Em Dashes in Dialogue

Last time, we looked at using ellipses in your dialogue. Up next: em dashes.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

using quotation marks

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The em dash—it looks like this—is used to indicate a break of thought or speech. It can be used parenthetically, as in the previous sentence, or singly, for example if a character changes topic mid-sentence.

“The next slide shows the third quarter—no, sorry, that’s the wrong slide.”

It can also be used to show an interruption.

“Hang on a minute while I—”
“Never mind,” said the chairman.

When one character is being interrupted by another, it’s best if the interruption is in the form of dialogue. In the following example, it’s not clear whether she just stopped talking, or if he interrupted her.

“Hang on a minute while I—”
Picking up his phone, the chairman said, “Never mind.”

Put no spaces around em dashes in fiction.

If narrative comes in the middle of a sentence, like a beat, the em dashes go outside the quotation marks.

“I just need a second”—she double-clicked the file—“to open the right presentation.”

Ellipses and em dashes can be used to add rhythm and realism to dialogue, but they can be distracting if too many of them pile up in quick succession. So use them judiciously.

Typing special characters

Nonbreaking space in Word for Windows: ctrl + shift + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Windows: alt + ctrl + period
Em dash in Word for Windows: ctrl + alt + minus key (on the numeric keypad)

Nonbreaking space in Word for Mac: option + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Mac: option + semicolon
Em dash in Word for Mac: option + shift + hyphen

Interior Monologue

Here’s the last item in the Dialog section of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist:

Interior monologue is presented consistently.

We looked at how to handle interior monologue last year in a Fiction Q&A post. The short version: You can use italics or not, as your preference. Just keep it consistent. If you’re writing in deep POV, you can keep the person and tense of the interior monologue the same as the surrounding narrative and avoid using italics. If you change person or tense—for example, if your narrative is third person past tense and the interior monologue is first person present tense, then italics serve as a good signal to the reader that you changed person and tense deliberately.

Next week, we’ll start on Description.

Using Ellipses in Dialogue

Punctuation is hard to master in everyday writing. Fiction adds a layer of complexity because of the different way dialogue is punctuated. As if commas weren’t hard enough to wrangle on their own, dialogue puts a special twist on a couple of marks that don’t otherwise see a lot of use.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

In nonfiction writing, ellipses are used only to show omissions. But they have a special use in dialogue to indicate a trailing off of the character’s speech.

using quotation marks

© AKS – Fotolia.com

Remember our flustered presenter from last time?

“I guess …” she clicked around, vainly searching for the right version. “Looks like … I think I misplaced the new version.”

The ellipses, or as Chicago prefers to call them in this usage, “suspension points,” indicate that she’s hesitating or drawing out the sentence.

You do not normally use terminal punctuation with an ellipsis at the end of a sentence.

“Sorry, this is really …” She couldn’t finish.

A period is not needed after the ellipsis. You can use a comma before a dialogue tag if you have to:

“Sorry, this is really …,” she said.

But it looks funny, so I recommend rewriting the tag to avoid that. Notice that within a sentence there are spaces on either side of the ellipsis, but not at the end of a sentence or before another punctuation mark.

A question mark can follow the ellipsis if appropriate.

She couldn’t find the correct file. “What the …?”

A note about typesetting: Chicago Manual of Style recommends “three spaced periods.” If you are submitting your manuscript to the University of Chicago Press, I guess you ought to type them that way. To avoid having the ellipsis break at the end of the line, use nonbreaking spaces between the periods.

But when I researched the topic of typesetting ellipses years ago—yes, this is the kind of thing I spend my time on—I discovered that preferences for the typesetting of ellipses vary, but the one thing all page designers agreed on was that it doesn’t really matter how you type your ellipses as long as you do it consistently throughout your document. As long as they’re all the same, the page designer can do a find-and-replace to change it with whatever their house style is.

(One of my concerns is that vast amounts of time are wasted by copyeditors changing ellipsis characters to three spaced periods, which are then changed back to ellipsis characters by page designers.)

There are three ways to type ellipses: spaced periods, as noted above; three periods with no spaces, which, depending on your settings, Word may automagically convert to an ellipsis character; and entering the ellipsis character. I recommend using the latter because it’s fast, looks good, and is harder to mess up. If you’re self-publishing, you can leave it that way. If you’re submitting for traditional publication, find out whether your publisher has a preference and do it that way.

Typing special characters

Nonbreaking space in Word for Windows: ctrl + shift + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Windows: alt + ctrl + period
Em dash in Word for Windows: ctrl + alt + minus key (on the numeric keypad)

Nonbreaking space in Word for Mac: option + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Mac: option + semicolon
Em dash in Word for Mac: option + shift + hyphen

Next time: em dashes


Use speech and action to convey emotion

Many new writers—and, frankly—some experienced writers—take a short cut in first draft writing by using labels to convey emotion. Do what you must to get through the first draft, but our editing pass is the time to root those things out and replace them with something meaningful.

Emotional states are shown through speech and action rather than dialogue tags.

This item happens to be under Dialog only because tags are where this often shows up. But emotion labeling can occur in narrative also. Sometimes, you do just need to drop a label in, but more often, it’s best to use the dialog and action to convey the emotion. A first draft might look something like this: Continue reading

Use dialogue tags wisely

Dialogue tags seem simple, but in practice they are a complex element that many new writers fail to appreciate. One characteristic that distinguishes great writing from good writing is the efficient and elegant use of dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags convey meaningful information, such as action beats.

One of the first things writers learn is that a simple he said is almost always preferable to more complex constructions like he pronounced or she observed. I only put that almost in there because I’m not one to forbid something outright. But really, the best writers just don’t do that.

dialogue tags

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Some editors advise against using all speech verbs except said and asked, but that’s going too far. Speech verbs exist for a reason, and can be used judiciously. Just remember they are like spice. Use sparingly. Continue reading

Use dialogue to move story forward

Back in my college days, I had the great opportunity to take a writing course from TV comedy writer Danny Simon. He taught us a lot in that class, and I’ve probably forgotten most of it, but I kept my notes, so I can always go back and check.

One thing I don’t need to check is this: “Leave out the orange juice talk.”

What he meant by that is the boring conversations we have every day. Continue reading

Characters speak like real people

New writers’ manuscripts are often marked by unrealistic dialogue. Many things can go wrong in characters’ speech, but this is one of the biggest. If the characters’ conversations sound fake, readers will drop out quickly.

Conversations are natural and realistic.

When I say natural, I refer partly to the idea, mentioned last week, that a character’s background and personality will be reflected in their speech.

One fault I often see in manuscripts from people who spent too much time in academia is a lack of contractions. Continue reading

Give characters distinct voices

Editors talk a lot about voice, and it’s a tricky thing to get a handle on. For one thing, there is an authorial voice; that is, each particular author has their own writing style that comes through regardless of the setting or topic of each novel. I prefer to think of that as writing style—though there’s got to be a better term for that—and preserve voice for talking about characters and narrators.

If you are writing in deep POV, your narrative should carry the same voice as the POV character. If you are not writing in deep POV, avoid generic narrator voice and give the narrator a distinctive voice of its own. (See The difference between your voice and the character’s voice.)

Each character has a distinct voice suitable to their temperament.
Continue reading