A dash (—) is a piece of punctuation that you don’t hear about as much as others. It is a line that is used as a break in the writing for one reason or another. The reason that it is not often taught in schools is that it is usually for informal writing, not for the kind of essays you might write in school. However, it is very useful in fiction writing, which is why I’m going to talk about it here.
Note: there are actually two kinds of dashes: one called an en dash (–) and another called an em dash (—). They are called this since they are the width of an “n” and an “m”, respectively. However, to avoid confusing everyone, we are just going to talk about the bigger one, the em dash here. There’s a link at the bottom if you want to learn about the en dash.
The Difference between a Dash and a Hyphen
First of all, let’s look at the difference between a dash and a hyphen. They are both lines, but a hyphen is shorter (-). It’s also on your keyboard, probably at the top, to the right of the zero (0) key or as a minus sign on the keypad. A hyphen is used to connect words together to show they are working together to form one idea (for example: ten-year-old student. Here, three words (ten-year-old) work together to make one adjective). I’ll write a post on the hyphen later.
A dash is different because it is used to break the flow of the sentence.
“The boy—or man, now that he was eighteen—sat down, trying not to cry.”
In this situation, the writer breaks into the sentence (The boy sat down…) in order to clarify that while he feels like a boy, he is technically a man now. We’ll look at this and other uses more below.
How to Write a Dash
You might notice that the dash is not on your keyboard. The only horizontal lines you can will see are the hyphen, which we mentioned above, and the underscore (_), which is usually on the same key as the hyphen. So how do we write a dash? This is different with different computers. One way is just to put two hyphens together like this: (–). Some programs will change that to a dash automatically and some won’t, but you can use it to mean a dash anyway. Here are some other ways:
Windows (MS Word):
- Ctrl-Alt-minus (on keypad)
- Go to Insert → Symbol → More Symbols → Special Characters
- Type two hyphens and hit space
If you want to use a dash a lot, I would recommend setting up a shortcut key to make it easier. I use Alt-m. Here are instructions on how to set it up in MS Word.
How to Use a Dash in Fiction Writing
As I said before, a dash is used as a break in the writing, for one reason or another. This is one reason we don’t need a dash in essay writing since essays are very planned out. But fiction, especially in dialogue, deals with people and real life, and these can be messy sometimes. We don’t plan out everything we say ahead of time. Sometimes we do two things at once or two people talk at once. Sometimes a phone call gets cut off in the middle of a sentence.
Dialogue is one of the most common places to use a dash. If it comes at the end of the dialogue, it is used instead of a period. Here are some common reasons to use it.
This is where the speaker suddenly stops talking for some reason, and so the sentence is not finished. We use a dash when it is a sudden stop: if the speaker gradually trails off, we usually use three dots (an ellipsis).
“Look, what I meant was—” But Ellen was already walking away.
“Well, this couldn’t have been easier,” the explorer said. “Next, let’s—” The explorer crumpled to the floor as a large stone club bonked him on the head.
“I know who the thief was. It was—” The phone rang. Jill sighed. “Hold on.”
This is where the speaker breaks into their own sentence to make something clear. Here, we usually use two dashes: one at the beginning and one at the end of the interruption.
“So then I went home—well, not home since that burned down, but the hotel—and just went to bed.”
“I took the kids—even Bartholomew—and went to get ice cream.”
“I drink coffee every day—the good stuff, I mean, not instant.”
3. Interruption by another speaker
This is where one person interrupts another one or where two people are talking at the same time. We use a dash at the end of the first speaker’s sentence and the beginning of the second speaker’s interruption if they are finishing the person’s sentence. If they are starting a new sentence, there is only a dash at the end of the first person’s sentence, since they were cut off.
“If you do anything like this again,” Mom said, “you are grounded. That means no TV—”
“—or X-box,” Dad added.
“—or any games,” Mom continued. “Not even Princess Dance Attack.”
I shivered with pleasure. “With that much money, we could do whatever we wanted. “Buy a house, buy an airplane even. Buy—”
“—a dinosaur!” Hamlet shouted.
“—a black hole!” George screamed.
“—the universe!” Becky yelled, jumping up and punching the air.
“Welcome to the Dragon Club,” I said. “The most important rule we have is—”
“Pizza’s here!” Tim shouted from the back of the cave.
This is where the speaker keeps stopping or changing what they are saying. It can be used to show someone is nervous or out of breath or dying, or otherwise having trouble speaking.
“Hi,” I said. My face was blushing like a heat lamp. “Look I was wondering—maybe if you have time—I mean, if you want—”
Ivy watched my struggles with amusement, waiting for me to finish.
“They’re coming—5 minutes,” I gasped. “At least twenty—maybe more.”
“Tell my wife—I love—spaghetti.” The glutton’s eyes closed forever.
A pause in dialogue
This is a special situation where the speaker pauses momentarily to do something. It is a pretty common way to use dashes so I wanted to put it by itself. Here the dashes are put around the action but outside the quotation marks.
“I would like to welcome Lord Happenstance” —Maggie turned and bowed to the tall man— “to Brockwell Castle.”
“I can see about” —I squinted up into the tree— “a dozen cats up there.”
The point is that there is a pause at the point where the action breaks the dialogue. There are other ways to do this without a dash, but using a dash emphasizes that the dialogue is cut off sharply. Remember, if you uses dashes like this, you don’t need to use a word like “said” in the break.
“I found four eggs” —Jared held up four fingers— “five if you count the one in the mailbox.”
is similar to:
“I found four eggs,” Jared said, holding up four fingers. “Five, if you count the one in the mailbox.”
You should only use a dash outside of dialogue if you are using an informal or conversational tone. That is because it creates the feeling that the writer is having a conversation with the reader, just speaking and maybe changing things as he goes.
The day was hot—not hot like a piece of toast or an especially attractive actor—but more like fresh lava dripping onto the back of Kyle’s neck.
We could easily split this into two sentences (“The day was hot. It was not hot like a piece of toast or an especially attractive actor, but more like lava dripping on the back of Kyle’s neck.”). However, using dashes makes it sound more like the writer is just talking to the reader. It is an informal way of writing.
Dashes used outside of dialogue are usually only used for clarification since no one can interrupt the writer.
Now it’s your turn
- Keep an eye out when you read fiction to see if the writer uses dashes. How do they use them? Is it one of these ways I mentioned or a different way?
- Write a story in a conversational tone and try using dashes in some of the ways I have mentioned here. If you want, you can send it to me to look at at the email address email@example.com.
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources and further resources: