Em Dashes in Dialogue

Last time, we looked at using ellipses in your dialogue. Up next: em dashes.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

using quotation marks
© AKS – Fotolia.com

The em dash—it looks like this—is used to indicate a break of thought or speech. It can be used parenthetically, as in the previous sentence, or singly, for example if a character changes topic mid-sentence.

“The next slide shows the third quarter—no, sorry, that’s the wrong slide.”

It can also be used to show an interruption.

“Hang on a minute while I—”
“Never mind,” said the chairman.

When one character is being interrupted by another, it’s best if the interruption is in the form of dialogue. In the following example, it’s not clear whether she just stopped talking, or if he interrupted her.

“Hang on a minute while I—”
Picking up his phone, the chairman said, “Never mind.”

Put no spaces around em dashes in fiction.

If narrative comes in the middle of a sentence, like a beat, the em dashes go outside the quotation marks.

“I just need a second”—she double-clicked the file—“to open the right presentation.”

Ellipses and em dashes can be used to add rhythm and realism to dialogue, but they can be distracting if too many of them pile up in quick succession. So use them judiciously.

Typing special characters

Nonbreaking space in Word for Windows: ctrl + shift + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Windows: alt + ctrl + period
Em dash in Word for Windows: ctrl + alt + minus key (on the numeric keypad)

Nonbreaking space in Word for Mac: option + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Mac: option + semicolon
Em dash in Word for Mac: option + shift + hyphen

Interior Monologue

Here’s the last item in the Dialog section of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist:

Interior monologue is presented consistently.

We looked at how to handle interior monologue last year in a Fiction Q&A post. The short version: You can use italics or not, as your preference. Just keep it consistent. If you’re writing in deep POV, you can keep the person and tense of the interior monologue the same as the surrounding narrative and avoid using italics. If you change person or tense—for example, if your narrative is third person past tense and the interior monologue is first person present tense, then italics serve as a good signal to the reader that you changed person and tense deliberately.

Next week, we’ll start on Description.

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  1. Great post! I liked the shortcut keys. I’ve never been able to figure them out.

    Writing with em dashes can be fun, and according to your post, I seem to be using them correctly. XD

  2. […] discussed em dashes and ellipses in the dialog section. In fiction, outside of dialog, there’s not much use for […]

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