Writing an Interruption and Interrupting a Train of Thought

This post is about two things: writing an interruption in dialogue, and how to narrate an interrupted train of thought. Let’s talk about the latter first.

writing an interruption, interrupting a train of thought in narrative, creative writing, fiction writing
There’s no interrupting this train…unless you have an em-dash.

Writing an Interruption in a Train of Thought

I sat down at the computer to write a blog post when I started thinking… Gosh, it’s really weird how I’m writing this blog post on March 8th, but it won’t be posted until March 14th, because I’m loading my blog up ahead of my trip to Paaaaaaaaaaaaaris! Wow. I can’t believe I go to France tomorrow. An eleven-hour direct flight from San Francisco. I’m going to go stircrazy on that plane, and then I’ll have to navigate the Métro. Can’t complain, though! It’s Paris, after all. Hmm. I wonder if my readers know that I’m writing from the past. What will it be like on March 14th? That day, I’ll be in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy wine country. Mmm…wine country…

A noise from the hall sneaked into my thoughts, pulling me out of my reverie about pinot noir. “That’s right!” I muttered to myself. “I’m supposed to be writing a blog post!”

***

It’s difficult to describe disconnecting a character from his thoughts. This action is usually laden with cliché after cliché after cliché. Voices sneaking into thought. Dialogue snapping a character out of their thinking. Noises startling. Talk of reveries (as you can see above). Fog and/or haze lifting. Being lost in thought. And on and on.

I’m sick of all of them, basically. I would recommend that you avoid this altogether. If a noise is going to come from the hall mid-thought, describe it, then jump back into narrative. If dialogue intrudes, show us the dialogue, and then get into the swing of things, maybe with one descriptive phrase so the transition isn’t so jarring.

Examples of Interrupting a Train of Thought

Just like you should eliminate the frame, you don’t need to tell us that thoughts have been interrupted. Give us the thoughts. Give us the interruption. Then give us the results. It’s that simple. The narrative of the thought actually stopping is fluff that should be easy to trim.

An example:

Blah blah blah. Wine country. France. Thinking thinking thinking.

“Mary, write your blog post already!” Mary said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh!” Mary wondered how long she’d been spacing. “Duh. Thanks, Mary!”

There’s that one descriptive phrase in there, to get the reader back into the action, but you could even do without it because the “Oh!” conveys surprise or a startled feeling. This issue is a very small nitpick, but, as I said, every word and every phrase counts in your writing.

Writing an Interruption In Dialogue

With narration, interruptions can be a little bit loosey goosey. On the other hand, there is only one way to interrupt a train of thought. It goes like this:

“I’m just trying to talk here and–”

“Don’t you say another word!”

Two dashes make what’s called an em-dash, and your word processing program will likely transform this into an em-dash on your behalf when you type it. This is really the only way to format an interruption, and you should let the formatting work for you. There’s no need for things like:

“I’m just trying to talk here and…” But then Mary was rudely interrupted.

“Don’t you say another word!”

You shouldn’t narrate the interruption. Don’t describe it. Don’t use an ellipse… Those are for when characters drift off when they’re talking, and interruptions are more sudden. Use an em-dash. That’s it. That’s all. Easy.

Transitions can be tricky. Hire me as your fiction editor and we can smooth them out together, and work on the overall flow of your voice.

7 Replies to “Writing an Interruption and Interrupting a Train of Thought”

  1. Thanks Mary for the thoughts on thoughts; I am so often interrupted by things – – hey, that looks like a French frisbee going by – – and I have to wrestle my mind back into the stream of things – – oh, I haven’t had my nightly chardonnay yet – – but my mind wrestles back – – what’s that dog scratching for – – so yes, a reality of writing.

  2. Thank you! This is something I didn’t even realize I was doing. I just edited a chapter with your advice in mind and it is so much stronger!

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