—when the waiter comes to take her order. He’s a chatty friend from her high school days who dredges up old conflict. Try as they might, once the waiter leaves the couple cannot re-establish the mood. The question will have to be delayed for another time, and the reader can’t wait for it to happen.
A few technical problems can ruin the reader’s experience, however, so authors take note.
A common mistake is to use an ellipsis (…) interchangeably with an em-dash (—). These punctuation marks have different functions. Use an ellipsis if you want your character to drift off in thought. Interruption is better suited to the em-dash, as its slash rips your character from her train of thought:
For weeks Janice had suffered her father’s mocking tone as she revised her manuscript; she would ask her creative writing professor that day if he thought her short story was ready for publication. As Mr. Smith droned on about researching markets, she daydreamed that an agent would read it in The New Yorker and ask if she had a novel ready…
Janice thrust her hand into the air. “Do you think my story is good—”
The bell rang. Students stood, slammed books, grabbed jackets, and headed for the door. By the time they cleared the room, Mr. Smith was gone.
We know why Janice needs validation and we are eager to know if she gets it from Mr. Smith, creating tension that will keep us turning pages until Janice and Mr. Smith are once again in the same scene. And if Mr. Smith cannot provide that validation, and Janice must dig deeper and find it within herself? All the better for your story. I would not suggest another interruption, however, as your reader is sensitive to being toyed with.
A word of caution: don’t bloat the dialogue at the point of interruption. In the example above, that might have looked like this:
Janice thrust her hand into the air. “Mr. Smith, I was wondering. Do you think that maybe—“ [sic]This is not nearly as effective as letting the interruption rip right through the meat of the dialogue. Keep such concision in mind if you have a group of people talking, each interrupting the other; otherwise, a scene whose interruptions could have created tension through constant shifts of conversational power will be rendered pointless. Make sure each snippet of dialogue contains words that move the story forward in some way.
Which brings me to one last technical problem. See the quotation marks after the em-dash in that last example, noted at [sic] above? They look like “6s” instead of “9s.” Because Microsoft Word perceives the em-dash as terminal punctuation, you will have to force the quotation marks that follow to behave. On a Mac you can press “shift + option + [“ to force end quotes; maybe our PC readers could post a comment as to the best way for Windows users to do this. You can always type the end quotes and then go back and insert the em-dash before them. But whatever the method, do it before you submit to add a professional polish to your manuscript.
[Note by Elsa Neal: To force closing quotation marks in MS Word (PC) hold down the Control Key, press ' then hold down the Control and Shift key and press " (i.e., Control apostrophe Control Shift double quote)]
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, a manuscript evaluation, line editing, and writer support service. As one of five children competing for her parents' attention at dinner, she studied dialogue interruptus at an early age.