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."
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.
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.Or...
It wasn't as if he knew where the film was. Tom was the last to--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.
He gasped. He knew where it was.
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?
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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