The Writer’s Toolbox – Trailing Away, Part II

In last week’s installment we looked at how ellipses and em dashes are used in dialogue to show faltering speech and interrupted or broken off speech, respectively. In this follow-up column, we’ll explore how writers can use punctuation to convey two more types of dialogue: staccato speech and stuttering speech.

Staccato Speech
Staccato speech is not necessarily new, but it’s been growing in popularity in literature as it migrates from social media to written dialogue. The more common way to express it is by treating each word as a standalone sentence fragment:

Example A: “Didn’t you hear me?” She grabbed me by the shoulders, her face reddening. “You. Are. Not. Going.”

Some editors prefer a different approach, using em dashes between each word:

Example B: “Didn’t you hear me?” She grabbed me by the shoulders, her face reddening. “You?are?not?going.”

Still other editors use suspension points to create a firm pause between each word:

Example C: “Didn’t you hear me?” She grabbed me by the shoulders, her face reddening. “You…are…not…going.”

There’s no real consensus here, so choose the form that best suits how you picture your characters speaking, and stay consistent. But note: since not everyone is a fan of reading staccato speech, consider your audience carefully. A YA novel may be a better fit than a genre with an audience demographic less likely to use this type of speech every day. Additionally, even within an appropriate genre, a little goes a long way; the idea is to create a jerky rhythm, but if it’s overused, staccato speech can lose its effectiveness and throw off the flow of a scene.

Stuttering Speech
Another much-argued question is how to portray a stammer, like when a speaker is nervous or cold (think chattering teeth).

The Chicago Manual of Style notes that suspension points are useful not just to show faltering speech, or dialogue that trails away, but also “to suggest . . . fragmented speech accompanied by confusion or insecurity” (13.39). However, does that cover the specific situation of a cold or very frightened speaker? And what about dialogue passages that include both trailing-away speech and stuttering speech?

Example D: “I . . . I don’t know if . . .”

In the above example, many readers would presume both sets of suspension points here represent pauses longer than one might expect if a speaker was, say, so cold they could barely get the words out.

While some editors choose to follow Chicago’s suggestion, others feel it doesn’t precisely apply to the type of speech under discussion here (a common lament among book editors is how Chicago was never intended to cover all aspects of fiction writing). A popular alternative is to use hyphens to indicate a nervous (or cold) stammer:

Example E: His eyes widened in terror. “I-I don’t know if . . .”

Em dashes are yet another choice some editors prefer, though many argue that the em dashes here would create a longer break, almost a self-interruption:

Example F: His eyes widened in terror. “I?I don’t know if . . .”

Which one should you choose? Think of the nature of your writing, and which method fits best what you’re trying to convey. Above all, though, let consistency and clarity be your goal?the best possible guides when the style guides don’t tell the whole story.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.