Prose, Interrupted: Signaling Breaks in Dialogue

Overlapping speech bubbles

Interruptions happen all the time in real life. People talk over each other and past each other; words collide and overlap. Sometimes an action or a thought rather than a person intrudes, causing a speaker to stop abruptly or, less dramatically, to trail off midsentence.

The conventions in fiction for signaling such interruptions on the page depend on the conventions that allow for dialogue in the first place, so let’s start there.

Narrative Interruption

Even in the most unconventional of stories there’s usually a dichotomy between a narrator, on the one hand, and the characters the narrator observes, on the other. Whenever these characters speak, they interrupt the narrative. The narrator, in turn, interrupts the dialogue to identify speakers or simply to return to the story.

The difference between speaker and narrator typically depends on quotation marks:

“The end is near.” Cassandra was being facetious.

But not all dialogue features quotation marks, and even when it does, narrators often take the liberty of sharing the same sentence with the speaker (who, in the case of first-person narrative, may be same person). In this scenario, the comma is the conventional agent of narrative interruption:

“The end is near,” Cassandra said, “so hurry up.”

Sometimes the comma is replaced by a question mark or an exclamation point:

“Is the end near?” Cassandra asked.

“The end is near!” Cassandra warned.

Because of the capital C in the speaker’s name, the reader may see “Cassandra asked” or “Cassandra warned” as a standalone sentence—for a moment anyway. Inversion solves this problem:

“Is the end near?” asked Cassandra.

A comma in addition to the question mark might also help, but that would be clunky.* Readers generally accept “Cassandra asked” and the like for what they are—dialogue tags (also known as speaker tags)—and agree to do without the extra punctuation or the inversion.

Enter the Dash

The conventions for dialogue allow a narrator to “interrupt” the speakers at any time and for any reason. But to show a true interruption, the kind that occurs when a speaker is cut off in the middle of sentence or a word, we’ll need something stronger than a comma—namely, an em dash (see also CMOS 6.87):

“Don’t inter—” The egg came out of nowhere, striking Ralph on the forehead.†

“Why do you always—”
“Always what?”

“Did I ever tell you about the—” he began, but nobody was listening.

As with question marks and exclamation points, the dash alone signals the end of the speech. A comma might seem helpful sometimes, as in the last example, but that would only weaken the interruption.

Normally, dashes belong to the interrupted speaker. But when the narrator intervenes in the middle of a speech to describe an interrupting action or movement, the dashes are better placed outside the quotation marks. Do this even if the speaker’s words are also interrupted:

“Don’t you dare”—Cassandra paused for a moment to glare at Ralph—“interrupt me.”

The narrator should also take over when things get more complicated. For example, though you could try to use dashes—or text that literally overlaps‡—to illustrate what happens when speakers talk over each other, it’s usually best simply to say that they’re talking over each other or ignoring each other or whatever fits.

Dithering Dots

When a character’s speech trails off or falters rather than breaking off abruptly, the convention is to use an ellipsis rather than a dash. As with dashes, no additional punctuation is needed to mark the end of the quotation:

“Don’t dither . . .” he dithered, failing to grasp the irony.

“I can’t . . . I . . .” That was the last of the recording.

This wasn’t officially Chicago style until the thirteenth edition (1982), the first to recommend dots instead of dashes for faltering speech. In academic writing, the main use of ellipses is to mark omitted text in quotations; the new rule was an acknowledgment that many writers and editors in fiction, too, were using Chicago.

Note that one of Chicago’s current examples (in CMOS 13.41) features a comma:

“But . . . but . . . ,” said Tom.

That comma is supposed to help signal the transition from speech back to narrative, but most fiction writers leave it out. Feel free to do the same.

* * *

Fiction isn’t Morse code; use dashes-as-interruptions and dots-as-faltering sparingly, if at all. When in doubt, let the narrator take over. Whatever you do, try not to interrupt the reader’s immersion in the story—unless the goal is to remind the reader that it’s only words on a page and not real life.

* CMOS recommends such double punctuation only in the case of an exclamation point or question mark that belongs to the title of a work. See CMOS 6.125.

† Note that in Chicago style there’s usually no space on either side of an em dash, including next to a quotation mark. But to show speech that stops abruptly and then restarts before the close of a quotation, add a space after the dash:

“Don’t inter— Hey! Who threw that?” The egg had come out of nowhere, striking Ralph on the forehead.

‡ For a fascinating overview of typographic innovations in fiction, see Zoë Sadokierski, “Disturbing the Text: Typographic Devices in Literary Fiction,” originally published in Book 2.0, vol. 2, no. 1 (2013).

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

~ ~ ~

Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

Order the book
Subscribe online

Please see our commenting policy.