Saturday, September 25, 2010

Who Said That?

Run-together paragraphs drive me nuts. Having to stop and figure out who’s saying what takes me right out of the story. With dialogue especially, each person needs his own paragraph. If one speaker says something, and the other reacts with a thought or motion but no words, then the second person should still have a new paragraph. It helps the reader keep the picture and the conversation straight.

“No, I don’t want to go there,” Lucy said, taking a book off the shelf. She kept her focus on the book. “It isn’t necessary.” John thought she seemed uneasy.

“We can talk about it another time.” John noted the book title: Sunrise in the Garden of Love and Evil. Was it significant?

Question: Who said “It isn’t necessary”? It isn’t clear whether it’s Lucy or John. You can assume from the paragraph breaks that John said “We can talk about it another time,” but if the writer has confused you before by not following this practice, you may wonder about that too.
All it needs is to break the paragraph when there’s a new subject or speaker, either before “It isn’t necessary,” if John said it, or before John thought . . . if Lucy said it.
Keep it clear!

7 comments:

Sandy Cody said...

I agree completely. Anything that takes the reader out of the flow of the story is death to the writer. Reading is supposed to be a pleasure, not a chore.

Donnell said...

Ellis, not only in dialogue, but long stretches of narrative. I think paragraphing at crucial points is kinder to the readers eye and helps with the pacing.

Thanks for bringing this issue up.

Ellis Vidler said...

Yes, Sandy. You shouldn't be aware that you're reading but glide along with the story, feeling as if you're there.
Donnell, I agree. Shorter paragraphs and varying lengths make the story flow faster. I try to keep long paragraphs to a minimum. Psychologically, just the sight of them is daunting.

Barbara Monajem said...

Hi, Ellis. Thanks for putting my book on your shelf. I hope you enjoy it.

Writers also need to be careful about putting too many lines of untagged/unattributed dialogue in a row. It's usually done to show a rapid exchange between two people, but the reader may quickly get lost and not know who's saying what. I prefer to see at least one dialogue tag after about three lines of untagged dialogue, or maybe something within the dialogue itself that makes it clear who's speaking. (Although to tell the absolute truth, I sort of like going back to figure out who said what. It's like a little, solvable mystery :~)

VR Barkowski said...

Absolutely! Unlike Barbara, though, nothing takes me out of a story faster than having to go back and try to figure out who said what. On the other hand, tagging every single line of dialogue makes me crazy, too. Guess I'm just hard to please. :)

Sandy Hyatt-James said...

I agree: it can be distracting. As a writer myself, I'm always wary of making this mistake.

Polly said...

I'm writing long passages now, interspersed with quick dialogue. This was a good lesson to read right this minute. I hope those quick dialogue passages read the way I want. I do have a tendency for my characters to speak the other person's name occasionally instead of tags. But too much of that is unnatural. It's a tricky balance.