This post explains when and how to indent your narrative and dialogue according to publishing-industry convention.
The purpose of first-line indents
Each new paragraph signifies a change or shift of some sort ... perhaps a new idea, piece of action, thought or speaker, even a moderation or acceleration of pace. Still, the prose in all those paragraphs within a section is connected.
Paragraph indents have two purposes in fiction:
First lines in chapters and new sections
Chapters and sections are bigger shifts: perhaps the viewpoint character changes, or there's a shift in timeline or location.
To mark this bigger shift in a novel, it’s conventional not to indent the first line of text in a new chapter or a new section. You might hear editorial folks refer to this non-indented text as full out.
The following example is taken from Part 5, Chapter 2, of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World (p. 287, 2010):
And here's an example from Part 2, Chapter 6, p. 147, which shows how the layout works the same after a section break:
Even if an author chooses to include a design feature such as a dropped capital (sometimes called a drop cap), it's standard for that letter to be full out, as shown in the following example from To Kill a Devil (John A. Connell, p. 6, Nailhead Publishing, 2020):
The same applies even if the chapter or section starts with dialogue, as in this excerpt from David Rosenfelt's Dog Tags (p. 192, Grand Central, 2010):
Body text: dialogue and narrative
The example below from Blake Crouch's Recursion (p. 4, Macmillan, 2019) shows how the indentation works in the body text when there's a mixture of dialogue and narrative.
IMPACT OF LINE SPACING
Even if you've elected to set your book file with double line spacing (perhaps at the request of a publisher, agent or editor), the indentation convention applies. Here's the Recursion example again, tweaked to show what it would look like:
Indenting text that follows special elements
Your novel might include special elements such as letters, texts, reports, lists or newspaper articles. Authors can choose to set off these elements with wider line spacing, but how do we handle the text that comes after?
Again, it's conventional to indent text that follows this content, regardless of whether it's narrative or dialogue. That's because of the connective function; the text is part of the same scene.
Here are some examples from commercial fiction pulled from my bookshelves.
It's not the case that full-out text is never used, or can't be used, but fiction readers are used to conventions. When a paragraph isn't indented, they assume it's a new section, which creates a tiny disconnect.
That's what I think's happened in the example below from Kate Hamer's The Girl in the Red Coat (p. 325, Faber & Faber, 2015). Of course, it took me only a split second to work out that the narrator is referring to the preceding letter, but it's a split second that took me away from the story because I'd assumed I was looking at a section break.
My preference would be to indent 'I touch my finger [...]' because that text is part of the scene, not a new section.
How to create a first-line indent in Word
Let's finish with some quick guidance on creating first-line indents.
Avoid using spaces and tabs to create indents in Word. Instead, create proper indents. There are several ways to do this.
Create a new style for your full-out paragraphs using the same tools.
If you need more assistance with creating styles, watch this free webinar. There's no sign-up; just click on the button and dig in.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
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