Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 3, Interrupted Dialogue

“Whaddaya mean, interrupted? I’m talkin’ like I al—” Nick jumped as a heavy book flew off the shelf behind him and landed at his feet with a thud.

Forgive me, but it’s Halloween. I had to do something seasonal.

As you can see in that first paragraph, there’s an example of a common type of interrupted dialogue: an intrusion of an action into someone’s speech.

You need to provide some kind of ending punctuation to the speech if the interruption occurs in the middle of a word. Here I’ve used an em dash. There’s not much choice, honestly. I can’t use a period, because the sentence isn’t finished. He’s not questioning, so I can’t use a question mark. It’s not an exclamation, either. Nick is cut off in the middle of the word “always” by what I suspect is poltergeist activity (or perhaps a mischievous cat with back-shelf access and strong muscles). I’ll wager you think you need to use a hyphen, but a case like this one uses an em dash.

When an action intrudes into dialogue this way, an em dash signals “Hey! Watch this!” (I’ll even give you chapter and verse. Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition, 6.86.) It goes where all terminal punctuation for speech goes: inside the closing quotes. There is no space on either side of it per Chicago style. (AP is different, but if you’re writing anything other than news copy, you probably aren’t using AP anyway.)

There could be a need for two em dashes, if the action is in the middle of one person’s speech. Then it looks like this:

“So you don’t believe in poltergeists, Nick? Funny, I’d figured you for one of those”—Phoebe waggled her fingers at him like a cartoon witch casting a spell—“paranormal fanboys.”

Sure, you could put that beat after the speech, but then you lose the effect of her waggling her fingers at him while she’s talking. Consider where the beat needs to go, and write accordingly. Play around with it if you need to. No one will ever know how many iterations you went through (unless you whine about it publicly on social media).

Look at that example. It’s a little different from Nick’s interrupted speech, isn’t it? Phoebe finishes a word before that beat shows up, so there’s no need for an em dash before the closing quotation marks of her first speech. Instead, place an em dash after the closing quotation marks and before the beat, and then place another after the beat and before the next opening quotation marks. Those em dashes punctuate the beat, not the speech. The first word of the second direct speech (paranormal) is not capitalized; there’s no reason for it to be. It’s the next word in her sentence. If that beat hadn’t intruded you wouldn’t capitalize it, so there’s no reason to do so now. The normal rules apply, even when there’s an intruding beat.

What about when someone trails off and doesn’t finish their speech? That’s when you want suspension points or ellipses. Here’s how they work:

Nick glowered at her. “I’m not a fanboy. I’ve never been a fanboy. Just because I have a healthy . . .” His annoyance flagged as his gaze moved, drawn to the flickering lamp in the opposite corner of the room. “Was that lit before? I don’t think that was lit before. I could swear that when we came in . . .” He swallowed hard as the lampshade rotated slowly, clockwise.

As usual, the suspension points go inside the closing quotes. They’re punctuating the speech.

She snickered and walked over to the side table, taking the fringed lower edge of the lampshade between thumb and forefinger to stop it. “You’re a nervous Nelly now, aren’t—OH MY GOD!”

Pheobe had been so sure of herself until . . . something happened. I’ll let you decide what it was. That’s a different kind of interrupted speech, which begins with one tone or subject and suddenly switches to something entirely different. As usual, use an em dash to indicate the change.

Those are the main types of interrupted dialogue, the ones you’re most likely to encounter while reading or to use in your writing. The main things to remember are:

  • Use an em dash if the speaker stops mid-word, in the same way as you’d use a hyphen. Put it inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Use an em dash if the speaker’s able to complete a word, but someone or something stops them before they finish their thought. Put it inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Use an em dash to indicate a sharp change in tone or subject within speech.
  • Use em dashes to punctuate the intruding beat. Place them outside the quotation marks and don’t put spaces on either side of them.
  • Use suspension points to indicate faltering or trailing speech. Put them inside the closing quotation marks. (You can use spaced periods as I did, or you can use the single three-dot glyph your word-processing software provides. If you use the glyph, put a space before and after it.)

