It's been a while since we dipped into the mailbag for a question. Here are three from Jami.
1) Colons vs. Dashes: One of you made a comment about how you have conversations with your fellow editors about when to use a colon vs. a dash. Could you enlighten us? Is it that if the final phrase is an afterthought you'd use a dash, but if the first part of the sentence leads up to the second (especially in a dun dun dun kind of way) it's a colon?
The short answer is that it's never a colon.
The real answer is that if you're using a colon in genre fiction, you'd better have a brilliant reason. Colons are formal for the environment, a bit like wearing a tuxedo to a baseball game.
If you want to know the difference between a colon and a dash, it's that a colon suggests a conclusion and a dash indicates a break in the continuity of thought. Informal thoughts and cadences, much like those typically used in genre or commercial fiction, lend themselves naturally to an em-dash. Conclusory statements and "therefore" patterns don't fit as easily to the tone and style usually preferred here.
2) Ellipses: You mentioned how you shouldn't use ellipsis for cadence - so what should you use? If you're trying to indicate a pause, maybe as a character searches for the right word, would it be appropriate then? "Thank you for fixing this...problem."
You should use an ellipies to signal a trailing off. Think of the old guy in the nursing home who is talking and suddenly stares off into space as his sentence peters out in the middle. That's an ellipsis. He forgot what he was saying. He forgot he was talking at all.
Is this the character you want to present to your readers? Or do you want your characters to be dynamic, decisive, smart, active, focused people who know what they want and have the courage to pursue it? If a character goes through a book never quite sure what he's trying to say, he comes off as weak and indecisive. Skip the ellipses and strengthen your characters.
Yes, there are situations when even the most forceful character will fumble for the right way to say what he means. In that case, use syntax rather than punctuation to indicate a wandering or groping-in-the-dark mindset. Compare:
"I'm making steak for dinner."
"I'm making ... steak for dinner."
"Well, I guess I ought to think about what to make for dinner. Maybe something on the grill, something easy, but I don't know. I'm sick of chicken. What do you think? Does steak sound good? I could make steak."
Of those three choices, the first is a decisive character with a plan. The last is an indecisive character trying to formulate a plan. The one in the middle is the least effective of the three choices and looks a bit odd in comparison.
3) Dialogue Tags & Paragraphing: I've heard that many readers skim over non-dialogue paragraphs so I thought it was always best to not bury dialogue behind dialogue tags or action (so that the quote marks are right up front). How important do you think that is? Do you have suggestions for how to handle instances when there is thought or action happening along with (or possibly before the dialogue starts)?
He cut her off before she could start, "I know what you're going to say." vs.
"I know what you're going to say," he cut her off before she could start. - or-
She shot out of bed. "I am not - and never will be - one of those women!" vs.
She shot out of bed.
"I am not - and never will be - one of those women!"
This is at least in part a matter of voice. Do you want to write for skimmers or for readers? Either choice is valid. If you're writing for skimmers, you will use more dialogue, more paragraph breaks, minimal description, concise action, and shortish sentences. If you're writing for readers, you want to reward their attention with glowing descriptions, controlled world-building, and high tension levels. (Think of Dan Brown, who writes for readers with long paragraphs and lots of detail, but keeps readers turning pages as fast as they can read them.)
That said, I think sequencing and logic are bigger concerns than where the paragraph marks fall. Put first things first. In Jami's first example, we have actions that occur in a particular chronological order. But in the second option, the actions are presented in reverse chronological order. There are times when you want to tinker with the order of presentation to add impact to different bits of the sentece, but those times are rare. The general rule is to keep it linear.
Does that help?