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 (karen.conlin15@gmail.com) or G+ if there’s something I didn’t discuss that you want to know. I’m always happy to explain and educate.

 

32 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    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.

      Like

  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?

    Like

    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. 😉

      Like

  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.

    Like

    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.

      Like

  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!

    Like

  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.

    Like

    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_.

      Like

      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:: )

        Like

  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.

    Like

  7. Hi – thanks for the clear explanation. Can you also help with this example?

    “The universe is alive and listening.”—she jumped up and made an energetic pirouette—”Our human energy goes out and cosmic energy comes back.”

    I feel there should be a period after ‘listening’ since it ends a complete sentence and the O in ‘Our’ should be upper case, since it begins a new one; but to me, it just looks clumsy.

    Like

    1. What you have there, Ian, isn’t an intrusion but a normal beat. It comes between two complete thoughts/sentences/independent clauses, which is why your intuition tells you you need terminal punctuation after the first one and a capital letter to begin the second. For it to intrude, it needs to interrupt a thought or statement. It doesn’t. It comes between two of them.

      Ditch the em dashes, capitalize the S on “She,” and put a period after “pirouette” and you’re done. That’s the easiest solution.

      However, if you’re set on having a real intrusion, you’ll need to think about where she’ll jump up and do that pirouette. Perhaps it comes after “alive.”

      “The universe is alive”—she jumped up and made an energetic pirouette—”and listening. Our human energy goes out, and cosmic energy comes back.”

      I see her action starting as she says “alive” and continuing through “and listening.” You may feel differently. Perhaps you’ll need to rethink it entirely. I can’t say.

      Like

  8. First, thanks for writing this article. It was very informative. My question for you is related to interrupted dialog due to a medical condition. My protagonist has a condition called Broca’s Aphasia after having a stroke. Her brain doesn’t communicate words to her mouth correctly, so she speaks slow and deliberately, and her sentence structure is incorrect or missing words. She also uses “Um” and corrects herself mid-sentence.

    Here are some examples:
    “I think. Um…I manage. I can. Manage.” I sighed and considered playing mute for the rest of the day.
    I twisted my face as I struggled to say, “Breakfast. Of champ…champions.”

    I have written her dialogue in various ways and still run into the same dilemma–I don’t want to put the reader off by the broken dialogue. Still, the story is about her dealing with her trouble speaking aloud, and I want the reader to recognize how difficult it is for the character. On the plus side, texting and internal thoughts are normal in the story.

    Any suggestions?

    Like

    1. First, thank you. I’m glad it helped.

      Second, I’d suggest writing it as you hear it in the first draft. Then, when you go back for edits, take out maybe a third of the interruptions. You want to establish them as part of her normal speech, but as you rightly point out, you don’t want to put readers off. Less is almost always more in cases like this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the suggestion and the quick response. It’s been rough going with the first draft. Between her broken speech, texting, internal thoughts, and even telepathy (what was I thinking when I came up with that one?), I’ve struggled with the dialogue since I started the book for NaNoWriMo.

        Like

  9. I have one question. What if the dialogue is being interrupted while an action also interrupts? For example: “I—”—the boy glances down at the ground—“I’m sorry.”

    Like

    1. For the sake of clarity and readability, I suggest deciding which is more important: the intrusion of the action, or the interruption of the speech. As you have written it, my brain doesn’t know which to look at and process. On further thought, it seems to me that the boy’s hesitation, probably due to his thinking further about what to say, deserves the full attention. Therefore, you’d end up with:

      “I—” The boy glances down at the ground. “I’m sorry.”

      That’s more indicative of an actual pause in his speech, whereas the other option (following) is less so:

      “I”—the boy glances down at the ground—”I’m sorry.” (This could be a very small hesitation, more like a stutter. Is that what you’re after? Only you can know the answer.) Setting off actions/beats like this usually indicates that the action is happening while the person is speaking, not necessarily that the person stops to perform the action.

      My main point is that lining up em dashes like rail cars is a bad idea. Think about what you want the readers to get from what you’re writing. Then punctuate to guide them on that path.

