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I'm writing a scene where my narrator (character A) is listening and reacting internally to character B, who is giving a long-winded explanation of something. Though is is a problem I run into regularly. Some examples of what I'm talking about:

"I don't want things to change between us." Duly noted. "I'm just not sure this arrangement suits you anymore."

"Are you sure that's alright?" Bill asks. If he hasn't figured that out by now, Alex isn't sure he ever will.

I hope these sentences convey what I'm getting at. This is especially frustrating during longer paragraphs of speech. I was under the impression this was a hard no, but I've recently noticed it in books I've read and wasn't able to find any helpful answers online.

3 Answers 3

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tl;dr

Thoughts that are direct unspoken replies to dialogue need to be given their own paragraph.


Explanation

By definition, the narration (that is, the text you read) consists entirely of the perceptions, observations, thoughts, and comments of the narrator.

Often the narrator is a rather abstract function of the text, and then this isn't readily apparent. We can best understand it when we look at texts that are written from the perspective of a character in the story.

When I tell you how I visited the dentist yesterday, everything – my description of the events, the dialogue I recount, and what I thought and felt while I got my teeth pulled – exist in my mind and while I tell that story I tell you what is in my mind: visual memories, memories of what was said, commentary on what happened, what I feel today and so on. All of that are my thoughts.

Since all narration are "thoughts" of the narrator in one way or another, it is of course quite common that in a text dialogue, narration, and commentary by the narrator can appear alternatingly in the same paragraph. Here is an example from Alice in Wonderland:

     “Well!” thought Alice to herself, “after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (Which was very likely true.)
     Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end? “I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think—” (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) “—yes, that’s about the right distance—but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)

Here the commentary is indicated by parentheses, but that is not necessary.

But your example is different. What you have set in italics aren't comments by a narrator but unspoken (or silent) parts of dialogue.

I think your confusion stems from two complicating facts: The thoughts aren't spoken aloud, so to an outside observer (and according to the typographic convention of setting dialogue in quotation marks and thoughts in italics) don't seem to be part of the dialogue. And the thinking person is also the narrator in the first example, which makes is unclear what parts of the narrator's narration can be in the same paragraph with the speech of another character and what parts cannot. As we have seen in the example from Alice in Wonderland, thoughts of a narrator can very well be in the same paragraph with dialogue of another character. So why shouldn't "direct thoughts" go in the same paragraph, as well?

The solution of your question becomes apparent when we look at the thoughts from the perspective of the narrator. In his or her mind, the narrator in your examples replies to the other speaker. That is, those thoughts are dialogue. To better understand it, let us begin with normal dialogue:

"I don't want things to change between us."  ← speaker A
"Duly noted."  ← speaker B
"I'm just not sure this arrangement suits you anymore."  ← speaker A

Since the middle sentence is spoken by another speaker, it belongs in it's own paragraph. Now let us turn down the volume of that speaker:

"I don't want things to change between us."
"Duly noted," speaker B said quietly.
"I'm just not sure this arrangement suits you anymore."

The volume of B's voice apparently doesn't change the fact that his turn belongs in a separate paragraph. Let's turn down his volume further:

"I don't want things to change between us."
"Duly noted," speaker B wispered.
A almost couldn't understand what he said. "I'm just not sure this arrangement suits you anymore."

Okay, but what if we turn off his volume completely?

"I don't want things to change between us."
Duly noted, speaker B mouthed voicelessly.
A had to use all his lipreading skills to figure out B's words. "I'm just not sure this arrangement suits you anymore."

Finally, let's stop B from moving his mouth and subvocalize his reply:

"I don't want things to change between us."
Duly noted, B thought.
A waited for B to reply, and when B didn't he continued: "I'm just not sure this arrangement suits you anymore."

As becomes apparent when you "turn down the volume" of one speaker, an unspoken reply is still a reply, even if the other speaker cannot hear it. So it should go in it's own paragraph.

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What you are describing is an action beat.

Using action beats to illustrate character's reactions to dialogue is a terrific practice. It add depth and substance to the moment on the page, and is an effective method to show a character's internal state -- by how they react to the news that their dog | Uncle | Mortal Enemy is dead.

An 'action beat' is not limited to characters' physical movements. Its perfectly appropriate to share the internal state of the POV character

"Hi, it's Uncle John." Fred's stomach sank.

or

"Hi, it's your Uncle!" No one knows he's here, he could disappear and no one could know it was me.

The absence of attribution on the second example means that the POV needs to be solidly established in the previous sentences. If you are writing in first person or third limited, this is very straight forward. If you are writing in third person omniscient, then action beat might need some additional information to ensure the reader knows who's thoughts were shared. I'm reading Nick Herron's Slow Horses and he does this a lot in some chapters. Lots of dialogue and lots of character's thoughts -- direct and indirect, but mostly indirect -- amplifying the emotion of the moment.

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You've recently noticed it in the books you've read and... what's your reaction? Does it bother you? Does it make you trip up in confusion what belongs where? Do you find it annoying? Do you feel perfectly fine with it? Did you read those books before and never even noticed?

...That's what your reader's reaction to the same thing is likely to be.

No, I don't think this sort of thing is a hard no, I think it can work very well. (Depending on circumstances.)

One thing I generally wouldn't recommend is something like this:

"Bill says something." Alex comments on it internally.

"Alex says something out loud."

In this case, it's probably better to pair Alex's thoughts with their own speech or action.

But when you go,

"Bill says something." Alex has an internal comment. "Bill says something more." Alex thinks something again. "Bill continues talking."

then this is likely to be better than putting it in five paragraphs if you don't want it to make the impression that Bill is making long pauses.

Play it by the ear or perhaps test it on a good beta reader if you aren't sure.

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