27 February 2015

Nuances of Punctuating Dialogue: Em-Dash vs Ellipsis

This is a fairly specific post about punctuating dialogue. If you're unsure on the basics of where commas and other punctuation go in relation to quotation marks, dialogue tags, and action beats, this post won't answer those questions. Sorry! Perhaps that's something I can touch on later. What I want to cover today is how two specific punctuation marks, the em-dash and the ellpisis, can change the feeling of your dialogue. If you're writing a romantic or sexy scene, this is an important distinction that can really alter a scene.

Ellipses in dialogue

An ellipsis serves many purposes. In academic writing, you probably know it as the symbol you use when you've omitted part of a quote. It can serve a similar purpose in dialogue, and it can also be used to indicate trailing off. When would an ellipsis work well in dialogue?
  • When a character pauses mid-sentence and then resumes speaking, but along a different train of thought. "It's not that I don't want ... He's forgotten me by now, I'm sure."
  • If a character's voice fades out or trails off at the end of their dialogue, regardless of whether they finish the thought. "You know that's not true ..."
  • To indicate an elongated pause in speech. "I just wanted to say ... I love you."
Be careful not to overuse ellipses in your dialogue, though. It can make a character seem uncertain, hesitant, or reluctant. If you met someone who always ... took long pauses ... and whose voice was always trailing off ... you would probably question their confidence, at the very least. Not to mention it can make your dialogue feel painfully slow to read.

Em-dashes in dialogue

An em-dash can also be used when a character's train of thought shifts from one thing to another in dialogue, but it's a much more abrupt change. I like to think of ellipses as softer and em-dashes as harder. An em-dash in dialogue shows a sudden change in topic or a sudden end to the speech. Use it in these types of situations:
  • When a character is interrupted by someone else's action or dialogue. "How could you—" She pressed a finger to my lips.
  • If a character stammers or abruptly changes direction in what they're saying. "No—I mean—yes, I did kiss—but you said I should do what I wanted."
  • When a character just suddenly stops speaking of their own accord. "I was only with him the one—" She closed her mouth, realizing she was only digging herself into a hole.
Again, beware of overuse. Where too many ellipses in your dialogue will feel sluggish, too many em-dashes will feel stilted and herky-jerky.

Here's a quick example of each from one of my erotic short stories, The Guest. Mateo and Gwen are married, but a flirty house guest is complicating things.
“Were you expecting David?”
“I wouldn’t have minded.” I froze the moment the words were out of my mouth. Stupid wine. “Not that I would ever—”
He silenced me with a kiss, his tongue forcing past my lips and drawing a moan from deep in my belly. “I like the way he looks at you.”
My cheeks grew hot. “He wasn’t looking at me any particular way.”
“Ah, mi preciosa... of course he was.”
How might the sentences with the ellipsis and em-dash feel different if the punctuation were reversed? How about if the punctuation was the more basic period and comma choices? When trying to convey your meaning to the reader, don't forget to consider more than just the words your characters say—look at how you punctuate those words, too.

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