In this post, I answered the question, “How do I know when to end one paragraph and start a new one?” I also mentioned in that article that we would discuss a few of the rules of paragraphing later. Welcome to later, friends!
There is one simple rule of writing paragraphs that I often see broken by new writers, and it relates to dialog: don’t have the dialog of more than one character in a single paragraph. If a new character begins to speak, make a new paragraph. It’s that simple.
“Wait, so that story of you protecting the girl was made up?” Dinah asked.
“Not all of it,” Rachelle replied, hunching her shoulders. “Those men were leering at her, and they could have been about to mistreat her. So I just made sure to walk between her and them. As protection.”
“So . . . all you did was walk to work?”
Usually, you can connect a character’s actions to their dialog, as with Rachelle hunching her shoulders above. So if you have a character performing actions in the middle of dialog but they’re not speaking, it is often a good idea to give them their own paragraph as well.
“I didn’t just walk to work! I put myself out there.”
Dinah shook her head, rubbing her temples.
“I was protecting the girl,” Rachelle continued. “I was stopping the problem before it could begin.”
“It’s not a problem until it begins,” Dinah replied. “You protected her from a problem you made up. And now the police are out there looking to arrest a couple of men that didn’t actually commit a crime.”
Rachelle somehow hunched her shoulders even further and folded her arms in a pose that Dinah could only describe as “petulant.”
The only easy exception to this rule that I can think of is if you are listing a few related bits of dialog in a row:
Dinah sighed. This was partially her fault. She should have known better than to simply trust Rachelle on this issue. She thought back on the day before. “The way Rachelle sees things and the way things are ain’t usually very similar,” Bank had warned her. “Rachelle always wants to see herself as some sort of paragon instead of just regular folk like the rest of us,” Ginny had said. Why hadn’t she listened?
But that is something to be used sparingly. Most of the time, keep to the simple rule that when a new character begins speaking, a new paragraph should begin.