Wednesday, March 7

Making an Em Dash for it: How Do You Actually Use Them?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There's nothing like a dramatic pause to crank up the tension or surprise a reader, and there's nothing better to do that with than an em dash.

What the heck is an em dash you might ask?

It's that extra long dash that sets off a particular phrase in a sentence. It gets its name because it's the width of your standard M. (two regular hyphens) The em dash functions like a comma, colon or semi-colon, and in many cases these elements can be interchangeable. There are all kinds of grammatical rules, but let's focus on the fictional uses today.

In fiction, they're most commonly used to:
  • Show a dramatic pause or surprise
  • Show an interjected thought
  • Show emphasis
  • Show an interruption 

The Dramatic Pause 

Sometimes a comma or semi-colon just doesn't convey the proper length of time you want a reader to pause before a line is read, and a period is too much separation of the idea. An em dash is a visual clue that the reader should slow down almost to a stop before reading on.
They may not make it, but they had to try--for Karen's sake.
Now, let's look at how this would read differently with other punctuation.

Comma: They may not make it, but they had to try, for Karen's sake.

Semi-colon: They may not make it, but they had to try; for Karen's sake.

Period: They may not make it, but they had to try. For Karen's sake.

None: They may not make it, but they had to try for Karen's sake.

Notice how each one has a slightly different tone to it. But none of these carry the dramatic weight of that em dash, because the em dash visually says "this is the important part."

The Shock 

Whenever you have those "dum-dum-DUM!" moments where you're going to whip out a real zinger or shock, it's not uncommon to separate it with an em dash. It works almost like a hook line, and you could even make it its own paragraph and get a similar result.
It was a body, wrapped in plastic with the just face showing--Lila's face.
It was a body, wrapped in plastic with the just face showing.
Lila's face.
A shock phrase after an em dash is usually short for the most shock value, but it doesn't have to be. If you find yourself writing a lot of information after that em dash, you might want to rethink the punctuation.
It was a body, wrapped in plastic with the just face showing--Lila's face, with her beautiful eyes and shining hair.
You might decide this one is better as...

The Interjected Thought 

Sometimes you just need to break in with a thought or comment before moving on. It's important, but there's no way to make it its own sentence without it reading funky.
It was a body, wrapped in plastic with the just face showing--Lila's face--with her beautiful eyes and shining hair.
But it doesn't always have to be this dramatic, though drama is often found when you see an em dash in fiction.
She had everything she needed--peaches, brown sugar, graham crackers--now she just need to find time to bake.

The Interruption 

One of the more common uses is to interrupt either speech or a thought.
"I can't believe you're being such a--"
"Oh don't you dare finish that sentence." 
 Quick note here, when you're interrupting something, break it at a whole word, not part of a word. (unless the scene is about them being cut off mid-word vs mid-sentence) Half words become hard to read after a while.

Did she think--no, not her, I mean she-- I shook my head. No way.
It wasn't as if he knew where the film was. Tom was the last to--

He gasped. He knew where it was.
What separates an em dash interruption from an ellipse here is the pause itself. An abrupt break or choppy feeling is an em dash. A trailing off or long pause is more the ellipse's style.

The Emphasis 

What I personally love about em dashes is their ability to emphasize something. When readers see an em dash, it's almost always connected to something important or interesting. It's so visually noticeable it stands out. They make great scene enders because they inherently carry so much tension in them.

Em dashes are great tools to add spice to your writing, but like all spices, uses them sparingly. Too many and your prose starts to look like Morse code. It also over emphasizes everything so nothing stands out. It can even verge on melodrama. So pick your moments carefully and use those em dashes when you really need them.

How often do you use em dashes? Do you ever think about what they add to a line? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Thanks for this informative post! I tend to use em dashes a lot--probably too much!

  2. Thanks for this, Janice!

    I might enjoy them a little TOO much. In my last manuscript my CP was like, ENOUGH already! :D So yeah, sparingly is a good goal.

    I also finally learned the little trick of two dashes and then "space bar" after the first letter to make the unbroken line (took me long enough *eye roll*).

  3. Thanks for the great tips on em dashes. I use them but hadn't thought out their uses as much as you have. Love the examples because you can really see how effective they are.

  4. Ha! I just did a little post on Em dash yesterday. Not on what it was, but how excited I was to figure out the shortcut to typing one.

  5. Great post, Janice. I love me some em dashes. They set off the moment just right. I know how to use my commas and colons ( not a huge fan of the semicolon), but the em dash takes it for me. There's that, and the short punchy sentence that can work in it's place, too.


  6. Thanks! Your examples were helpful. I use dashes in my casual writing (notes/emails) all the time, but rarely in my other writing (articles, stories) because I was never sure how to properly use them.

