October 2, 2017

Mini Lesson: Punctuating Interrupted Dialogue

This post was written & scheduled to publish before the horrible events in Vegas. Words can fail in such moments, but our hearts and thoughts are with all those affected. 



I'll admit, today's mini lesson focuses on a pet peeve of mine: punctuating interrupted dialogue. I've seen so many different (incorrect) versions, and they do get quite inventive, but we definitely need to clear this one up.

As a foundation, I am assuming you all know how to punctuate basic dialogue—rules like using a comma in place of a period with a dialogue tag, not capitalizing the tag if it's after the dialogue, etc. For a simple example: "Hello," she said.

Today I want to focus specifically on what happens when something (or someone) interrupts a character who's speaking mid-sentence. There are three different ways to write this correctly:
  1. Use a speech verb with a modifier. For example: "Look over there," she said, pointing to the corner, "over by the bookshelves."
    • Because you're using a speech verb (said), you punctuate it like any other dialogue tag, with a comma before the closing quotation mark.
    • In this case, the extra action (pointing to the corner) is added on following a comma because the modifier is subordinate to the main verb (still said).
    • Because you're interrupting one sentence ("Look over there, over by the bookshelves."), a comma is also used to lead into the second half of the dialogue, and that second bit of dialogue is not capitalized.
      • Keep in mind, the dialogue in this example could be two separate sentences: "Look over there. Over by the bookshelf." This is a different speech pattern, and if this is how you'd like your character to speak, then there would be a period after "corner," and the second bit of dialogue would be capitalized:
        "Look over there," she said, pointing to the corner. "Over by the bookshelves."
  2. Use an em dash inside the quotation marks to cut off the character mid-dialogue, usually with either
    (A) another character speaking or (B) an external action.
    • A: "Look over there—"
      "By the bookshelves," Jamie added before Sheila could clarify. 
    • B: "Look over there—"
      A stack of boxes clattered to the ground.
    • Including the em dash at the end of the line of dialogue signifies that your character wasn't finished speaking.
      • Sometimes unfinished lines of dialogue end with an ellipsis. This is grammatically correct, but it signifies your character trailing off as if losing their train of thought or drifting off to sleep, not something or someone else interrupting their words.
    • If you want to make a point of the speaking character's action interrupting their own dialogue, you could also use this punctuation, writing:
      "Look over there—" She snapped her mouth shut so she didn't give the secret away.
    • Note that in all of these instances a new sentence starts after the closed quotation mark, so of course the first word needs to be capitalized.
  3. Use em dashes outside the quotation marks to set off a bit of action without a speech verb. For example: "Look over there"—she pointed to the corner—"by the bookshelves."
    • Do not merely use commas, because in such cases there is no speech verb, and therefore it isn't a dialogue tag and can't be punctuated like one.
      • Wrong: "Look over there," she pointed to the corner, "by the bookshelves."
        • Pointed isn't a speech verb, but this punctuation indicates that she is "pointing" her words to the corner. If we were to replace pointed with called, this punctuation would become correct, as in example #1 above.
    • Do not put the em dashes inside the quotation marks if the line of dialogue continues after the interruption. 
      • Wrong: "Look over there—" she pointed to the corner "—by the bookshelves."
    • Also wrong? Putting em dashes half in and half out, or combining em dashes with commas. If you're segmenting a line of dialogue without using a speech verb, make sure to close the quotation marks after the first bit of dialogue, use two em dashes around the interruption, then open the quotation marks again for the second part.
  • Bonus: If we're tuning into someone's dialogue in the middle, you can absolutely open the dialogue with an em dash or an ellipsis, making sure not to capitalize the first word. For example:
        Sheila found Jason leaning against the wall.
        "—why we'll never go to Starbucks again," he was saying.
          (Or: "...why we'll never go to Starbucks again," he was saying.)
    • This does not work if we're catching a full sentence, in other words if there would have been a period (or question mark, or exclamation point) had we "heard" what came before. In such a case, the narration or tag can clue us in to having missed part of the dialogue:

        "So that's why we'll never go to Starbucks again," Jason finished explaining.

As you can see, there are many ways to punctuate your dialogue. Each option affects the speech pattern of your character as well as the flow of your narration, so make sure your choices are intentional. Words matter, and so does punctuation!

    Have questions? Would you like to suggest a Mini Lesson subject? Share in the comments!

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