★★ C. Gabriel Wright ★★ (gabe_speaks) wrote,
★★ C. Gabriel Wright ★★

[Writing] The Interrupter: Blending Action and Dialog Dynamically

She sidled up beside me and, with the boniest of her fingers, began to poke me in the chest as she spoke.

"And let"—poke—"me tell"—another poke—"you another"—poke—"thing, young man"—poke, poke.

She paused, no doubt wondering if she had lost count of her word-to-poke ratio. Apparently deciding she was well within acceptable proportions, the old lady continued with her single-digit assaults.
Okay, that's really bad, I know, but it illustrates how you can interrupt dialog in interesting ways.  That's what I'm wanting to talk to you about today, if you please. The Interrupter!

The beautiful thing about the Interrupter (not an official term, by the way) is that it's fairly easy to understand, once you realize that there are no ally new about the grammar rules associated with it. It's the ultimate expression of writing-as-music (specifically, rhythm), which is why I like it so much. It gives the writer a bit more control over how the dialog and action should be parsed by the reader. Not could—should. 

Now, I'm a firm believer that you should try and leave as much as possible up to the reader to flesh out for themselves, without being so vague or ambiguous as to leave the sentence inert. But there comes a time when you, the writer, will want to specifically denote a series of actions and the dialog that's happening around it. It may be plot-related, for comedic effect, whatever. That's what a well-placed Interrupter comes in handy.

Take this sentence, for example. This is how you might normally write dialog and action.

"And let me tell you another thing, young man," the old lady said, wielding her bony pointing finger as though it were a jousting lance. "I will not have a young whipper snapper such as yourself telling me my what-fors and how-to-do-its." And to emphasize her point, she poked my sternum with every third word.
Barring quality, there's nothing wrong with that image, from a grammatical standpoint. But it's not as funny, unless you particularly liked the finger-as-lance analogy, and it certainly isn't as visual. And it's not quite as rhythmic.

Slight Change in this Entry's Sequence:
Originally, I was going to have a quick summary of the different methods for interrupting dialog at the end of the entry. For the sake of not boring some of you, I decided to switch it and place the summary first, allowing you the choice of continuing. If the summations make sense without explanation, and you've no interest in real-world examples of the Interrupter, then don't worry about reading on. If the summations do not make sense and you would like an explanation, or they do but you'd like the real-world examples, or you just like to hear me ramble on, then continue reading after this bit right here:

Interrupting Dialog with Action
"Look—" Marlene tugged her long fringe, pulling them behind her ears, "—she didn't mean what she said to you."

"Listen"—Gabe grabbed Marco by the shoulders, flung him around—"to me! I'm talking to you!"

(NB: The punctuations. It plays an important role in interpreting, or parsing, the scene.)

Interrupting Dialog with Action Containing a Pregnant Pause
"What time is it?"
"It's..." he looked at his watch, "... five o'clock."

Interrupting Action with Dialog
I fired off a blast of energy—"Take that, ruffians!"—and stood my ground, which in the end probably wasn't the best thing to do; the ground had turned to quicksand.

Interrupting Narrative with Dialog
Today was a horrible day. First my mother got mad at me ("You're grounded, young man!"), then my sister took my last $5 ("You still owe me ten, jerk!"), and then my dog pissed on my homework ("It was either that or eat it—at least now you have dog-piss proof."). I didn't think the day could get any worse—I was wrong.

That's it in a nutshell.  If you need further explanation or just would like the real-world examples from published fiction, read on!

Still with me? Awesome!

So what are the 'rules' for The Interrupter? Is it even acceptable? Or are these fanfic conventions that don't see the light of day in published works? I'm glad you asked! To quote Obama: Yes, we can! Er... do the interrupting thing, that is.

Rather than present (admittedly bad) examples from the top of my still-scruffy head, I'm actually going to lift examples from published works ranging from YA fiction, to literature fiction (whatever that is), to historic fiction, technical writing, and, yes, even a couple grammar usage books! Each uses the Interrupter, and each example uses a slightly different variation, with different punctuations that help shape how the sentence should be read. So when that mean-ol' archive tells you that you're not handling the interruptions correctly, you can point to these published stories by (mostly) well-respected and phenomenal writers and say: "If they can do it, I can, too!"

