Two Tips for Punctuating Interrupted Dialogue

In this segment of Copyediting with Keli I’m discussing how to punctuate two different cases of interrupted dialogue using the em dash.

The em dash is the long dash that used to be shown, back in pre-computer days, by typing two hyphens.

Those who use Word can make use of the program’s “auto correct” feature to replace an old-fashioned two-hyphen em dash with an actual em dash (—).

First let’s consider one character being interrupted by another. Here’s an example.

“You don’t get what I’m saying, Tiff, but if you’d just let me expl—”

“I get it all right. You never want to do what I want.”

To show the angry wife cutting off her husband, I used an em dash. When one comes at the end of a sentence like this, it’s followed by the close quotation mark. No period or other punctuation is used.

The second example involves the writer interrupting a line of dialogue to insert an action beat, tag, or other information.

“I’ve waited years for my first publishing contract, and now that it’s here”—her voice broke—“I hardly have words to describe my how I feel.”

To show the emotional state of the jubilant writer, I broke into the sentence with an action beat. The dialogue goes inside the quotation marks, and the em dashes setting off the break go outside of them. Note that an em dash used in this case butts up against the quotation mark on one side and the text on the other with no spaces in between.

When it comes to showing interrupted dialogue in either of the cases I’ve covered, think of a car screeching to a halt, leaving a long black trail of rubber on the asphalt. The em dash is the literary equivalent of a skid mark, showing an abrupt stop in the dialogue.

Now you know two uses of the helpful punctuation mark known as the em dash.

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You can view other segments of Copyediting with Keli on YouTube.

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Do you have fun making some of your characters interrupt others?

Do you like to interrupt dialogue to give your reader further information?

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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21 Responses to Two Tips for Punctuating Interrupted Dialogue

  1. Hi Keli. Thanks for your post! I’ve actually been wondering about this. I’ve only really seen interruptions with ellipses used (that I’ve noticed anyway), but they didn’t strike me as quite right when I tried doing it myself in my story. But the em dash makes perfect sense!

  2. Wendy says:

    Yes, I love when my characters interrupt b/c it happens so often in real life. However, I’m careful not to overdo it b/c that could get distracting.

    These are great, Keli!
    ~ Wendy

  3. I love the em dash! Great insights on how to properly apply it. I do believe I WAY overuse and misuse it. :) lol

  4. Ahhh, the em dash! (And I remember the pre-computer days of the double hypen, Keli!) I still have a relapse every now and then, but like you said, thank goodness for auto-correct!

    I agree with Wendy above. Just like in “real life” my characters do sometimes interrupt one another, especially during heated debates. I just try not to overdo it.

  5. I have used the em-dash to break into a character’s sentence, but I have not used it to break up the action. I’ve merely stated: “I want you to think about this.” He hesitated for a moment. “Be very careful before you get in too deep.” So … what you are saying is that I could … (em-dash) he hesitated (em-dash) … and then continue with his next sentence? Keli, I love this series because no matter what we think we know, there is always something to learn :)

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Florence, I’m glad you’re finding the series helpful.

      To answer your question, I generally use an em dash to interrupt a sentence, meaning that what’s on either side of the breaks set off by the em dashes would make a complete sentence. If I have two separate sentences, I would use the action beat as a separate sentence between the two lines of dialogue.

      If I were to use an em dash in the example you gave, this is how I would write it: “I want you to think about this, and”–he hesitated–”be careful before you get in too deep.”

      Here are two bonus editing tips for you, free of charge. :-) 1. Since a person usually hesitates only “for a moment” when talking, I would leave out those unnecessary words. 2. Unless your character makes a habit of using the word “very,” I would leave it out. It’s a weasel word, plus men tend not to use such qualifiers in their speech. They’re much more direct than we women are.

  6. Donna Pyle says:

    Thanks so much for this very handy information! In reading, I’ve always noticed when interruptions weren’t well written, but I couldn’t figure out why. This shed valuable light. Thanks!

  7. Loree Huebner says:

    I just love your vlogs lessons.

  8. I often use the em dash for interrupting. Great stuff, Keli!

  9. bethkvogt says:

    Confession: I love em dashes. Love them!
    I put them all over my WIPs and then have to weed them out during revisions.

    Great post, Keli.

  10. C=Caroline says:

    Just found this, Keli! It’s awesome. You’re a great teacher! I’m off to watch some more. :)

  11. I enjoy having characters cut each other off, but like Wendy, I don’t do it all the time! I could listen to you teach all day, Keli! You have such a great voice. :)

  12. I haven’t seen many examples like your second one. Thanks for sharing this, Keli! And I love your analogy of the skid marks…very helpful!

  13. Thanks for the second example, Keli! I didn’t know how to do that one. And I agree with Sarah–love the analogy of the skid marks!

  14. love the voice overs!! lol!! :)

  15. Cindy R. Wilson says:

    Yay, I’m actually doing something right! :) Thanks for this post, Keli. Yeah, I love making my character’s interrupt each other, particularly when the hero is trying to convince the heroine that their love is meant to be but she just doesn’t want to listen!

  16. Jill Kemerer says:

    I didn’t know you could interrupt and then continue a line of dialogue with em-dashes! Thanks Keli!

  17. Gina Conroy says:

    I interrupt my character dialogue all the time, but never with an action beat. Thanks for teaching me something new!

  18. Thanks for answering a dialogue question that’s been bugging me for a long time–punctuation after an em-dash, or not.

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