Proper Formatting for Interrupted Dialogue

This week we’re talking about proper formatting for interrupted dialogue and trailing off in dialogue. Now, some people have called me very strict when it comes to dialogue formatting, and I’d agree. I have very low tolerance for excessive dialogue tags, too much gesture/action clogging up scene, improper formatting, and fancy “said” synonyms or adverbs. What I’m about to discuss here is another one of my pet peeves. The good news is, it has a very intuitive fix, which you can begin to implement as soon as you’re aware of the issue.

interrupted dialogue, trailing off in dialogue
Dammit, Barbara, you just never let me finish any–

Interrupted Dialogue And Trailing Off In Dialogue Done the Wrong Way

I began to say, “You just never let me finish any…” when Mom interrupted me.
“That’s because there’s nothing you can say,” she moaned. “What you’ve done is so…so…” She trailed off.

Here we find both interrupted dialogue and trailing off in dialogue (with a bonus fancy “said” synonym). We also find, and I hope this popped out at you, a lot of excess description of pretty obvious stuff. This dialogue is currently bogged down in logistic. Instead, it should really move quickly and fly off the page.

The good news is, you can accomplish that with punctuation that exists for just this purpose.

To Indicate Interrupted Dialogue, Use An Em-Dash

To create interrupted dialogue that everyone will recognize as such, use an em-dash where you want to end the dialogue. You create an em-dash by typing two hyphens, and most word processing programs will tie them automatically into the longer dash.

To Indicate Trailing Off in Dialogue, Use An Ellipse

To indicate a person trialing off from their train of thought, whether in speech or narration, use an ellipse. (Make sure to check out my related post on interruptions and trailing off when you’re writing thoughts.) You create one by typing three periods in a row with no space before and sometimes a space after. If there’s a pause within a sentence…like this, you don’t need a space after. If there’s a pause between sentences, use a space… And that’s really all there is.

Interrupted Dialogue And Trailing Off In Dialogue Done the Right Way

“You just never let me finish any–”
“That’s because there’s nothing to say. What you’ve done is so…so…”

You’ve cut the whole “I began to say” business, and the “Mom interrupted me” because it’s all right there in the punctuation. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!

Hire my manuscript critique services and I’ll point out instances where you can streamline your dialogue.

5 Replies to “Proper Formatting for Interrupted Dialogue”

  1. Pacing is so so important in dialogue, especially in conflict scenes – thank you so much for pointing out how helpful and necessary correct punctuation is, both for dialogue and interiority scenes!

  2. Hi Mary.

    You went nearly 3 whole weeks without a post. I was beginning to think you had decided we were beyond help and had given up on us. But if you’re throwing around phrases in your blog like “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!” then I can see my fears are clearly unfounded.

    Thanks for the helpful tips on interruptions. Hope you’re doing well.

    JDB

  3. Question: Could you show how to punctuate when people talk at the same time? I also have that in my ms and am not sure how to structure it.

    Thanks!!

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