Paragraph-Spanning Speech

This doesn’t merit a post of its own, so I’ll include it here. When a single speaker’s speech continues over two or more paragraphs, you don’t put closing quotation marks at the end of each. You put opening quotation marks at the beginning of each, and closing quotes at the end of the entire speech. It looks rather like this:

“What did you expect? We come to the town’s most famous haunted house on Halloween, and you thought what? That nothing would happen?” Pheobe was more than a little irritated. She paced around the coffee table in the middle of the parlor like a panther in a pit trap. “And now that something has happened, you want to—I don’t know, call the cops? I’m really disappointed in you, Nick. I thought you had cojones or something.

            “All right, then. You want to leave, we’ll leave.” She strode across the room and grabbed the door latch. It didn’t budge. Rattling it harder, she glanced back to Nick, who was still staring at the lampshade. “HEY! I said you want to leave, we’ll leave. Help me get this door open.”

Will they get the door open? Will Nick snap out of his fugue? And what about Naomi?

I hope these three posts have helped answer the most common questions about punctuating dialogue. Don’t hesitate to contact me either via email ( or G+ if there’s something I didn’t discuss that you want to know. I’m always happy to explain and educate.


14 thoughts on “Mechanics of Dialogue: Part 3, Interrupted Dialogue

  1. You have an interrobang as your header! You explain things succinctly and humourously! Where have you been all my life‽

    Seriously though, I just wanted to compliment your thoroughly enjoyable writing style and clarity of expression. And for having an interrobang in your logo. It’s awesome.


    1. What a lovely comment, David! Thank you so much. I always wonder if anyone’s really reading this aside from the handful of friends I know poke their noses in every now and again, or the people who see tweets with links to old entries and decide to click for a look-see.

      I HAD to have an interrobang. With a name like GRAMMARGEDDON! it was an imperative. Heh.


  2. Well, I’m busy writing a short story and needed to reference something regarding dialogue, and your page was the second or third hit on Google, so something must be going right 🙂

    And yes. The interrobang is particularly appropriate. As a matter of curiosity, do you ever use it (or have you ever seen it) in writing?


    1. I don’t use it myself, nor have I encountered it in my reading. I’d love to see it become “normal” punctuation, appearing as part of the character set for any given font (well, perhaps not French Script or Copperplate, but y’know). Obviously I’m not averse to it. 😉


  3. I have a question. This is old and God knows if you’ll ever see it.
    This is specifically about em dashes within dialogue.

    (The spaces are British style. I’ve done my research, and AmE and BrE differ on that, so that’s not what my question is about)

    It’s my understanding that when the dialogue is interrupted, the dashes go inside the quotation marks:
    “She’s a lovely girl, but —” he took a puff of his cigarette “— she cannot dance for the life of her.”

    If the narration doesn’t interrupt the quote but it’s needed in the middle because it’s happening as the dialogue occurs, then the dashes go outside of the quotation marks:
    “She’s a lovely girl, but” — he lowered his voice — “she cannot dance for the life of her.

    Here’s my question: how do we capitalise and punctuate the /interruption/. Are the above examples correct? Do we need to capitalise and add a full stop in either case. I’m talking about changing the examples to this:

    “She’s a lovely girl, but —” He took a puff of his cigarette. “— she cannot dance for the life of her.”
    “She’s a lovely girl, but” — He lowered his voice. — “she cannot dance for the life of her.

    Your example about Phoebe makes me guess that, at least in the outside quotes dashes case, no capitalisation and no punctuation is needed. I’d wager it’d be the same for both, but I simply don’t know, and I’m going crazy trying to find the rule, if there is any.

    Personally, I think no capitalisation and no punctuation would be the clearest and neatest way to go, but I’m not a grammarian, so I can’t be sure.

    Thanks in advance.


    1. Hello, Emmie.

      If you look at the examples you’ve created again, specifically paying attention to what’s interrupting the dialogue, I think you’ll see that there’s no appreciable difference between them. In both situations, “he” does something while he is speaking (first a puff on a cigarette, second a lowering of his voice). However, neither of those things really breaks the flow of his speech very much. It doesn’t take long to take a drag on a smoke, nor does it take long to lower one’s voice. If a beat (an action) occurs during speech, the way I’ve punctuated the Phoebe examples is the correct way, whether BrE or AmE.

      When the dialogue breaks for a reason other than a beat, that’s when you put the em inside the quotation marks. It becomes the terminal punctuation for that portion of the writing. The next sentence begins with a capital letter as usual, and ends with whatever’s appropriate. Then follow opening quotation marks, if there’s more speech coming, and things go on as usual.