      Like

  10. Hello!

    I’m an aspiring writer in the lower half of W.A, Australia, and I just wanted to say that this post has been the easiest, most entertaining explanation I have found on this subject. It made it enjoyable to read, and after reading this I find I finally think I understand how to use em dashes in these contexts, and I can finally write this particularly difficult section of dialogue I’ve been struggling with for a while now, with all the confidence my interrupted characters lack!

    Thank you for the time you’ve put into this website!
    (Also, the Interabang logo was a stroke of genius!)

    Like

  11. Hi! This post is super amazing and helpful! I just have a question about when people interrupt themselves and then keep talking, especially when they are already quoting someone else. For example let’s say I’m doing a book reading but my children are running around making a mess of things. Here’s how I imagine that punctuation would go, please correct me:

    She cleared her throat and began to read. “‘They were in fact very fine ladies; not deficient in good humour when they were pleased, nor in the power of making themselves agreeable when they chose it, but proud and conceited. They’- Jacob! Get down from there now!”

    “Sorry, mom!” the 5 year old called out.

    She smiled apologetically at her guests and continued to read. “‘They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were’ -Jacob! Please!- ‘in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others.’”

    ^Does that make sense? She’s reading a passage from Pride and Prejudice but has to interrupt herself to scold her son, and I’m not sure how to punctuate that. Your blog is such a fantastic resource, thank you so much for the very detailed and informative post.

    Like

    1. Em dashes, not hyphens, for the dialogue intrusions. I would put them inside the single quotes, both opening and closing, and leave the usual space before and after the intrusion. The ems signal the speech is cutting off. I’m answering on my tablet, so it’s a bit difficult to show you (fat fingers and virtual keyboards are poor companions). Also, hyphenate “5-year-old.” As they say, you’ve got this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I broke out the laptop so I could type properly. Heh.

        Here’s how I’d do it:

        “‘. . . but proud and conceited. They—’ Jacob! Get down from there now!”

        Same thing with the next one. Does that make sense to you?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That is so so helpful! Thank you! I want to clarify what the punctuation is like when she continues reading after the intrusion.

        “…twenty thousand pounds, were—’Jacob! Please! ‘—in the habit of spending more…'”

        ^Is that correct?

        And I just want to confirm that you always capitalize the intrusion even if it’s not a name?

        “…twenty thousand pounds, were—’Get down from there! ‘—in the habit of spending more…'”

        Thank you so so much you are a lifesaver!

        Like

  12. Thanks for the props. 🙂

    It’s not quite that simple, but in your case, yes. You’re intruding with more speech, and therefore you begin with a capital letter. Make sure you leave spaces between the closing quotes and the capital. (We type too fast for our fingers to keep up. I get it. Happens all the time.)

    Back up through some of the comments and you’ll see examples of when you don’t use a capital.

    Like

    1. Hello! First of all, excellent post!
      It was super helpful.

      I have a couple questions for you.

      1) 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!”

      How would you type the part after the Em dash if you weren’t allowed to capitalize the entire phrase?

      aren’t—Oh my god!
      or
      aren’r—oh my god!

      2) Might be similar, but…

      “I told you to stop hugging me, you big id—Argh!”
      or
      id—argh!

      I’ve searched a lot regarding these types of intrusive sentences, and all style guides and websites I’ve found suggest not to use capitals ever after an Em dash, but they never quite use similar examples.

      Like

      1. Something to keep in mind: Style guides contain many guidelines and few rules (except in the grammar section). For the kind of thing you’re asking about, I would capitalize the first letter. Those are entirely new thoughts. Remember, mechanics are to readers what traffic signs are to drivers. They alert you to what’s coming up. The em tells them the flow is about to change, rather like those “new traffic pattern” signs put up by work crews. The capital letter tells them they’re about to get a brand-new thought.

        Like

  13. Thank you so much!
    Something always kept telling me that capitalizing the word after the em-dash was the right way to do it when they were interruptions, but I could never find any materials to support that belief before today. You’re a life saver❤!

    I’ll make sure to add that to our in-house style guide right away 🙂

    Like

    1. You’re welcome. However, be sure you note the difference between that kind of what I term “compete interruption” and the intrusion like this one: “I was walking down the—oh, what’s it called—wide street with trees.”

      There’s no need to capitalize the o on “Oh” there, as the line of thought continues. It’s as if you’re driving and swerve to avoid a pothole. You’re still heading the same direction.

      Like

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