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I have been accused — shock, horror — of using the dash (the one that indicates a three-quarters pause) too much in my fiction. Thing is — I quite like the effect (the space inserted in sentences by the slightly extended pause) it has on my writing and I'm rather reluctant to part with it unless I'm given an excellent alternative.

I've read a little around the subject and I've seen that commas, colons and semicolons are suggested as replacements, but they just don't seem to have the same effect for me.

So, in the interests of finding something a little more robust, my question is: what ways exist to rephrase prose so that a dash is not needed?


I noticed that there are a few questions relating to the em dash, but none that really hit the nail on the head for me. The closest is this: When to use the em dash (—) in fiction writing?. Neil Fein's answer mentions that 'Em dashes are easily edited out, and the clumsy sentences rewritten', but doesn't elaborate, and that's the extra step that I'm looking for.

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    Perhaps it is not the "em dash" that is the problem but the effect you try to create with it. If you overuse an effect it quickly becomes boring and predictable to a reader. – Totumus Maximus Jul 4 '18 at 8:54
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    Yes, "em dash" is an official term. It's called that because this particular dash is the same width as a capital "M" character. – NomadMaker Jul 4 '18 at 11:58
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    @chepner Whether the em dash is to be surrounded by whitespace depends on the style guide. Personally I can’t abide the complete absence of spaces (and it seems to be a purely Northern American phenomenon, as far as I can tell, and even there not universal). Personally I prefer using thin spaces (though normal spaces are acceptable). – Konrad Rudolph Jul 4 '18 at 15:39
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    I would argue that the more one enjoys em-dash the more he is likely to construct sentences that would go along with em-dash. – blackened Jul 5 '18 at 19:17
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    FYI. "em dash" originally referred to the width of the character "M" for old time typesetters. There is also an "en dash." – phoe47nix Jul 10 '18 at 20:32
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The answer is quite subjective because the "em dashes" sometimes work really well in a sentence while sometimes they are just disruptive to the flow of the thing you attempt to say.

The key part is trying not to overuse the effects you try to create. A reader will quickly be bored by the predictability of such effect.


I have been accused — shock, horror, of using the dash too much in my fiction (the one that indicates a three-quarters pause).

I quite like the use of the "em dash" here because it appeals to an emotion. Nobody likes being accused and people related with these emotions well.

Rewriting this would turn it into:

I was shocked, horrified, to know I was being accused of using the "em dash" too much in my fiction.

Mind that this is just one way of saying the same thing, however this time we are saying the same thing about how we feel about this accusation without stopping the flow of the reader.


Thing is — I quite like the effect it has on my writing and I'm rather reluctant to part with it unless I'm given an excellent alternative.

This second example bothers me a lot. You haven't even started the sentence yet. No information, action or feeling give and you already interrupt the reader. Instead I would go with a much less disruptive way or saying the same thing.

However, I quite like the effect it has on my writing and I'm rather reluctant to part with it unless I'm given an excellent alternative.

After the rewrite the sentence flows more natural and tells us the very same thing.


So in short, while the use of the "em dash" is not bad thing, you should consider what you are trying to say. What you want the reader to feel as you say it. And not try to obstruct the natural flow of the reader too much.

I hope this helps you clear things up a bit. This is the way I see it.

12

I disagree with the premise -- Mostly I disagree. I think this is a matter of opinion.

I think like the use of a pet word, using the dash can be overdone, but the error is in using it to the point of irritation for the reader. Dashes and ellipsis indicate pauses for dramatic effect; or with a character thinking, a self-interruption to modify or amend something just said. This latter, from the narrator, is seldom appropriate. Skip the original utterance and rewrite completely. Except in first person present tense, the narrator should never be thinking.

For dramatic pause, I find it fine, but I think doing it too frequently is grating.

That said, in dialogue they do have their place; dialogue is written as if the character is speaking in real time, self-interruption or pause for dramatic effect -- or dare I say interjection? -- are the kinds of speech timing marks people really use. Much like commas, periods, question marks and exclamation points are marks indicating timing or tonal qualities of the speech. The character's mind is active and producing multiple thoughts at once. Indicating that state of mind can help the reader understand the mental state of the character.

For the narrator, for interjections, I would not use dashes to indicate that, I'd set it off with a pair of commas.

Or for the narrator (for interjections) I would use parenthesis.

