after the other, it would make more sense to have no breaks. To break as you do would at least imply that the speaker did something such as look at each person in turn while giving orders.

4

In the above statement, the order should be given in a single paragraph format UNLESS the person issuing the orders is performing some other action between each order or the person receiving the order replies or acts in some fashion. In the above situation where your characters are in an emergency that requires first aid and EMS activation, someone with proper training should be keeping their immediate attention on the victim (vic) and issuing the orders in a firm, uninterrupted voice, which would best be written in a paragraph (The purpose for this is twofold... first, they need to make sure they are heard... some of the orders are given may be to give people who don't know what to do... or are themselves panicing, something to do that is helpful, but keeps them out of the way. The second is doing so without pausing for back talk creates an illusion of command in the situation, which keeps everyone on a single plan.).

As mentioned in my comment, first aid will have some almost trained to give a 911 command first... When I was trained as a life guard, we were taught to identify the parents of children victims as the person to go call 911 and tell them to stay on the phone with the operator until EMS arrives, and wait in the office for further instruction before we gave any other instructions to anyone. The reason for this had several parts. First, the parent is going to know the child's medical history better and will be better able to inform inbound EMS about any medical complications they need to know about. Second, because if its bad enough that we need EMS, the parent is going to be the closest to panicing and that's not going to do anybody any good... and third, because if we're calling EMS then what the lifeguards are trained to do is make every effort to keep the vic alive until EMS arrives and takes over. And CPR, when performed correctly, is not something that will help calm the panicing parent at all and panic is not going to help at this point.

That's more knowing your subject than actual writing technique. Unless someone does or says something in-between your individual orders, keep them in a paragraph."

1
  • Thanks. My actual writing scenario is a leader giving final orders to his lieutenants before leaving for a may-never-return scenario. So the EMS example here was just a parallel for the purpose of the question. But I take your point on the reasoning. Thanks again! Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 3:14
1

I can vaguely recall instances where authors would combine all the instructions into one (ungrammatical) run-on sentence to indicate the complete lack of breaks, even natural pauses for breath.

On the other hand short paragraphs can also be interpreted as a rather punchy delivery, with a natural emphasis on the name at the start. That would be even more true for much shorter, almost staccato, orders, which follow nicely from Marc's first two sentences:

Marc realized time was short. "He's bleeding. It's bad.

"Joan. Bandages. In the cabinet.

"Steve. Scissors. We need to cut open his clothes.

"Beth. Everclear from the bar.

"Oren. Call 911."

The names could be followed with an exclamation mark; that would be a good match to how orders might be given in an urgent situation, barking out the name to get attention.

8
  • This started as a comment on JonStonecash's answer, but works better with a demonstration that couldn't be done in a comment.
    – Chris H
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 11:13
  • It wouldn't be a run on sentence. In English, it is acceptable to give orders with an implied "You" as the subject. "Go!" is the shortest possible sentence in the English language.
    – hszmv
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 12:54
  • @hszmv "You" is generally omitted from imperatives; I suggest it's also acceptable to omit the verb (but have spotted a missing "to" that I'll fix. The run-on would be more like SVO,SVO,SVO with no sentence-ending punctuation. I'm still trying to think where I saw it recently
    – Chris H
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 13:07
  • The problem is is that people do not speak in run on sentences (since there's no audible indicator of a stop). Generally, while dialog is given wider acceptance for poor grammar, that usually only extends to audibly bad grammar.
    – hszmv
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 13:12
  • @hszmv that's fair, though I think bolting imperatives together with "and" is natural. "A do this and B do that and C do the other" would be realistic and urgent, but I don't think quite right here - I wonder if it's slightly childish. But the main point (and the reason this is an answer not a comment) is the idea of very terse orders as short paragraphs
    – Chris H
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 13:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.