Writers beware! There are subtleties involved. And they matter! But as I said earlier, there are no new rules to learn, so I hope the examples—and my explanations—can help chisel the rules into the stonework of your mind. Er... okay, enough with the cheese!

Britons beware! These are AE rules.1.

After downloading a BE copy of The Oxford English Grammar, I'm fairly confident that their rules aren't so different from ours, tho' they are different.  However, just like AE usage books rarely focus on the subtleties of allowable punctuation rules in published fiction, the same is probably true with BE usage guides.

Three writers who use variants of the Interrupter fairly frequently are Ursula K. LeGuin, Neal Stephenson, and Christopher Moore. Moore will actually push the boundaries of acceptable usage at times, but he's absurdist comedy, so it's forgivable (when it works). That's the key to remember above all with these 'rules': does it work? Does it fit your story, your voice, your dialog?

Moore and LeGuinn probably uses these methods the most, and even then we're talking about a novella-length story, and only four or five Interrupters2.. Neal Stephenson, in The Diamond Age, did it only three times in a 600-page novel. So this isn't something that you should do ad nauseum or "just 'cuz", nor should you think doing it makes you edgy, or unconventional, or future-edge. It doesn't. It does, however, give you yet another tool to help you control the rhythm of your prose and make sure the readers parse your scene as you need them to.

Oh, I guess that should have been another "author beware", huh?

Okay, so... let's do some interr—

"... I should take into account the sentencing. That being the case, I would like you to go out that door over there"—Judge Fang pointed to a door in the corner of the courtroom—"and all the way down the steps."
[Stephenson, The Diamond Age, paperback ed.: 42.]
Please notice where the em-dash (—) is in relation to the quotation marks. As well, note well the punctuation of the interrupting action (basically, a parenthetical). That's one of the subtleties that we'll discuss in a bit.

And two more:

The queen's smile could have meant anything.
"And so I repeat"—Geralt bowed his head a little—"that I cannot contain my pride to be sitting next to you."
[Sapkowski, The Last Wish, paperback ed.: 152.]

"Most homosexuals that I've had the occasion to... examine"—more titters, but Williams went on—"would have been incapable of this type of violence."
[Cooke, Torsos, 1st ed.: 166.]
All three examples have the same format:
  • dialog,
  • an em-dash,
  • the interrupting action with NO ENDING PUNCTUATION,
  • an em-dash, and
  • the dialog continued as if it hadn't been interrupted at all (so no capitalizations, unless it were a proper noun, or I, or something that normally takes a capital letter).
And notice, too, that there are NO SPACES between the elements. When the action is happening in one swift stroke, there's no room for white-space! To get the full effect of The Interrupter, I must insist sticking to this convention.

NB: When using this method of interruption, it's best to break up the sentence at a point that does not have a natural break, either by spoken conventions or from punctuations. The Cooke example wouldn't have a comma between the two clauses, but there's a natural pause there, so it's not the best example. The other two examples could have a natural pause in speech if you wanted emphasis, but they are straight-thru sentences and would not have had a comma even if they were not interrupted with actions.

Now, look at this next example and notice the difference.

"Go with God, and—" Josh spun, jumped, came down with each hand on a stranger's shoulder, "—Yes! Double healing! Go with God, friends, two times!"
[Moore, Lamb, special gilded ed.: 118.]
Can you 'read' the subtle differences between the two sets? In the Diamond example, there is no punctuation separating the action from the dialog, except the interrupting em-dashes. That's because there's no pause whatsoever between the moment the judge says 'there' and points to the door. Moreover, there's no pause when he points. The sentence reads as though he said "... go out that door over there and all the way down...". With the use of the Interrupter in this fashion, Stephenson merely tells you exactly when the judge pointed, and nothing else.

But with the Lamb example, Josh says, "Go with God, and" and then does the series of actions. Once the action is completed, he continues with the dialog. So the dash is INSIDE the quotations marks (just like you would normally do if a person was interrupted), then there's a SPACE, then the action starts, then an ENDING PUNCTUATION for the sentence (usually a comma), and finally the rest of the dialog. That comma after 'shoulder' does what punctuation usually does: tells you to take a pause of some length, comma being the shortest. So this becomes a way of writing visually.

So there's definitely a pause between the dialog and the action, and it reads as such by the way Moore formatted the sentence. Does that make sense?

