Monday, December 28, 2009

Dialogue Interruptus

Interruption can add needed conflict to a scene; many authors have an intuitive sense of this. Your character is in a cozy restaurant booth with her beloved, wrapped up in the moment, leaning forward to hear words he can only manage to whisper. Tension is building toward that question that will change her life forever—

—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…

“Any questions?”

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, 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.

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  1. A very helpful post, Kathryn. Thanks. I try not to use either very often, but it's nice to be reminded when to use each.

    And, thanks, Elsa for that technical tidbit. I didn't know how to force it. I've found another way to force it, but your way is easier.

    Straight From Hel

  2. I recently learned the difference and I can't even begin to explain how useful this information is!

    Great Post :)

  3. When I write, I turn off 'smart quotes' so both opening and closing quotes look the same. I've not had problems when books are formatted for publishing.

  4. Thanks for the hints.
    What I do in MS Word, on PC, to make the em-dashes behave with ending quotes, is this:
    In the tools menu, go to AutoCorrect options. In Replace box, type —.” , and then in the With box, type —” .
    Changes it automatically.

  5. Thanks for the shortcuts. I'm still finding my way on my Mac.


  6. Very helpful information in the post and the comments. The tip on how to force the end quotes is great. Sure beats the tedious way I was doing it in the past. But my old method did make me rethink how many times I used ellipses or em dashes. LOL

  7. Nice post Kathryn. When I first started I made the mistake of using ellipses instead of em-dashes until I learnt the difference.

    I think most publishers prefer to receive submissions with straight quotes. But many of us create our own e-books so this it is handy to know the shortcuts.

    - Elsa Neal

  8. Such good tips. Thank you! I just had a good little reading time going through a lot of your recent posts & I will be back. Great blog!

  9. Re quotes: Do an opening and closing set, one right after the other; delete the set that is heading the wrong way. I've used this method many times.

    Sharon K. Garner

  10. Useful stuff, as always.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  11. Nice to know there's another way. I always use the ANSI codes, so at this point I've pretty much memorized them. Also, appreciated your comments about the different applications of the em dash and the ellipsis. I find that many writers whose works I edit don't seem to understand the appropriate use of each.

  12. I've been trying to figure out how to get those close quotes at the end of an em-dash for months. Thank you!!

  13. To generate close quotes after an em-dash, I type an extra character after the dash, and then the quote. Then I delete the extra character. Like this.

    "Wait just one--d"

    Then, left-arrow, backspace, end

  14. For pc users in a word document, after the em dash and the " you can simply type another " directly afterwards giving you the "9s" instead of "6s". Then just erase the first one.

  15. When my daughter was a medical student, she painstakingly read the transcripts of the "rounds" discussions. She found, to her dismay, that many of her sentences, as transcribed, ended in ellipsis, implying that she had not been able to finish her sentence. It bothered her so much she went back and listened to the tapes, and found that instead of her voice trailing off, she had been interrupted by another stronger voice drowning out hers. I suggested to her that the transcriptionise needed a lesson in punctuation skills.

    Thanks so much for these posts. I have been fretting about the problem of the 66's vs. 99's quotes for a long time.

  16. S. Paul Bryan's comment seems to describe dialogue in which the speaker interrupts herself/himself. What I'm struggling with is dialogue between two persons, one who constantly prevents the other from finishing their sentence. It does look like a very effective way of handling that kind of behavior.

  17. To generate close quotes after an em-dash, I type an extra character after the dash, and then the quote. Then I delete the extra character. Like this. "Wait just one--d" Then, left-arrow, backspace, end


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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