How to Write Interrupted Dialogue

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 interrupted 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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