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How to Use Em Dashes in Creative Writing

This week we’re going to be changing the way you think about using dashes in your creative writing. Some of you may have been told that dashes aren’t used very often in prose, that they’re mainly used in poetry.

But that’s definitely untrue! Dashes can be incredibly useful in all kinds of writing, and we’re here to show you twenty ways they can!

1. Introduction

Before we get into the ways dashes can be used, it’s important to establish some basic guidelines. First, make sure you understand what a dash is. A dash in fiction is similar to a pause or a breath in non-fiction; it’s often used to indicate that a segment of text has been omitted for brevity or clarity. You’ve probably seen dashes in the following contexts:

  • Omission of dialogue or other sounds
  • Omission of words or phrases in parenthesis (such as the “white” gloves in “The white gloves”)
  • In some older texts, dashes were used to indicate the end of a paragraph, the start of a new paragraph, and sometimes even to break up a line of dialogue (“—”)
  • Sometimes a dash is used to indicate a shift in tone or mood, as in “It was a dark- and- stormy—”
  • To end on a humorous note, some famous authors have used dashes to indicate laughter or other emotional responses, such as “—heh heh—”, as in “That tickled—heh heh—me!”

You may know that it’s a mark of a poor writer to use too many dashes. When you’re writing, try to limit yourself to only one or two in any given passage. Of course, there will be instances where you want to use multiple dashes, but keep it short! Dashes can be overused and cause the text to lose its smoothness. So use them sparingly as a tool, and only when needed.

2. Two Important Points About Dashes

It’s important to realize that when you use dashes, you are in fact indicating something is missing. Without the dash, the reader may assume the information that follows is relevant to the context in which it appears. Let’s say you have a short story about a young girl who is afraid of thunder. You could probably write something like this:

“The thunder frightened my little sister Olga, so much that she wouldn’t even go outside and play with the other children. She was afraid that if she got wet, the thunder would thunder that she was in danger and come and save her. She was only four years old at the time, so it was hard for her to understand what was going on. I hated seeing my sister like that, so one day I decided to teach her about thunder and how to be brave. I told her that there was no such thing as thunder, and that the loud noises that hurt her ears were just products of her imagination. I didn’t want to scare her any more, so I went to town and bought some earplugs, which I thought would be a good idea, given that she was always picking up colds and stuff like that from the other children. While she was sleeping that night, I stuck the earplugs in her ears and told her that they were there just in case she needed them. The next day, she went outside and played with the other children without a problem. I thought that maybe the earplugs had helped her, but then she told me that she still hadn’t figured out why she was scared of thunder. I asked her if she remembered the earplugs I had stuck in her ears, and she said yes. She also said that they had been there the entire time, but that they hadn’t been preventing her from hearing the thunder. It had still been there when she woke up that morning, and it still was when she went to sleep at night. So I asked her if she remembered playing with me that day, and she said yes. Then I realized what had happened…the earplugs prevented her from being distracted by the other children, so she had figured out why she was scared of thunder: the loud noises hurt her head and made her dizzy. I started feeling bad for lying to her, so I told her the truth. That is when she began asking questions about why I had hidden the fact that the thunder was just an invention. It turns out that she knew more than I thought she did, and she had been wanting to learn for a while. So I think I may have unintentionally taught her to be skeptical about grownups. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is definitely something to think about. I hope I haven’t offended anyone with this story, but I felt it was important in some way to show you two important things about dashes: first, they aren’t often used in prose, and second, they can be very helpful in creative writing. It’s okay to use them, as long as you do so responsibly and sparingly, like I did in my story. Thank you for listening.”

3. How Do You Spell It?

Some people may wonder how you spell the word “dash”. There are actually multiple ways to spell it, and we don’t recommend using any of them. For one, you could always use an em dash, which is a single dash followed by another one. But that’s not how you should spell it.

The correct way to spell it is as follows: ONE-DASH-TWO. One dash followed by two periods. It’s okay to use an apostrophe to indicate that two periods are meant to be a single hyphen. For example, “The quick ‘brown fox’ jumped over the lazy dog” could be correctly spelt “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”. The reason why this is important is that many people who are not familiar with formal English may incorrectly assume that “fox” and “dog” are both short for “foxhound” or “greyhound”. So using the right spelling will avoid confusion.

4. Two More Points About Dashes

Like with any other punctuation mark or any type of placeholder, you can use dashes in the following ways:

  • To indicate a change of speaker
  • To indicate a shift in time
  • To show the progression of thoughts or events
  • To create a list of items
  • To highlight the most important part of a long piece of writing

The first two points about dashes were covered pretty well by Ruth, so if you haven’t read it yet, check out How to Use Em Dashes in Creative Writing.

As for the last point, sometimes it’s necessary to put a note at the end of a piece of writing to indicate that there is more to it than has been conveyed in the presented material. Let’s say you’re writing a short story about a trip to Japan, and you visit a temple there. At the end of your story, you could write something like “—but that’s not all! There’s a lot more to Japanese temples than meets the eye! I could write a whole book about them…” This way your reader will not be confused as to what is implied in the story, and what is additional information. The same goes for a dialogue that has followed a narrative. Sometimes it’s necessary to give a bit of extra information, so that the reader will not be lost in the story. It’s also a great way to add some flavor to your dialogue by using the right similes and metaphors!

5. When Do You Use It?

The most common place where you would use dashes are in direct quotations. When writing a quotation in your own words, you would put the quotation mark at the end of the sentence, and one or two dashes preceding the period or semicolon would be sufficient. The following examples will help clear up any confusion:

““That is so cool!” “No, man, that’s not cool; that’s weird.” “What should I say? That was so far out!” These are all actual quotes from the movie ‘Dazed and Confused’. I just put them here for fun. When you’re not using direct quotations, it’s usually best to keep the dashes to a minimum. Use two or three at most.”