How you format dialogue is a matter of style rather than a rule. There are a few guidelines, however, that make dialogue easier for your reader to follow. And we want our work to be easy to read.
Some novelists like Cormac McCarthy do their own thing with dialogue. For example, McCarthy doesn’t use quotation marks, which is his style of choice. Most of us need to follow our publishing house’s rules, or at least accepted standards.
Starting a new paragraph is important to keep your reader grounded when things change. Here are 3 unequivocal standards for starting new paragraphs in dialogue.
1. When a new person begins to speak
If you’re creating a well-rounded story, you’ll have both dialogue and narration. Your dialogue brings your characters to life. Readers get to see their mannerisms and speech characteristics through what they say and how they say it.
”Have you seen the newspaper today?". Abby tossed him the front section.
”No,” Brett said. “And I don’t think I want to…”
Each time you switch between speakers, you make a new paragraph. This is non-negotiable. Otherwise, your readers won’t know who is talking.
2. Action that falls in between dialogue
Even when one character says nothing, but there is narration, start a new paragraph. For example:
”I need to talk to you about something,” she said.
He watched her twist the ring on her finger around and around.
”It’s hard to say, but…”
”Just say it, dammit,” he said.
It’s good to break up long stretches of dialogue with action. It helps your readers understand the context of the conversation. Action between dialogue helps bring the scene to life.
Start a new paragraph to show the character's reaction to what has just been said, even if this is a shrug or grimace rather than words.
3. For dramatic effect
If a character says something of great importance, make it a paragraph of its own so that it stands out. Consider the following case:
”I can’t keep quiet about this anymore. I know I don’t always share what I’m thinking, but this time it’s different.” She couldn’t look at his eyes any longer.
”I can’t marry you.”
It can be a brief sentence, even a single word, or an entire paragraph. The key is to not overuse this technique because your reader will tire of it.
More resources on dialogue
We have some excellent articles on dialogue that will help you master it like a pro.
- How to Write Dialogue in a Narrative Paragraph
- Where Does Punctuation Go in Dialogue?
- How to Punctuate and Format Inner Dialogue
Let us know in the comments below how you like to handle dialogue. We’re always interested in how writers go about their craft.