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I'm a beginner writer, trying to learn fundementals. I'm editing some work now and I'm confused about proper formatting of paragraphs with dialogue.

I know that you should start a new paragraph when there's a new speaker, but is that more in a back in forth conversation? What if there's actions or context before the dialogue like this example below?

Is this formatted correctly and does it not need to have the dialogue starting in a new paragraph because there's action before the dialogue? Any advice is appreciated.

Adellyn or her partner Theo had never ridden in a limo as luxurious as this. The dress their boss had insisted she wear rode up to an almost indecent height, forcing her to keep tugging it back down. “Remind me again why the agency chose me for this mission?” she asked.

Theo grinned, amused by her irritation, but replied without his usual sarcasm, “Well, you’re the only one on the team who looks good in a dress.”

Adellyn snorted unladylike and shifted in her seat again. “Seems like everyone’s forgotten about Fiona. She’d look just as good in this dress with her golden blonde hair and tan skin. Plus, she’s used to wearing them.”

4 Answers 4

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I think you're doing it right

  • You have one speaker per paragraph.
  • Who speaking is clear.
  • You are using action beats to imply who is speaking, instead of only using 'said' tags.
  • You've incorporated character actions and reactions with their dialogue -- that is a strong pattern to create an immersive experience.
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I think I would break out the first dialog line into its own paragraph. This is because that opens with "Adellyn or her partner Theo" and thus it's relying only on the second sentence to make it clear that it's Adellyn's comment. Action and dialog should hang together as a unit.

(Also beware of doing everything as action bit, dialog line. Mix it up a bit with naked lines of dialog, with "he said" if necessary to be clear.)

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  • Yes, mix it up. Match the "chunkiness" of the text with the emotion of the story at that point. One thing I like to do is to take off my glasses and look at the draft from afar. I like to see a diverse landscape of some larger paragraphs and short lines. If things look too boring or repetitive, break down some paragraphs, fix some lines. For non-native speakers, there's some tools like Hemmingway who will point what phrases can be broken down. Apr 17, 2023 at 11:55
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I would break your text into paragraphs exactly they way you have done.


One of the most common definitions of a paragraph is that it has one grammatical subject and one topic. Whenever the subject or topic switch, a new paragraph begins.

In dialogue, whenever the speaker changes, that is a change in grammatical subject: there is a different person acting. For example:

"Hello!"   [← speech]
"Hi."        [← and reply in two paragraphs]

In one paragraph one person is talking, in the other, another. The topic remains the same over the two paragraphs: two people greet each other. If only one person spoke, the same topic could be narrated in a single paragraph:

"Hello!" John said. Mary nodded in reply.   [← speech and nonverbal reply]
John shrugged and walked over to Pete. "What's with Mary?" he asked and took the glass, that Pete offered.

You would keep the topic 'Mary nods in reply to John's greeting' in one paragraph, if the next paragraph contained a completely different topic, as in the example above. If the next paragraph was another utterance by the first speaker in reply to Mary nodding, you might rather have Mary nodding in her own paragraph, to better signify the turntaking:

"Hello!" John said.
Mary nodded.
"You lost your voice?" John teased.

Speaking can be part of a more complex action and become embedded within one paragraph:

John shook his head in disbelief. With a tired sigh he pulled the gun and pointed it at Toby. "You better give me your money, pal." He smirked, thinking Toby would certainly give in now. After all, he wouldn't want a hole in his hide, would he? "You better hurry. I ain't got all day."

In this paragraph, the topic is John threatening Toby with a gun in reaction to something in the preceding paragraph. The speaking is only part of that action.

The grammatical subject can remain the same and only the topic changes, breaking the text into a new paragraph:

It took Toby a long time to make up his mind. He considered whether John really would have the guts to shoot him. Toby knew John to be a clearheaded person who thought in the long term. John surely wouldn't want to go to jail over a couple of hundred dollars that Toby owed him. On the other hand John seemed oncommonly cold and uncaring today. Something must have happened that had changed him. There was a chance that John really would pull the trigger.
     But Toby needed that money. He hadn't robbed the bank for fun. His grandmother was ill and needed the money for her treatment. Toby loved his grandmother more than he loved his own life, and finally he came to a conclusion. "You'll have to shoot me, if you want that money, John. I'm not giving it to you."

Here, the thoughts of Toby take a turn and he thinks about something else in the second paragraph.


But paragraphs aren't defined by their content alone. Paragraphs also have the function to help orient the reader on the page. If the page is a wall of unbroken text – of if it contains only one and two word replies of one speaker to another – the reader will easily lose their place and skip to a wrong line (or forget who is speaking) when their attention wavers.

