How to punctuate action in the middle of a sentence in dialogue

Amanda Greenslade

Today I had the joy of going to one of my editing colleagues, an employee in fact, for advice on how to punctuate action that is interrupting a sentence, twice, in the middle of some dialogue. In this scene Tod is pretending to be in a serious relationship with Ruby, for the sake of her dying grandmother who wants to be sure the family line will continue.

Here’s how the text came to me from the author:

I know to avoid brackets in all books, especially fiction. The obvious thing to do is rewrite the entire paragraph, but as an editor I have to be conscious of making decisions like that without needing to. Taking away the interruptions changes the meaning, and diminishes the timing wrought by the actions occurring right in the middle of the sentence.

In the below I changed a number of problems, not just the brackets. i.e.

  • Changed straight quotes to curlies
  • Ensured only one space after periods, not two
  • Changed the paragraph style from block to indented
  • Joined the action of the speaker to the same line as his dialogue
  • Made it clearer whose hand is being kissed
  • Tried to replace the two sets of brackets with ellipses

However, I still did not have it quite right:

I still wasn’t sure it was right, and I know that ellipses should be done away with wherever possible. They are for trailing thoughts or unsaid dialogue, not pauses or interruptions. So it made perfect sense when my colleague informed me to use the em dash, my favourite punctuation mark, instead. Don’t get me started on space en dash space( – ). So now the text reads:

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