But in speech -- especially halting or uncertain speech -- dashes are the way to go ... unless the sentence trails off or the pause is quite long. Then I would use an ellipsis.

  • Yes to this. Although I do not like the dashes in the first and last part. But like we both say, it is subjective. – Totumus Maximus Jul 4 '18 at 10:32
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    Tip: ALT + 0151 :P – Yates Jul 4 '18 at 11:49
  • @ThomasYates My habit. I always write in subscription format (with correct margins, line spacing and font) without the use of special characters. I want to see my work as the publisher would, and get a semi-accurate page count. And using only keyboard and "shift" characters lets me type at full speed without pausing. The Chicago Manual of Style and other style guides for submission format recommend two hyphens be used. Of course if you are self-publishing and produce a page image; then doing it yourself is the way to go. – Amadeus Jul 4 '18 at 13:40
  • One instance where the narrator seems to be thinking and it does not feels odd, is when the 4th wall breaks and the narrator starts a dialogue with the reader like a face-to-face storyteller. But then it can be called another form of dialogue, not narration. – Mindwin Jul 4 '18 at 14:07
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The em dash does not mean pause. There is no piece of punctuation that means pause. The em dash is a more emphatic substitute for the comma, colon, or parentheses and can be used to indicate omitted words. If you need to indicate that someone pauses in speech, say "John paused".

Be particularly aware of trying to act out dialogue -- using punctuation to indicate pauses or italics or bolding to indicates tone of voice. This is not how the medium works. If you need to give the sense of what the character is feeling when they speak, do it through the words they choose, or, better, set it up first so that the reader knows how they feel based on what has come before.

But if you absolutely must indicate that the character paused, write that they paused. Don't rely on the reader intuiting the meaning of your non-standard usage. However clear it seems to you, it will not be clear to all your readers.

That said, if you are using the em dash for its normal function as punctuation, then you should use it as often as is appropriate. No word, no turn of phrase, no punctuation mark is being used too frequently if it is being used appropriately.

That said (again) you might make a case for its use for a case that does not occur outside of dialogue, which is to indicate that the speaker broke off in the middle of a sentence and reformulated what they were saying on the fly. This only occurs in prose dialogue, since in all other forms of writing, the author reformulates the sentence and the reader never sees any evidence of the aborted attempt. But this is a techniques that I think should be used very sparingly -- that empirically is used very sparingly -- and that might better be handled by describing the break in words rather than with punctuation. Again, avoid the temptation to act out. Unless the plot turns on the half-formed sentence and the struggle to rephrase it on the fly, don't go there.

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I feel you, friend. I tend to overuse the dash just as you do.

The dash – much like other punctuation – will be used to try and influence the way a sentence is spoken. You might have a certain rhythm in mind when writing a sentence and want to enforce that by using a dash – especially to divide sentences into different sections.

In my opinion, that's where the problem is: people reading your sentence might want to read and structure it differently and might be put off by your trying to influence their reading habits.

That being said, I still use it abundantly in my writing – being aware of the problem but seeing it as a matter of personal style. And if you really want to get rid of the dashes, just use commas or semicolons instead!

2

I am revisiting my em-dashes.

Here's the thing. You aren't supposed to use too many semicolons either, and you are supposed to have varying sentence length, and watch your commas, and and and ...

I don't see how to write a nice long sentence (the average in the 1800s was something like 50-word sentences; closer to 30 in the early 1900s, etc etc) without these devices (commas, colons, semicolons, m-dashes.). My average sentence length is 10. I have no idea how one would get it to even 15 given the short dialog sentences that balance out the narrative.

Colons are right out. Search it here on SE. Can't use them. Exclamation points? No sir. One per manuscript (Okay, perhaps that's extreme, but it has been suggested by some, truly, one in a manuscript and that is IT.). Question marks? Slightly more tolerable but no inane conversation ... and guess what, this translates to a reduction in question marks.

Compound sentences? Tread with care. Use too many and it becomes repetitive.

Commas? Play this game long enough and people will accuse you of (shudder) abusing commas.

Truly the only good answer is that all of it is absolutely fine. (well, not the colon, I mean come on.) Balance. Balance it. Same with adverbs. Balance them. Balance all of it. You have so many tools. Use each and every one. That's the answer.

Including the m-dash.

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