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Up From Down Under January 2009

Take a Break – Part 1



Enjoy writing dialogue?


I do.


I’d rather write a story full of dialogue than struggle with paragraph after paragraph of narration any day. Dialogue seems to flow off my pen or keyboard so much easier than narrative.


But then one strikes the problem of how to break into the dialogue or interject a necessary piece of narrative into dialogue. Fortunately, there are contenders for the job.


The major competitors for the position of facilitating simple breaks are the em dash and the ellipsis. Both are well qualified and valid applicants. However, they often vie for supremacy by exhibiting conflicting talents. Here’s my view of their place in dialogue:


The em dash is quite versatile. He’s quick to show interruptions and breaks.


“I going to—” John began.


The em dash indicates an interruption. Poor John didn’t get a chance to finish.


For stuttering, without a pause, the em dash fills the bill nicely. For example:


“H—h—h—help, please!”


The em dashes show a continuous stutter.


The ellipsis excels at showing hesitation, trailing off and pausing.


“Kate, you’re so lovely, I …” Keith’s eyes filled with tears and he blushed.


The ellipsis highlights a sentence trailing off. Keith hesitated, feeling overcome and embarrassed.


For stuttering, with a pause, the ellipsis has an extra talent. She leaves gaps. For example:


“H … h … h … help, please!”


The ellipses indicate pauses (usually brief, but indeterminable) in the vocalisation of the plea.


And, as an extra attraction here, the em dash and ellipsis couple well together. Consider what can happen when they party:


“H—h—h—help … h—help me, please!”


The vocalisation may be continuous or it may be broken by one or more pauses.


Obviously, the em dash and ellipsis will work just as hard when showing excitement, fear, ecstasy, anger, or whatever, whether the problem is an emotional one or a physical speech impediment.




  1. An en dash is the length of a hyphen. An em dash is the length of two hyphens, and your word processing program may adjust it automatically for you.
  2. You may be wondering about spaces around ellipses. To do or not to do? This is an area of confusion. Authorities say to leave spaces,* but I’m often told that editors don’t like spaces around ellipses. I believe the motivation with editors is page saving—using a lot of ellipses in a book with spaces to the left and right would soon eat up paper. Perhaps.


Personally, I prefer my ellipses spaced out.



Until next month, when in part two of “Take of a Break” I’ll discuss:


  • gasps, sighs, laughs, and other audible utterances.
  • smiles, grimaces, gestures and other nonvocals.







Read all about the newest Flash Fiction Contest. 


Les Stephenson

Up From Down Under  - January 2009