Thursday, May 10, 2012
Spotlighting the Speaker
The rule of thumb you usually hear on paragraphing dialogue is to start a new paragraph for each new speaker. But there are actually so many exceptions that I think a better way is to think of dialogue as if you’re watching two actors on stage.
As we watch the play, we look at Actor A and listen to what he says, then we turn to look at Actor B and see what the reaction is and listen to what Actor B says. But even if Actor B doesn't say anything, we still turn our heads to look at the reaction (the expression, the glare, the physical motion, the deer-in-headlights stare). In other words, we've changed our focus from one actor to the other one.
When you're writing dialogue, picture the two people as if they’re on stage. Where you turn your head to look at the other person, start a new paragraph – even if that person doesn't say anything.
Whenever you want the reader to change focus – to “look at” the other person – start a new paragraph.
Then put everything about that person’s reaction into one paragraph. What he says, what he does, the attribution, all goes together. (If it’s a long paragraph, consider breaking it up by returning to the other person for a moment mid-stream.)
Keep going back and forth – helping the reader to turn her head and look at the other person – and you’ll have a more lively dialogue.