How to Write Interrupted Dialogue

Table of Contents

As a writer, I love dialogue. As an editor… Well, my feelings are a little less fuzzy, especially when it comes to interrupted dialogue.
 
When I was editing my first few books, I had to refer to reference materials a lot more than I do lately, and though the go-to guide for fiction, The Chicago Manual of Style, does have guidelines about interrupted speech, they exist in multiple areas and are a little hard to find. As a result, I’ve often found myself longing for a clear and concise guide on how to punctuate interruptions and pauses in dialogue. I haven’t come across such a resource, so I’ll offer one here.
Three types of punctuation signify interrupted dialogue: the hyphen, the em dash, and the ellipsis. Below, I’ll show examples of how to use these punctuation marks depending on the nature of the interruption.
 
Please note that I’m following The Chicago Manual of Style with these guidelines, but CMoS doesn’t provide guidance on all of these situations, so I’ve based some of the below information on what’s conventional in fiction.

Hyphens

A hyphen is only used in interrupted dialogue if the character is stuttering.

“I-I don’t know.”

“Wh-Wh-What are you talking about?”

Or: “Wh-wh-what are you talking about?”

(I prefer the first option because “Wh” is part of a capitalized word.)

“I didn’t think sh-she’d do s-s-something like that.”

“S-Stop!”

Em dashes can work for stuttering as well, but they signify a longer pause/slower stutter than the hyphen, and I typically don’t recommend them.

Em Dashes

An em dash marks an abrupt interruption or sudden stop.
 
When a character suddenly stops speaking on their own:

“I—”

“I don’t know what you’re—”

“What are you—”

“How in the—”

“I’m not sure—?”

(I recommend only adding a question mark at the end if it’s not obvious by the words that the character has started a question.)

“You’re so—!”

 
When one character interrupts another:

“Hey, what—”
“Shut up, you!” Hallie yelled.

 
When one character interrupts another, who keeps talking:

“At the end of the day—”
“But I’m worried about now!”
“—it won’t matter.”

 
When dialogue happens at the same time as action or description:

“I just don’t know if I can”—she took a breath—“go on like this.”

“Are you freaking”—his voice went up an octave—“kidding me?”

 
When the point-of-view character starts hearing the dialogue in the middle (maybe she just walked up to someone who was already talking):

“—so full of it,” Jem was saying.

 
When a character suddenly changes thoughts mid-speech:

“I can’t believe you—ugh, I’m just so—you betrayed me!”

Or: “I can’t believe you— Ugh, I’m just so— You betrayed me!”

(Note that the second example will read as having longer pauses than the first example.)

Ellipses

An ellipsis signifies a trailing off. This interruption is less abrupt and less intense than an em dash interruption.
 
When a character changes thoughts mid-speech:

“She’s just…I don’t know. She’s mean.”

“I love it when…he’s just so…he’s cute!”

Or: “I love it when… He’s just so… He’s cute!”

(Note that the second example will read as having longer pauses than the first example.)

“The end of the movie…oh God!…it was awful.”

 
When a character trails off:

“He was…”
“Was what?”

“Are you…”

“She’s a…?”

(As with the em dash, I recommend only adding a question mark at the end if it’s not obvious by the words that the character has started a question.)

“This is weird…,” she said.

(I personally recommend avoiding this construction as it calls some attention to itself.)

“I don’t know…”

And One More Tip

It isn’t necessary to indicate interruptions with dialogue tags or action tags in addition to punctuation.
 
NOT recommended:

“What—” He broke off.

“I’m not sure I…” She trailed off.

 
Recommended:

“What—” He covered his face with his hands.

“I’m not sure I…” She chewed on her bottom lip.

Whew! This post covered a lot (or at least it felt like it to me), but if there’s something I didn’t cover, please feel free to leave a comment.

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18 Responses

  1. Hi, I was just wondering about spaces.. are there supposed to be spaces in between the dashes (—) and the talk situations (“) ? Should it be:

    “Well, I thought you —“ he stopped himself.
    “Well, I thought you—“ he stopped himself.