Here's a method that allows you to create an extended pause, like for dramatic effect or something.

"So I told him either he would take me on as his sidekick and teach me everything he ever knew, or..." he took another sip of his tea, "... I'd go to the rival paper with the story."
I choked on my tea. "You blackmailed him?"
[Moore, P., Hero, hardcover ed.: 89.]
So let's break this example down.
  • quotation mark

  • dialog

  • ellipses

  • quotation mark

  • space

  • action, with NO CAPITALIZATION (unless it's something that naturally requires capitalization)

  • ending punctuation for the action (usually a comma)

  • ellipses

  • the rest of the dialog with all its necessary punctuations

  • closing quotation marks
Can you read the pauses? It really helps that the dialog itself lends to such a 'dramatic pause'. Here's an example that I made up (just for you, Rob):

"Hey, what time is it?" Angel asked.
"It's..." Spike looked at his watch, "... five o'clock."
Spike says, "It's" and pauses while he looks at his watch. Then there's another pause (our eyes and brain are parsing that second set of ellipsis marks) before Spike continues speaking. And yes, if I had said "he" instead of "Spike", then "he" would have been in lower-case. Contrast that with this:
"You see, last night, about this time"—he checked his watch—"there was a naked redhead hanging from the ceiling of my new loft reading Kerouac to me."
[Moore, Bloodsucking Fiends, paperback ed.: 118.]
Practically no pause between dialog and action, depending on how you handle that phrase ("about this time"). But you can see the difference, yes? The situation is roughly similar, and just by thinking about the visual nature of reading, you can craft the sentence that shapes the way the readers interpret the scene and blocking.

You can even use paragraph breaks to interrupt a dialog with another person's dialog.

"It's not my job," said Haxxo, squinting at the servants. "My job is to get you dressed—"
"Dressed up, you mean."
"—get you dressed and take you to the banquet, to the queen."
[Sapkowski, The Last Wish, paperback ed.: 152.]
You can almost read the exasperation when Haxxo has to interrupt the second person and start right where he had been interrupted.

Christopher Moore does a monstrous version of this technique, but it works.

During the next hour he read a household-hints column ("Coffee grounds in that cat box will fill your house with the delightful aroma of brewing espresso every time kitty heeds the call"); an article on computer junkies ("Bruce has been off the mouse or six months now, but he says he takes life one byte at a time"); and a review of the new musical Jonestown! ("Andrew Lloyd Webber's version of the Kool-Aid jingle is at once chilling and evocative").
[Moore, Bloodsucking Fiends, paperback ed.: 86.]
Yes, not quite dialog, per se, but it would still work with dialog, as with this made-up passage:

Today was a horrible day. First my mother got mad at me ("You're grounded, young man!"), then my sister took my last $5 ("You still owe me ten, jerk!"), and then my dog pissed on my homework ("It was either that or eat it—at least now you have dog-piss proof."). I didn't think it could get any worse—I was wrong.
You can also use em-dashes in this fashion.

Weak excuses—"I have to visit my grandparents"—work little.
[Troyka, Simon & Shuster Handbook for Writers, 6th ed.: 446.]

The wind-blown dust—"frightful dust," he said, "regular sandstorms of the desert"—continued and stung his eyes and propelled grit into his inflamed mouth.
[Larson, The Devil in the White City, paperback ed.:225]
It's sort of a 'reverse Interrupter', whereby the action (or prose) is interrupted by dialog.

Suddenly—"Fire in the engine room!"—sounded through the dark.
[Shertzer, The Elements of Grammar, 3rd ed.: 103]
That is perfect example of an Interrupter. It reads abruptly, making the scene as intense as it would be were you in a situation where someone suddenly yelled 'fire!' in real life.

LeGuinn also does a sort-of 'reverse method' Interrupter as well, where the dialog interrupts the action.