      “Richard, I honestly don’t–” A cat screeched outside the window. (Em goes inside the quotes, because something intruded and caused her to stop speaking. The speech itself is cut off, rather than there being a simple pause in the speech caused by a short beat. It’s not that she paused to take a drag, nor did she modulate her voice. An unseen feline scared her and she stopped speaking. That’s not a beat, so the em goes inside.)

      My copy of the New Oxford Style Manual is mostly useless on this front, so I defaulted to Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. He supports what I’ve already said. As you’ve figured out, the big difference between BrE and AmE in this situation is the presence (or lack) of spaces.

      It may help to think of it this way: If the speaker does something while speaking, the ems go outside to visually set that action aside for the reader. The speech itself might not stop at all! I can lower my voice without pausing, just as I can raise it without pausing. The words I’m saying aren’t interrupted at all. I can set down a glass without pausing. I can sit in a chair without slowing my speech at all. I have to take a short pause for that drag on the cigarette, yes, but that’s still a beat/action, so the ems go outside the quotes. However, keep reading …

      Honestly? I’d do the cigarette one like this:

      “She’s a lovely girl, but …” He took a puff of his cigarette. “… she cannot dance for the life of her.”

      There’s something more languid about the ellipsis points combined with the beat of the drag on the cigarette. He seems to me to be drawing this out for the reader/listener. His speech STOPS while he takes that drag. The words are interrupted for a time, by his own doing. An em is a quick or nonexistent pause. The beat that intrudes is fast (setting down a glass, sitting in a chair) and doesn’t really break the SOUND of the speech; it’s a visual pause for the reader, a bit of set dressing. Note that because I used ellipsis points, there’s a space following the closing quotes, a capital letter beginning the beat, a full stop at the end, another space, and opening quotes followed by another set of points. Some might choose not to use that second set. Guidelines and experience are important in cases like this. I’d discuss it with my author, honestly, rather than make a wholesale change like this. (I’d lobby hard for the ellipsis points, though. They’re softer and more appropriate, to my mind.)

      If something else does something that interrupts the speaker, the ems go inside. That cat, for instance. It screeched and cut the speaker short. The quoted speech stops before it’s completed, so the em goes inside. Begin the next sentence normally, with a capital letter.

      I want to emphasize that while this is a very useful tactic, it gets old very quickly and should be used with discretion and for best effect. I hope this has been helpful.


  4. It was very useful, and I’ll definitely adopt this style because the explanation makes sense, and it’s visually appealing.

    I sought a lot of opinions on this subject because I knew I was bound to find differing ones. If for some reason you’re wondering how your advice fits with everyone else’s, I’ll be happy to inform you that a professional editor and a professional author agree with you (if not entirely, then almost). But your way of explaining it was more compelling than theirs.

    I appreciate the time you took for research and explaining a lot. Thank you!


  5. I’m working on my first short story, which contains intense mixes of narration (or action) and dialog. This page really helped. Thanks, Karen.


    1. That’s a great question, and I can think of two ways right off the top.

      First, you could begin and end every interrupted line with an em dash. Each speaker is always interrupting the other, so it will visually tumble over the page, something like this:

      “Where have you been?! I’ve been wor—”
      “DAD! I tried to call, but the phone ju—”
      “—ried sick about you! I was puking fo—”
      “—st kept ringing and ringing and nobo—”
      “—the better part of the night!”
      “—dy ever answered!”

      Another method, one that plays with formatting (and therefore might not be great for ebooks—I don’t do formatting so I don’t know for sure), is to set the dialogue in two columns, side by side, for the duration of the conversation. I’ve seen this done with spoken dialogue juxtaposed with thoughts (a telepath is speaking to someone and thinking at someone else, simultaneously) to excellent effect in print. If you’re interested, find a copy of Walter Jon WIlliams’s _Aristoi_.


      1. Grrr. This new editor and I are not making friends. Those underscores I had hoped would italicize the title of the book. (And my laptop keyboard hates me, too, hence the capital I in “Williams’s.” ::sigh:: )


  6. I can’t express my appreciation for this blog enough. This specific piece of writing advice is going to do wonders in situations where my characters get interrupted. I just wanted to say thank you. As a semi-young writer, this sort of information is invaluable. Thank you.


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