If you would like to be completely confused about using a dash—specifically, an em dash—in your fiction, I suggest you put “use of dashes in fiction” in a search engine box and press “enter.”
There’s way too much information out there, and some of it is contradictory, and since chances are you’re confused already, just hang around here for a bit, as I’ll be sharing a few short, easy-to-digest posts about the topic in the weeks ahead.
Today we’re going to focus on what an em dash is and just a couple of different ways to use it in your book.
From Thesaurus.com, here’s a nice explanation of why the longer dash is called an em dash: “The name comes from typography—the work of setting, arranging, and printing types. An em dash is a dash that is the width of an M.” (And if you want to jump ahead, check out Grammarly for a nice article on the different kinds of dashes, including that shorty, the en dash.)
Generally, an em dash is more “interrupt-y” than a comma or an ellipsis. A comma, stylistically speaking, is a pause. An ellipsis, stylistically speaking, can indicate a bit of dialog trailing off, or somebody pondering … something (see what I did there?). An em dash shows an interruption—in speech, or to introduce information, or as an aside. In formal writing, we might use parentheses or semicolons in similar ways, but for indie fiction, em dashes are a lot more fun.
Writers have lots of questions about where em dashes go in dialog, and in good news, the rules aren’t—you know—chiseled in granite or anything.
Let’s say you have two excited characters talking about a concert they’ve been to:
Megan turned to Joe. “They were right in the middle of my favorite song—”
“No they weren’t!” Jessica shook her head. “They had just started and—”
The girls looked at each other. Together they said, “THE LIGHTS WENT OUT!”
Notice what you DON’T have to do—state that anyone interrupted anyone. The em dash makes that evident. And the em dashes go inside the quotation marks, because the speech is interrupted.
Now, how about if you need to insert some information? Let’s put the em dash to work in a little different way.
“They were right in the middle of my favorite song”—Megan did a little happy dance—“AND THE LIGHTS WENT OUT!”
In this case, it’s that little action beat about her happy dance that’s doing the interrupting, so the quote marks are where they should be, the action beat is enclosed by the em dashes, and the quote marks enclose the character’s speech.
Also, please note we’re following Chicago Manual of Style rules, with no spaces around the em dash.
Maybe you’re wondering how to make your em dashes look good? We’re all guilty of using a double hyphen to indicate an em dash when we’re in a hurry. But if you dig into the options menu in Word, you’ll find the box to check to magically change two hyphens into the professional em dash you need. And for the really brave (and those with extended keyboards), on a PC, hit ALT 0151 and an em dash will appear. On a Mac, it’s OPTION, SHIFT, MINUS SIGN.
Dig deeper into dashes courtesy of our friends at the Chicago Manual of Style.