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Monday, July 29, 2019

How to Use a Dash—in Fiction Writing




I've been getting more requests to do posts on proper punctuation, and one that a few people have mentioned is the em dash. I actually think this one is a little trickier to use than the semicolon (which I argue is actually one of the easiest), just because the rules surrounding it are more lax. However, like the semicolon, you can pretty much get away with almost never using it.

But a great em dash can be really effective, and sometimes it's just the punctuation mark you're looking for. It's worth noting that em dashes feel more informal. They make the text more casual, which may or may not be what you are looking for.

With that said, let's get started.

For Interruptions

As an editor, one of the most common (but understandable) problems I see with dashes is that the writer uses an ellipsis (. . .) to indicate an interruption instead of a dash. An ellipsis in dialogue means that the speaker sort of just trailed off:

"I don't know. Maybe it's something . . ." she trailed off.

But an em dash means they are cut off.

"I don't know. Maybe it's something--"
"Like an animal? Maybe a bear?" Callie interrupted. 

Interruptions may not always be from another speaker. They can be a sound in the environment:

"If only--"
A police siren suddenly went off. We looked at each other, and then ran pell-mell down the alley.

They can be an action in the environment:

"Now I just need peaches, grapes, apples and--"
A shopping cart crashed into mine.

Sometimes you can even get away with the character's own thoughts interrupting their dialogue if they have a sudden realization.

"I don't know! Maybe it's something like--"
A jaguar, she suddenly realized. Yes, that fit perfectly!


Basically when a character is cut off in dialogue (or in some cases, even thoughts), you should indicate that with an em dash. 

If action interrupts a complete sentence of dialogue, you set it off by em dashes:

"You said"--she wrenched open the car door--"that she would be safe!"

"You said that she would be safe" is a complete sentence, but "she wrenched open the car door" is an action, not a dialogue tag, so technically it should be set off like that example.


For a Sudden Change of Thought


Similarly, your character may sort of "interrupt" themselves in that they may have a sudden change of thought. In that case, use an em dash.

"If only--hey, want to go to dinner?" I asked.

This can sometimes happen out of dialogue if you are in deep viewpoint.

I slowly put down my bag. If only--maybe she'd want to go to dinner.

As a Counterpoint to Parentheses

Em dashes can also function like parentheses . . . but different.

Parentheses imply a sort of aside. I personally think of parentheses as the "whisper" equivalent of writing. It's additional information that is read "quieter," like having a friend whisper something to you when you are at a lecture.

Dashes can set information aside too, but rather than "whisper" it, it's being highlighted. It carries a little more intensity and tends to be read at a faster pace than parentheses. (Even though it may be additional, side information.)

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see--root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta--and piled them into his shopping basket.

Notice how this has a slightly slower, less intense feel when in parentheses:

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see (root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta) and piled them into his shopping basket.

Dashes are also a little different in that if you use a dash to set off the beginning or end part of a sentence, you don't need a second one. You only need two when you're setting off something in the middle of a sentence.

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see--root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta. He piled them into his shopping basket.

Or

Root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta--he grabbed every kind of soda he could see. He piled them into his shopping basket.

With parentheses, you always need to close them.

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see (root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta). He piled them into his shopping basket.

And you typically don't start a sentence with parentheses, unless the entire sentence is in parentheses.

For Quick Emphasis

Similar to the last section, you can also use em dashes for quick impact.

You can use a dash to highlight or emphasize a single word.

There was only one place he dreamed of being--Hawaii

This can also work in places where parentheses typically won't (which is why I'm putting this in its own section).

Hawaii--it was the only place he dreamed of being.

Of course, you can do this with more than one word.

Joshua had two loves in life--Lucy and tater tots. 

To Help Readability

Dashes can also be used to help make a sentence easier to read. This is usually done when a phrase set off by commas has a lot of its own commas within it.

When the medicine arrived, about two months, three stomach aches, five headaches, and six sleepless nights later, she felt so sick, she didn't know if she could keep the pills down, so she begged to be taken back to the hospital. 

-->

When the medicine arrived--about two months, three stomach aches, five headaches, and six sleepless nights later--she felt so sick, she didn't know if she could keep the pills down, so she begged to be taken back to the hospital.

Like a lot of things in writing, you can argue that some of these sections overlap (because can't this dashed part just be put in parentheses? Or be considered an interruption?).

For Missing Text

This is sort of outdated and not something I recommend using except in special circumstances.

Sometimes the em dash is used to show that certain text has been left out. If you read some older books, like some of the classics, you may notice em dashes are used to avoid giving specific dates or names.

For example, in Jane Eyre, you will find text like this:


Mrs. Fairfax, Thornfield, near Millcote, ----shire.

Which is meant to say the place is called something shire.

Or you may find dates like this:

19----

So the story avoids giving a specific year.

Fiction today doesn't usually do that.

The em dash can also be used this way when the text is unknown. The only way I can see this working in fiction today, is if your character found a paper or something that was damaged so they could not make out the words properly. You might would write the note like this:

My dear ------,
Please come to m---- at t---- and bring ------
Sincerely,
----t

When used this way, two em dashes denote part of a missing word and three em dashes denote a whole word is missing.

It's completely possible to go through your whole writing career and never need to use em dashes this way.

Hyphens vs. En Dashes vs. Em Dashes

When people talk about "dashes," they are almost always talking about the em dash, which is what this whole article has been about, but there is also the en dash and the hyphen. En dashes are shorter than em dashes and hyphens are shorter than en dashes.

Hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—)

An en dash is about as long as the letter "n" and an em dash is about as long as the letter "m" (which is where they get their names).

The differences between the hyphen and the en dash can get a little fuzzy in the industry, so I'm going to pull from the The Chicago Manual of Style (which is what fiction uses) website and let them explain it.

The hyphen connects two things that are intimately related, usually words that function together as a single concept or work together as a joint modifier (e.g., tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds).

The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance, as in the May–September issue of a magazine; it’s not a May-September issue, because June, July, and August are also ostensibly included in this range. And in fact en dashes specify any kind of range, which is why they properly appear in indexes when a range of pages is cited (e.g., 147–48). En dashes are also used to connect a prefix to a proper open compound: for example, pre–World War II.

You probably don't need to worry too much about the differences between a hyphen and an en dash, so I don't recommend stressing about it. Just know they are different, and you can look them up if you really need to. And definitely don't go walking around like you are smarter than everyone because you can tell the difference between hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

How to Properly Write an Em Dash

You may notice now that you don't actually have an em dash key on your keyboard. You have a hyphen. This often gets used as both a hyphen and an en dash. To denote an em dash, you hit that key twice (--); today, most word processors will automatically turn that into an em dash (—).

In the traditional, standard manuscript format, em dashes are written as --. This is in part because SMF uses a Courier font, where every character is the same width, so technically a hyphen is going to look the same as an em dash, so you need to use two hyphens to indicate an em dash. You can also use two hyphens to indicate an em dash when automatic reformatting is unavailable. You've probably noticed on my blog that I usually use -- for my em dashes. My blogging platform does not reformat them to em dashes, and I have much better things to do than copy and paste them all in. Besides, there is nothing "wrong" with using --, technically speaking. It's just if something is going to be professionally printed, you should use —.

In fiction, there should be no spaces before or after the em dash.

Wrong:

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see — root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta — and piled them into his shopping basket.

Correct:

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see—root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta—and piled them into his shopping basket.

Also Fine:

He grabbed every kind of soda he could see--root beer, cream, orange, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Sprite, even grape Fanta--and piled them into his shopping basket.

(But reformat for professional printing)

And that's about all you need to know about em dashes for fiction writing.


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