The Art of the Paragraph: How to Write Dialogue in Fiction

Paragraph writing in fiction doesn’t follow traditional rules. In this series, we cover how to write a good paragraph by exploring different lengths and kinds of paragraphs—and when to use them. Here, learn how to write dialogue and where to break for paragraphs.
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Paragraph writing in fiction doesn’t follow traditional rules. Like storytelling itself, it is artistically liberated, and that liberation gives it the potential to contribute to the story’s aesthetic appeal. Paragraphs build a story segment-by-segment. They establish and adjust the pace while adding subtle texture. They convey mood and voice. They help readers visualize the characters and the way they think and act by regulating the flow of their thoughts and actions.

In this series, adapted from "The Art of the Paragraph" by Fred D. White in the January 2018 issue of Writer's Digest, we cover paragraph writing, how to write dialogue and more by exploring different lengths and kinds of paragraphs—and when to use each one. [Subscribe to Writer's Digest today.]

How to Write Dialogue-Based Paragraphs

In general, dialogue is presented as separate paragraphs for each person speaking. But some writers—Franz Kafka, for example—occasionally merge different voices together to give the impression of hurried conversation, as Kafka did in this sprawling paragraph from The Castle:

“I don’t go to the Castle till the early morning, I never sleep there” [said Barnabas]. “Oh, said K., “so you weren’t going to the Castle, but only here. … Why didn’t you say so?” “You didn’t ask me, sir,” said Barnabas, “you only said you had a message to give me.”

Separate paragraphs per speaker, however, is the favored custom. It’s easier to follow along, as you can see in this example from Robert B. Parker’s Crimson Joy:

“As you can see, ma’am, the target consists of the silhouette of a man surrounded by increasingly concentric circles; the smallest circle, around the man’s head and heart, is worth 10 points. The next circle is worth nine, and so on until the last circle, outside of which there is no score.”

“Please call me Susan.”

“OK, Susan. In order to qualify for a license to carry firearms you have to score 70, firing a maximum of 30 rounds.”

“Fine,” Susan said.

“Want to fire some for practice, Susan?”

“No, thank you.”

Notice how Parker informs you about firearm qualifying criteria while simultaneously moving the story along and depicting the characters’ natures.

TRY THIS

Write a page of conversation between two or more people sharing conflicting opinions about an issue, using conventional dialogue-paragraph format. If you feel adventurous, try putting the entire conversation into one paragraph.

This is one of five basic kinds of paragraphs and their respective functions in fiction. Learn about each type of paragraph writing—and how to apply what you've learned—in these articles:

Fred D. White is the author of The Writer’s Idea Thesaurus, Where Do You Get Your Ideas? and The Daily Writer. His latest, Writing Flash, will be published this spring.

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