YOUR STORY IS YOUR MESSAGE: YOUR MASTERY OF THE LANGUAGE IS YOUR MESSENGER.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

How to Insert Action Narrative Into Dialogue Using Em Dashes



"But if you try to drive across the creek bridge, the flood waters come across it very fast," I pointed to the downstream side, "and the water can push your car off."

Okay, most readers would be looking for a dialogue tag where the narrative is, but the writer never intended that. The writer has instead placed some amplifying narrative inside the dialogue to relate some action during the the speech. Now, inserting some straight narrative without a tag into dialogue is a good way to indicate action that occurs during the speech, but you can't do it with commas. When you do, you end up with something like a comma splice between dialogue and narrative and another one from narrative back to dialogue. I guess. Well, anyway.

You imbed action narrative into dialogue with a pair of em dashes. The information below is covered in more detail in my little eBook, but  a continuing curiosity among writers is that many of them will pay an uncredentialed "book doctor" a thousand dollars to tell them they didn't develop the transvestite's character enough, but will flinch at the thought of paying much less to have their grammar and usage—the things that cause manuscripts to be rejected more often than for any other reason—checked and fixed. Those writers would probably also balk at shelling out ten bucks for Writers' Devils to learn things they would say shouldn't matter to true literary artists anyway, so here might be the only place those folks will ever get this information, where they can have it free and benefit from it with the anonymity that doesn't require them to openly attach any importance to it.


Let's say you want Tom to say something to Dick, and you want him to begin to get up and walk toward Dick at some specific moment as he says it.

Not before he says it:
Tom got up and started walking toward Dick. "If you don't kill this story, you're going to find that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach."

Not after he says it:
"If you don't kill this story, you're going to find that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach." He got up and started walking toward Dick.

Not at some indeterminate point during the speech:
"If you don't kill this story, you're going to find that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach," Tom said, getting up and walking toward Dick.

If you want to pick a particular moment when the simultaneous action begins, action that doesn't interrupt or cause a pause in the speech but simply begins at some specific point during the speech, use a pair of hyphens to imbed the descriptive narrative:
"If you don't kill this story, you're going to find"—he got up and started walking toward Dick—"that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach."

Here's another one:
Preacher shook his head and said, "You can't settle anything with a gun."
"Oh, you'd be surprised"—Yulin lowered his right hand onto the handle of his holstered Colt—"just how much you can settle with a gun."

8 comments:

  1. I'm prone to piling on too many em dashes, but I never considered this correct and potentially effective use. Thanks, Dan.

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  2. Dan, I agree about the use of em dashes. It can be tricky deciding where to put them. For example, in the following sentence, do you think it might heighten the drama to place the em dash a little sooner? "If you don't kill this story"—he got up and started walking toward Dick—"you're going to find that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure you could. I placed it arbitrarily at a place one wouldn't think of first when inserting something just to show that the narrative could be positioned anywhere the writer wants the action to start.

      Some writers just don't like em dashes for some reason and would lean toward avoiding them altogether and using a tag and a participial modifying phrase, most likely at the place you indicated, like this:
      "If you don't kill this story," Tom said, getting up and walking toward Dick, "you're going to find . . . ."
      It's less precise, of course, but the progressive tense of the modifier's verb does make the action coincidental to the speech.

      Up to you to decide when one way or the other is better. Y'all are the writers.

      Delete
  3. I often find that your pithy advice confirms what I already knew or, at least, doesn't contradict what I already knew. But, Dan, you nailed me with this one. As far back as I can remember, I've been putting the em dashes inside the quotation marks (at least I knew to use em dashes!) in dialog breaks such as the one you describe. I don't know when, why, or how I learned to do it that way, but your explanation made me reach for the bible--the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition--and right there, in paragraph 6.90, is confirmation of your information. Now I have to break a decades-long writing habit. Maybe I should spend the day writing a story with several dialog breaks just to start retraining myself...

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dan, I've used this construction before and did it this way:

    "If you don't kill this story. . ." He got up and walked toward Dick. ". . .you're going to find that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach."

    Should I be banished from the planet?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No. We'd miss you, Earl.

      The ellipses are fine, but they, as well as the capitalized stand-alone narrative sentence with a period at the end, change the way the dialogue is spoken. You have a pause.

      Delete
  5. I rather prefer an m-dash and double-quote to break the dialogue. And the action as a phrase, not a sentence, then a double quote and em-dash to continue the dialogue, e.g., "If you don't kill this story--" he got up and walked toward Dick "--you're going to find that employment of any kind is just a little out of your reach."
    What's your take on that option?

    ReplyDelete

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