  7. Like Kristin, I use them all the time informally, and only for interruptions in dialogue in a script. Nice to see some options! I've been afraid to put dashes in play since someone told me I used them too much. Maybe I can take myself off dash probation now, and see what happens. ;)

  8. FUNNY you should write on this very topic. I just was checking my hyphenated words in my WIP and noticed that I have scads and oodles of em dashes. I'm wondering if I've overdone them. But my characters do a lot of interrupting each other, for one thing! And maybe in trying for excitement I'm ending up with overkill instead...

    I'm not sure a semi-colon works for your Karen example; usually there is a complete or independent sentence after a semi-colon (you have just the phrase "for Karen's sake.") But otherwise these are super examples of how to use an em dash. Great summary. :)

  9. I probably use the em dash a little too much.

  10. Love the em dash! No spaces. I feel strongly about this.

  11. I FINALLY know how to use em dashes! No one could give me a particle of an idea why they existed, and so I never used them. Now I know why I overuse semi-colons and ellipses.

  12. I adore em dashes. And I'm happy to see that you left no space before or after yours.

  13. If it were possible to have a love affair with a form of punctuation...

    I like interjection of thought and long, lustrous sentences, so I probably apply em dashes too much, too often.

    I'm trying to wean myself off them.

  14. I was wondering if you knew why microsoft word autocorrects two hyphens into one long hyphen, and automatically puts an "open quotes" punctuation after the two dashes instead of "close quotes" punctuation (even though i want to close the quotation, as in when a character interrupts another character's speech).
    Does this not happen to you? So in order to have one character cut off the speech of another, I have to type --"" and erase the first open quotation. I always wondered what to do about this!

  15. Nice to know when to use them. Thanks!!

  16. Andrea, me too! I love them.

    Christina, I think it also changes depending on the program. My Word used to do it automatically, but I recently updated and now it doesn't. Drives me crazy.

    Natalie, sometimes I just sit down and really analyze something :) A side effect of the blog.

    Kristal, oh cool! There must have been en em dash vibe in the air.

    Justin, I love them for hook lines, too.

    Kristin, most welcome. Now you can indulge with the rest of us, hehe.

    Cat, you can always use them as they come to you in the first draft, then after, decide how many you actually want to keep. You'll be able to judge how they work in content once the scene is done.

    Carol, trust your instincts. If it feels okay, leave it, if it feels like too much, trim some out. It might only take a tweak or two to find the right balance. (I'll check on that semi colon example)

    Nicole, all's fair and good in a first draft :) Can always edit after.

    Natalie @MT, I'm a no spaces gal myself. That's a whole other post! LOL

    Katie, yay! Glad it made things click for you.

    Sally, I don't in my books, though I think it varies on the blog. Sometimes it just comes in with spaces for some reason. I'll have to edit those out one day.

    L.M., if they work, keep them. It's only when they bog down the story or yank the reader out of it you have to worry.

    Staceylee, the quote thing makes me crazy as well. I usually do it like: "So there--l" then delete the extra letter. I haven't found a way around it yet either.

    Traci, welcome!

  17. As a copywriter / copy editor, I have been on a personal mission to reduce the use of em dashes since around 1998. They have their place, but I find that they are jarring to the reader, so should be used with caution. I also think some writers use them as a crutch when they can't figure out the proper punctuation. They just throw in an em dash because they don't know whether to use a comma, semi-colon or period. I try to use them only when no other option will do.

  18. Dori, oh no! Not the em dash, spare its elongated life. But seriously, like so many things, when used correctly they're great, when used badly they really hurt.

  19. You hit the nail on the head when you said, too much and it over emphasizes everything so nothing stands out.

    Personally, I *love* em-dashes. :) (I was granted the title of Duchess of Em-Dash even.) But when I edit, I always do a search for the suckers so I can cut the number down. Great post!

  20. This definitely made me think! Having imbibed Emily Dickinson poems in my younger years, I'm VERY fond of any kind of dashes for emphasis or pause. That colon looks so intimidating and WRONG sometimes! The m-dash is just FRIENDLIER! But thanks for the tips--I'll make sure I'm using them correctly.

  21. I didn't say "kill off" the em dash. I just think it should be reserved for special occasions. :-)

    This all started because my boss in the late 1990s used at least one em dash in every paragraph he wrote, and I felt that was overuse. This was in press releases and marketing materials, so I felt it wasn't being done for dramatic effect as much as out of laziness.

    He and I have worked together on writing projects for 15 years now, and he has finally come around to at least asking himself each time he uses an em dash whether that's really the right punctuation for the situation.

  22. Jami, thanks! I was doing a fine-toothed edit yesterday and cut a bunch out. Sometimes they seem like the right thing, then later when I re-read something the emphasis isn't there anymore.

    Heather, I've never heard it described that way before but you're right. I love friendlier. So true.

    Dori, that situation would be frustrating. I guess you get a pass on those em dashes (and I'm teasing you here) :)