Therefore, long content-paragraphs are often broken into visual paragraphs even if the grammatical subject and the topic remain the same. And therefore every now and then insert the name of one of the speakers in long stretches of dialogue.


And a remark that has nothing to do with paragraphs:

Adellyn or her partner Theo had never ...

I'd write:

Neither Adellyn nor her partner Theo had ever ...

Or:

Adellyn and her partner Theo had never ...

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Your first paragraph in your sample needs some work, as generally, quoted dialog should only open or close a paragraph. If there is physical action going on during the quote, it should be contained to the middle of the paragraph. If it happens before the dialog, then the quote needs to be contained entirely to the end of the paragraph and likewise if it happens immediately before.

While dialog is an action, it's generally considered a "Free Action" which means a physical action can take place (so long as it doesn't involve the mouth) in a near simultaneous instant, which is what a single paragraph represents. Talking with your mouth full can happen but distorts the dialog (putting food in your mouth should happen before you talk with your mouth full.).

See the below quote for the changes to your first paragraph:

Adellyn and her partner Theo had never ridden in a limo as luxurious as this. The dress their boss had insisted she wear rode up to an almost indecent height.

“Remind me again why the agency chose me for this mission?” she asked, as she tugged on the dress to force it back down.

Notice how the thought of the Limo and the description of the dress were separated from Adellyn and her adjusting her dress. Technically the line about the limo and the dress should be spread out (why was the limo luxurious. What does the dress look like... beyond it being too short? Describe both. Either way, the narrator would not be able to describe all three actions in a single motion, so they need some separation.

As others have mentioned, you seem to be avoiding the word "said." Which is actually a problem. If you want a non-speaking action (said, asked, screamed, shouted, wailed, ect). Then the dialog shoud end without a comma and a dialog tag and move straight to the immediate action. But, recall that the actions that happen with the dialog is best handled in between the dialog.

Finally, you'll notice I bolded "and" because or is illogical. The word "And" implies both joined phrases are equally true (Adellyn never had been in a limo. Theo had never been in a Limo) while "Or" only requires one of the phrases to be true (Adellyn has never and Theo has OR Adellyn has and Theo has never OR both have never.). Another phrase that could be used and would flow better is "Neither Adellyn nor her partner Theo..." This isn't answering your question, but it struck me as not getting the clear message across.

Observe the changes I made in the third paragraph

“Seems like everyone’s forgotten about Fiona," Adellyn said, with an unladylike snorted. She shifted in her seat again. "She’d look just as good in this dress with her golden blonde hair and tan skin. Plus, she’s used to wearing them.”

Or

“Seems like everyone’s forgotten about Fiona. She’d look just as good in this dress with her golden blonde hair and tan skin," Adellyn said, with an unladylike snorted. She shifted in her seat again. "Plus, she’s used to wearing them.”

In both rewrites, Adellyn is given a said tag as the actions happen at the same time she is speaking. The only difference between them is where the pause in her dialog is given for dramatic effect. Personally, when I dialog, I prefer to lead into the narrative break with the thesis of the quote dialog (everyone forgot Fiona), then follow up with the arguments (The dress would be a better fit for Fiona, and Fiona is more used to wearing this type of clothing and presumably more comfortable.) but there is no hard rule The second rewrite gives an interpretation of the first argument in support of the thesis is something that she has ready to go, while the second argument is more improvised to further assist her singular point, or defelect from an implied negative inference by making it appear more logical (the dress would be better on Fiona implies either a jealousy over Fiona being more attractive or accidentally insulting herself by implying she thinks she looks ugly).

You'll also notice that I broke up your first sentance. The action of the first sentence is the third person past tense form of the verb "To Say" (or "Said" if you want to put a fine point on it.) The subject is "She" or Adellyn and the Predicate of "said" is the entire quote. The description of how she said it ("with an unladylike snort") is an adverbial phrase, describing the way she "said" the quote. None of this has anything to do with the simultaneous action of "shifting in her seat", so we broke it out into a second sentence, to avoid a run on sentence.

You may also notice that in both rewrites, shifting in her seat is ended with a period, and not a comma leading into the next quote. Again. You can not talk by shifting in your seat, so the dialog is not part of this sentence. Rather, the quote is a sentence in full, with an implied "She said" since there is no indication that anyone has begun to respond.

When writing a dialog between 2 people (C1 and C2), you can establish a patter such that you can avoid running multiple said tags by implying establishing a back and forth pattern of paragraphs (Paragraph one (p1) is stated to be C1 dialog. P2 is C2 dialog, and every subsequent dialog paragraph follows this odd/even paragraph." However, you should not get into this habit as any new characters joining in OR third characters already present need to be accounted for and you can not imply conversations with 3 or more characters.

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