High-throughput single-cell transcriptomics offers an unbiased approach for understanding the extent, basis, and function of gene expression variation between seemingly identical cells. Here, we sequence single-cell RNA-Seq libraries prepared from over 1,700 primary mouse bone marrow derived dendritic cells (DCs) spanning several experimental conditions. We find substantial variation between identically stimulated DCs, in both the fraction of cells detectably expressing a given mRNA and the transcript’s level within expressing cells. Distinct gene modules are characterized by different temporal heterogeneity profiles. In particular, a “core” module of antiviral genes is expressed very early by a few “precocious” cells, but is later activated in all cells. By stimulating cells individually in sealed microfluidic chambers, analyzing DCs from knockout mice, and modulating secretion and extracellular signaling, we show that this response is coordinated via interferon-mediated paracrine signaling. Surprisingly, preventing cell-to-cell communication also substantially reduces variability in the expression of an early-induced “peaked” inflammatory module, suggesting that paracrine signaling additionally represses part of the inflammatory program. Our study highlights the importance of cell-to-cell communication in controlling cellular heterogeneity and reveals general strategies that multicellular populations use to establish complex dynamic responses.