    Great article.

    Thanks!

    1. Nope, no need for spaces! In US English, there should only be a space before an em dash if it’s at the start of a sentence and after an em dash if it’s at the end of a sentence. For your example:

      “Well, I thought you—” He stopped himself.

  2. I have spent at least an hour trying to find a place where all of those emdash rules are consolidated. There are many Google results higher than yours that mention a portion of those rules, usually with a number of them being in the comments of the post. It makes it very difficult to learn these rules. Specifically, it’s very challenging to find rules 2, 3, and 4 in one place. Bookmarked for later, and I will be sharing this with others.

  3. Hi Lyss,
    I want to echo all the thanks and feedback above.
    I too love writing dialog and often want a second speaker to interrupt a first, but managed to miss any training of how to correct punctuate it as opposed to one speakers simply trailing off, not speaking the completion of a thought, which allows another speaker to begin without “interrupting” the first.
    I especially appreciate your note about not having a space between the last spoken word and the em dash (or an ellipse I assume. If you surround either with spaces Microsoft Word counts the punctuation as a word, which throws off your actual word count.
    You saved me from a schedule-killing romp through the Chicago Style Guide looking for these truths.

    He then closed his thanks by adding, “I owe you big… perhaps even HUGE. . . .”

    Regarding the spaces within an ellipse, it looks to me like there is no solid standard. Both seem to have their supporters and documentation.

    Blessings

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Gary.

      As far as ellipses go, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends periods with nonbreaking spaces between them and a regular space after the last period: . . . . (On a Mac, use option + spacebar to create a nonbreaking space. On PC in Microsoft Word only, use control + shift + spacebar.) However, CMOS allows for the ellipsis special character as well: …. I prefer the latter, but either one is perfectly fine as long as you are consistent.

  4. Posting again because there’s 0 formatting in my post somehow. Try again … ?

    I’m using Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” as an example.

    She uses a ton of em dashes in an interesting way.

    Example: “Umm—” she looked at the iPod—“Palestrina.”

    “Although—” she pointed—“see those two puzzled guys in the back there?”

    “Anyway—I am getting ahead of myself. Dima—?” he was picking assiduously through the breads on the tablecloth—“Dima’s cousin’s sister in law, ex-sister in law actually, married a Dutchman.”

    In which case I have no idea if this should be written,

    “Alright,” he said, “get dragin’ them pallets out back. And we’re gonna need tools. You got two drills charged and ready to go? Screws?”—he stooped and began to bowl scrap wood out of the trailer—“Can’t see anything neither. You got some two-by-fours layin’ around?”

    or

    “Alright,” he said, “get dragin’ them pallets out back. And we’re gonna need tools. You got two drills charged and ready to go? Screws—?” he stooped and began to bowl scrap wood out of the trailer. “Can’t see anything neither. You got some two-by-fours layin’ around?”

    …or some other way.

    1. I don’t have a copy of The Goldfinch to verify those examples, but I can see several errors in them if we’re following The Chicago Manual of Style. (Tartt and her editor may have been following another style guide or simply choosing to format that way.)

      I would write your example like this:

      “All right,” he said, “get draggin’ them pallets out back. And we’re gonna need tools. You got two drills charged and ready to go? Screws—?” He stooped and began to bowl scrap wood out of the trailer. “Can’t see anything neither. You got some two-by-fours layin’ around?”

      I’m not sure the em dash actually adds anything to the above, so you could remove it.

  5. There’s another distinction I’d add. Formatting can indicate whether the speech is interrupted or not this way:

    “Sometimes a person can—”Jim glanced apologetically to Carol”—just make a mistake)
    a pause for the glance
    “I’ll take that one”—she pointed—”and that one, too.”
    no pause in the speech

  6. Thank you so much!
    I actually wanna cry lowkey cause I’ve been trying to look for a guide or resource for just this – interrupted dialogue! Everything I ended up reading online explained the concept but never outright gave examples, or I just couldn’t quite grasp it.

    Either way, thank you again for posting this! Will definitely be of use!

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