A hundred times I summoned the terrified highlanders and called, "I have done this across the a mile of distance!"—and shattered the boulder they hid behind.
[LeGuinn, Gifts, paperback ed.: 29.]
She could have just as easily taken out 'and called' and replaced it (and the comma) with an em-dash for the same effect, because the context is clear that the character, to whom the pronoun "I" refers, is saying the dialog. If she had, it would look like this:
A hundred times I summoned the terrified highlanders—"I have done this across the a mile of distance!"—and shattered the boulder they hid behind.
And yes, we could have used em-dashes in the two other examples. Why did Moore use parentheses, then? Well, em-dashes emphasize, whereas parentheses de-emphasize (which is still a form of emphasis, mind). But mainly, it's tradition: parentheses is better for comedy. Think of the ( ) as you covering your mouth as you dish juicy gossip to your mates; and the em-dash as HEY, I'M POINTING TO THIS BECAUSE I WANT TO MAKE SURE YOU SEE IT. But no one would fault you if you really had your heart set on using the parenthesis as an emphasis rather than de-emphasis. Remember, writers: it's your story (you do have some say in it).

Finally, there's a bit of contention with a construction that I've been seeing a lot of; namely, this one:

"Don't you dare—" she swatted the young child's hand away, "do that.That's something little boys shouldn't play with."
For me, using em-dashes to interrupt dialog works best when the interrupting sentence is surrounded by em-dashes. Moreover, I haven't found any published instances of this construction. So while I'm unsure that I would consider it 'wrong', I would question it's effectiveness. I don't think, from a parsing-the-scene standpoint, it's any different from this:

"Don't you dare do that!" She swatted the young child's hand away. "That's something little boys shouldn't play with."
So why use a technique if it doesn't truly do what you were intending?

Before I close, there are some stylistic formating issues to consider. The Interrupter works best if you:
  • make a distinction between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes,

  • don't use white-space between the elements3.unless the format calls for them (ie. in the examples that contained actual pauses in them)

  • use a font that makes a distinction between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes (Courier New doesn't, for example).
If you don't like the em-dash (blasphemous though it may be), you can just use the double hyphen (--).  All spacing rules/conventions apply. 

As you can see, modern fiction grants you plenty of formatting options that allow you full control of your prose and its rhythm. The Interrupter, and all its variants, gives you that same control at a line level.  dialog and action are now even more connected than ever.  Properly used, these techniques can help shape a scene to your needs, the writer's needs. 

As always, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask, either in a comment or via e-mail.  This post was un-beta'd.  So if you find any mistakes, do point them out.  Oh, and this post can be linked without permission.

Addendum: Certainly not a final word on the matter, but I have downloaded the British edition of the Oxford English Grammar, 1996.  These are examples pulled from that book.  You'll notice similarities in the 'rules', with an exception, but that exception actually makes sense when you think about it.  So, here we go:

'Let's just say—' she paused, sighed winsomely, looking aged. 'Let's just
say they're from someone who cares'
[Greenbaum, Oxford English Grammar, 1996 ed.: 536]

'We—' he indicated Peter and himself—'will be in Hong Kong.'

'Did—' Dee groped for their names—'did Jaycee and Maggie go to classes today?'
So what's the deal?  Well, when you look at it as a series of interruptions, the punctuations make sense.  There's a space after the first set of quotation marks and the interrupting action (Dee groped...), but then none between the interrupting action and the continuing dialog.  Since the second bit of dialog is interrupting the action, there's no space.  The first half of the sentence probably has a space for readability.

Now for an example of a second speaker interrupting someone:
'I wonder if a computer could handle—'
'I think you'll find the administrator more than happy to talk to you
about his work,' he said.
That's the same as The Last Wish example, so there's no difference there. So, it looks like BE makes no distinction between interruptions with pauses and interruptions without pauses.  It's all about context, apparently.  The wanna-be-artist in me doesn't approve, but the "let's make things easy and simple" side of me, does. 

Now in the example of dialog interrupting action, I can only make an surmise a 'rule' based on this example:

We (I assume you are in this with me at this point) need to get three words—"for examination only"—eliminated from the law.
[ibid., 538]
Same as AE. 

I don't consider this addendum definitive at all, and will be trying to find published examples of the British Interrupter, which I bet is a lot kinder than the American one.  ;-)  Okay, bad joke. 


Big Gay Footnotes
I'll post an addendum once I get a hold of real, published examples from British press.
<2.> Actually, in her YA novella Gifts, LeGuinn uses it a whopping 11 times! However, half of them are done in interesting ways, including some of the 'reverse methods' that we talked about.
<3.> Again, BE conventions may be different.

Edit: thanks to drgaellon for catching two errors, which have been corrected, and reminding me how much I hate mass nouns. ;-)
Tags: on-writing: technique

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