Writing dialogue that sounds like natural speech requires a tricky balancing act between authenticity and artfulness. The awkward pauses and filler words our brains filter out during conversation would be . . . uh . . . unreadable if we . . . um . . . were to do something like . . . I don’t know . . . transcribe them . . . yeah . . . into written dialogue. That doesn’t look natural; it looks like a mess.
Instead, writers need to lean on two tools: word choice, to give each character a distinctive voice; and punctuation, to establish rhythm and pacing. Let’s zero in on two punctuation marks—ellipses and dashes—that can help you create effective dialogue.
Ellipses dramatize thinking
When you want to show a character who is thinking through a problem or fumbling their way through a difficult conversation, ellipses are the tool you should reach for. Take a look at the following example from Lindsay Buroker’s Balanced on the Blade’s Edge, the kick off to her popular Dragon Blood series:
“Corporal, why is this woman standing outside in so little clothing?” the colonel asked. “It’s twenty degrees out.”
“It’s . . . she . . .”
Sardelle almost felt sorry for Rolff, no doubt groping for a way to explain her unexpected presence. Almost.
After a few more stutters, he settled on, “She’s a prisoner, sir!”
The ellipses convey those stutters perfectly: we can almost see the wheels spinning inside Rolff’s brain as he tries to come up with an explanation. Now, take a look at a second example from the same novel, which illustrates speech that trails off:
“Find her record, Captain. And find some of the people who arrived on the supply ship yesterday. If nobody remembers her . . .”
“Think she’s a spy, sir?”
Here the speaker, Zirkander, leaves his thought hanging in the air, perhaps because he isn’t sure whether to voice it or perhaps because he wants the Captain to draw the inference himself. This is dialogue that does double duty, hinting at thought processes that are happening behind the character’s words.
Dashes create urgency
Just like in narrative, dashes can be used in dialogue to set off clauses within sentences. But the most important use of dashes in dialogue is to show one speaker interrupting another. The following example from Toni Morrison’s Beloved shows both uses:
“Nothing bad can happen to her. Look at it. Everybody I knew dead or gone or dead and gone. Not her. Not my Denver. Even when I was carrying her, when it got clear that I wasn’t going to make it—which meant she wasn’t going to make it either—she pulled a whitegirl out of the hill. The last thing you’d expect to help. And when the schoolteacher found us and came busting in here with the law and a shotgun—”
“Schoolteacher found you?”
The speaker, Sethe, is telling Paul D the story of her daughter’s birth and her escape from the plantation where they had both been enslaved. The first set of dashes, around “which meant she wasn’t going to make it either,” is used to set off the clause from the rest of the sentence. Morrison could have used commas here but dashes make a stronger visual statement, giving more weight and importance to the clause they surround. When you are reading aloud, you give dashes a longer beat of silence than you give commas.
The final dash indicates that Paul D breaks into Sethe’s speech with his question, interrupting whatever words might have followed after “shotgun.” Note that he doesn’t break in immediately after Sethe names the schoolteacher—it takes a few more words for his brain to process what he has heard and formulate the question. That he breaks into Sethe’s speech marks the question as an urgent one, alerting the reader that schoolteacher is a significant figure in their shared past.
Dotting the i's
Let’s turn now to formatting these punctuation marks. Both Word and Scrivener automatically convert three consecutive periods into a single-character ellipsis, with no spaces in between the periods. The Chicago Manual of Style specifies that ellipses should be three periods separated by non-breaking spaces, to ensure that an ellipsis doesn’t get divided by a line break (see 13.48 and 13.39).
In Word and most other programs, you can make a non-breaking space by typing option-space. If you find that creating ellipses in this way slows you down when you are writing, use Word’s find and replace function to fix all of them at a later stage. Quotation marks are placed immediately after the final period, without a space. If there is another punctuation mark after the ellipsis, such as a comma or question mark, add another non-breaking space between the final period and the punctuation mark.
Out in the wild, particularly in self-published ebooks, you will see ellipses formulated in a variety of ways, with the single-character ellipsis followed by a space being the most common. Most printed books from traditional publishers, however, format the ellipsis with spaces, as prescribed by Chicago, and that’s the model I advise authors to follow. (If you are interested in how to finesse ellipses in the layout for your printed book, see this excellent piece by book designer Joel Friedlander.)
Dashes are more straightforward. Both Word and Scrivener automatically convert two consecutive hyphens (--) to an em-dash (—), the technical name for this punctuation mark. There should be no space on either side of the dash, including when it is followed by a quotation mark. British authors often prefer to use an en-dash ( – ) with spaces on either side rather than the em-dash. Whichever style you choose, be sure you are consistent throughout your book.
Got all that? Go forth and punctuate!