Breaking Dialogue With Action

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Thread: Breaking Dialogue With Action

  1. #1

    Breaking Dialogue With Action

    I have a question about dialogue and action.
    I normally do this: “Yeah, I mean, sure—” she licked her lips, at once noting how dry her throat felt “—I talk to them and all.”

    To break dialogue up with action, but I've read that should instead be like this: “Yeah, I mean, sure”--she licked her lips, at once noting how dry her throat felt--"I talk to them and all.”

    Which way is correct, or do you guys do any other way? I think the second one is the right way, meaning I'm going to have to go correct my WiP
    "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand." - Raymond Chandler

  2. #2
    Riptide, I am always amazed at Google. I typed in "breaking up dialogue with action;" that was all. And this came up from Keli Gwynn's Blog."

    “I’ve waited years for my first publishing contract, and now that it’s here”—her voice broke—“I hardly have words to describe my how I feel.”

    The em dash is the long dash that used to be shown, back in pre-computer days, by typing two hyphens.

    Those who use Word can make use of the program’s “auto correct” feature to replace an old-fashioned two-hyphen em dash with an actual em dash (—).

    This next one is from the Editor's Blog -
    Enclose the first part of the dialogue in quotation marks but omit the comma. Follow the end quotation mark with an em dash and the action or thought and then another em dash. Resume the dialogue with another opening quotation mark, complete the dialogue, and end with a period and a closing quotation mark. There are no spaces between the quotation marks and the dashes or between the dashes and the action/thought.

    Thus the spoken words are within quotation marks and the action or thought is set off by the dashes.
    “He loved you”—she pounded the wall with a heavy fist—“but you never cared.”
    “He loved you”—at least she thought he had—“but you never cared.”

    I hope these help!
    When the night has come
    And the land is dark
    And the moon is the only light we'll see
    No, I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
    Just as long as you stand by me.


  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by SueC View Post
    Riptide, I am always amazed at Google. I typed in "breaking up dialogue with action;" that was all. And this came up from Keli Gwynn's Blog."
    That is actually what I did, and it got me to ask this question because I swear I looked it up before and got the first way. Or I just got confused, that might've happened also... and now that I look back on older works, I've been doing it the second way and must've switched them up in this new WiP.
    "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand." - Raymond Chandler

  4. #4
    I've always thought the em-dash approach (when used outside the quotation marks) looks a bit odd. So, for me, I prefer to keep any dashes, or ellipses, inside the quotes, to preserve the narration.

    After all, it's usually the speech that's being interrupted, not the narration. So it makes sense for the speech itself to have the interrupting punctuation marks.

    Like so:

    "He loved you! But you—" She pounded the wall with a heavy fist. "You never cared."

    “Yeah, I mean, sure . . ." She licked her lips, at once noting how dry her throat felt. "I talk to them and all.”

    Or, if the sentence gets broken up midway, then restarted again after the narration, you can interrupt the dialogue inside the quotation marks, and pick things up the same way.

    “I can't believe that you . . ." She trailed off and looked away. When she spoke again, her voice came out as barely a whisper. ". . . that you'd do such thing."

    The woman jabbed her grimy finger accusingly at the boy. "Did you just—" She balled her hand into a fist. "—spit on my daughter?!"

  5. #5
    I have seen it both ways. Actually, Twilight does it both ways.

    "These two" -- Maurois nodded at Billie and me -- "are friends of our Ines. This" -- indicating Big Chin --"is a confrere of mine." (from Hammett's The Girl With the Silver Eyes)

    I think there should be a difference -- a reason to use one versus the other -- but I haven't found that. There's probably something to be said for just avoiding it.

    "So I called upstairs and left you a message --"
    I spot the flashing red light on the phone.
    "-- where I told you I would be waiting in the gift shop to come and get me."
    (How to be Bad,page 219)
    How to write a good start: Hidden Content . Useful, original information. Long and thorough.
    Includes Hidden Content (do you start with description?), Hidden Content (a favorite with publishers apparently), starting with Hidden Content (a lost art), and more.

  6. #6
    I personally think that an elipsis or em dash inside the quotes is misleading if the speech is continuous and not trailing off or interrupted and there is just the need to insert a physical action or other narration.

    Chicago Manual of Style says use the em dash approach when the dialog isn't being interrupted. Their example is pretty straightforward since there wouldn't be an interruption to the dialog if a voice is just changing tone from normal to huffy as someone speaks continuously.

    CMS 6.78: If the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks.

    “Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots, and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”


    And here is an example from Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. I think of it as slipping an action sans dialog tag into a continuous sentence, not one that trails off or is interrupted (in those cases the em dash or elipsis do go inside the quotes).

    “Miss Peale. We meet at last,” he said with a smile. “And Miss Jackson”—he turned to Kitty—“it is a great honor as well as a pleasure.”


    Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad (Kindle Locations 2128-2129). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


    That said, there is this from The Goldfinch. They have one em dash in the quotes and the other outside of the quotes. It is done in multiple places in this novel. I don't think that the dialog is being interrupted here. It would seem that sentence would be continuous and this is just showing physical action that is happening simultaneously, so I would think this would fit the CMOS 6.78 example and they are just handling it differently? Anyway, I have seen it done this way in several works, and can't quite get a handle on whether there is something different about this structure that I'm just not seeing that would cause it to be this way, or whether they are just using a different style guide or house style:

    “Your dad wants to risk his shirt on how some morons handle a fucking ball—I mean, pardon my language. But it’s hard for me to have sympathy for a guy like him. Doesn’t honor his obligations, three weeks late on the vig, doesn’t return my phone calls—” he was ticking off the offenses on his fingers—“makes plans to meet me at noon today and then doesn’t show. You know how long I sat and waited for that deadbeat? An hour and a half. Like I don’t got other, better things to do.”


    Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) (p. 337). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.


  7. #7
    I've always seen it with simple commas for usual action. Dashes are for interruptions and ellipses are for trailing off.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Jack of all trades View Post
    I've always seen it with simple commas for usual action. Dashes are for interruptions and ellipses are for trailing off.
    But if you do something like “And Miss Jackson,” he turned to Kitty, “it is a great honor as well as a pleasure.” -- then it's not really proper dialogue, you know? Because you wouldn't say: "Hello Miss Jackson," he turned to Kitty. You would do: He turned to Kitty. "Hello Miss Jackson."

    Unless you've seen some published books that do this, and there might be some.
    "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand." - Raymond Chandler

  9. #9
    “Yeah, I mean, sure—” she licked her lips, at once noting how dry her throat felt “—I talk to them and all.”
    Yeah, I mean, sure...” She licked her lips, at once noting how dry her throat felt “... I talk to them and all.”

    An em-dash denotes a sudden cut off, an ellipsis denotes a trailing off.

    And: She licked dry lips. Says it all. Don't over specify, and don't step in stage to talk to the reader about what you note because that stops the scene clock and kills all memontum the scene might have.. You're neither on the scene nor in the story. So what you say must be in service to the action taking place, not gossip and authorial interruption.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Jay Greenstein View Post
    Yeah, I mean, sure...” She licked her lips, at once noting how dry her throat felt “... I talk to them and all.”

    An em-dash denotes a sudden cut off, an ellipsis denotes a trailing off.

    And: She licked dry lips. Says it all. Don't over specify, and don't step in stage to talk to the reader about what you note because that stops the scene clock and kills all memontum the scene might have.. You're neither on the scene nor in the story. So what you say must be in service to the action taking place, not gossip and authorial interruption.
    You are right, that line doesn't need to be there. Thanks!
    "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand." - Raymond Chandler

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