This is the 2nd in a 4 part series on writing dialogue.

“Are You Talking to Me?” Writing Dialogue: Part 1

“I . . . I can’t . . . believe it!”

Writing Dialogue: Part 2

By Jeanne Marie Leach

Courage is being scared to death . . . and saddling up anyway

                                                — John Wayne


Ending with hesitancy vs. being cut off. I hadn’t planned to discuss punctuation, but beginning authors often are confused as to how to handle their characters when one is speaking and another character cuts them off or if the character trails off and doesn’t finish what they were saying.

The two punctuation marks that are misused most in dialogue are the em dash and ellipses points. It is necessary to understand the difference between these and their usage in dialogue.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) 6.84, explains about using em dashes to indicate sudden breaks. “An em dash or pair of em dashes may indicate a sudden break in thought or sentence structure or an interruption in dialogue (Where faltering rather than sudden break is intended, suspension points may be used; see 13:39.)

Example cited from this section of the CMOS:

“Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mill.

“Well, I don’t know,” I began tentatively. “I thought I might—“

“Might what?” she demanded.

 This shows the two ways in which em dashes are used in dialogue.

Authors often insert dialogue beats between the sentence being cut off and the sentence with which the character cut them off. This is not acceptable. If someone cuts another person off in the middle of their speech, there cannot be anything else between them.

 Example of poorly written speech interruption:

 “Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mill.

“Well, I don’t know,” I began tentatively. “I thought I might—“

She glared at me with those deep blue eyes of hers. She knew her friend wanted a more definitive answer. “Might what?” she demanded.

 The narration cannot interrupt someone when they’re talking. The exception to this is when a character holds up a hand or makes a similar gesture to indicate they want the person to stop talking.

The other punctuation problem authors have when writing dialogue is with faltering speech. CMOS 13.39 says, “Suspension points—also used to indicate an ellipsis—may be used to suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity. In the examples below, note the relative positions of the suspension points and other punctuation.

 “I . . . I . . . that is, we . . . yes, we have made an awful blunder!”

The ship . . . oh my God! It’s sinking!” cried Henrietta.

“But . . . but . . . ,” said Tom.

 The majority of new authors for whom I’ve edited get these two punctuation marks confused and use them incorrectly.

Also be sure the author isn’t overusing either of these punctuation marks. They must be used sparingly because both momentarily halt the flow of the book. If the reader is constantly stopping and starting, they will become annoyed. I once read a book by a big-name author in which there were a minimum of five em dashes per page. While I enjoyed the story, that is the only book by that author that I have never reread.