We all love the wonderful em dash. It gives us more control than the maligned comma. It shows drama, can be used in place of a semicolon, adds context to scenes with a mark, and stands in for parentheses. The em dash is truly a versatile piece of punctuation.
In this post, I’ll talk about using em dashes as parentheticals and to denote interruptions, and I’ll explain the logic in using them to show interrupted dialogue, concurrent action, and dialogue interrupting narrative.
Romance novels have a lot of dialogue, action, and thoughts peppered between rich narrative. Em dashes are a fantastic tool authors use to ensure readers keep their focus on the story.
The most common use of the em dash in fiction is to denote an aside, such as tangental thoughts or speech that are non-essential. You may use this punctuation to emphasize words or add flavor to the sentence.
Then he kissed me, and there wasn’t anything I could do to resist him—who’d want to resist Philip?—so I kissed him back.— Feathers From the Sky by Posy Roberts
“Addiction isn’t like that. Some days I wake up—if I ever fucking sleep—and I’m back where I started.”— Deliverance by Garrett Leigh
The second most common use of the em dash in fiction is to denote speech or thought interrupted by a variety of things. This can occur when a person speaks over another, a character cuts themselves off, or a noise stops a character mid-word or mid-sentence.
The em dash shows the reader abruptly halting speech.
“I don’t know much, I—”— Defiance by Annabelle Jacobs
Simon slapped a hand over his mouth, the force of it pushing Cole back against the chair.
“Now wrap your lips around that sucker and prepare to go to hea—” He froze mid-sentence with a horrified expression— On Board by Jay Hogan
But you’re here to sort out the confusion of using em dashes with interrupted dialogue that picks up again or concurrent action that occurs at the same time as dialogue. Right? So let’s get into it.
Interrupted dialogue cuts off and is picked up again right after a pause, often for a character to act or because they were distracted. An example is taking a sip of coffee between words. Since you can’t drink and speak at the same time, speech halts.
Boiled down, the character talks, then cuts off. They do a thing. Then keep on talking as if they never stopped. I find it helpful to think of this as an interruption-plus.
See interrupted dialogue in action
“I wanted to get together so we could—” I gulped my iced coffee like it was liquid courage. “—get together some time before your birthday.”
“Well now—” She licked her lips. “—aren’t you just the saucy tart then?”— You are Cordially Invited by Jay Hogan
- Notice how the em dashes remain inside quotation marks.
- The interruption is a sentence all on its own, ending in a period. It’s a sentence butting into dialogue, forcing speech to stop and then pick up again in a bit.
- Essentially you have 2 sentences here: the speech is one and the interruption is another.
“Talking—” The thing that interrupts is a full sentence. “—and then speech picks up on the same sentence.”
Dialogue with Concurrent Action
Concurrent action happens when the speaker never stops their flow of words while they do something. This action, however, cannot prohibit speech, such as eating, drinking, coughing, sneezing. It can be many other actions, though. Go ahead and run fingers through hair or massage tension out of neck muscles. Reach for things, rearrange books on a coffee table, dance.
You get the idea. The character can speak while they do this thing.
See concurrent action examples
“I wanted to get together so we could”—a water droplet slid down the side of my glass and I caught it before it could ruin my book—”get together some time before your birthday.”
“That, my dear Michael”—I emphasised his name, because I could—“is what I call a power play.”— Bossy by N.R. Walker
Notice how the em dashes surround—hug—the action. Add no spaces around the action and no ending punctuation because it is part of the overall sentence. The whole thing is one sentence.
It may help you to think of this concurrent action as an aside—a tangential thought or action to add flavor—to the overall sentence.
In the example from Bossy, Bryce had a thought about how he was speaking as he was speaking. How meta! There was no need to stop the flow of his speech, so this was treated as concurrent action. The action here is how he emphasized his words and why.
On occasion, dialogue butts into the middle of narration before a thought has been finished. This doesn’t happen very often, but the em dash is your friend here as well.
This might be easier to grasp because it looks so much like dialogue tags, just with em dashes rather than commas. The only difference is spacing. Em dashes butt up against the quotation marks.
Here’s a good example of recalled dialogue that is slipped into narration so readers get a feel for the conversation without needing to read the full exchange.
Once Kell gave him directions on what and when to give Ollie lunch and instructions for Brant to make himself at home—“You know where your room is.”—he left with his coffee.— Keeping Kellan, Amy Aislin
Some Em Dash Caution
- The em dash is not a substitute for a period or a full stop.
- Be purposeful when using the em dash. Make them count.
- At the max, use two em dashes per sentence.
- If you have long asides, does that information deserve more page time?
- Too many tangental thoughts can choke up your story. You want your story to flow. With every aside, you ask your reader to stop mid-thought/mid-flow—gather new info that is often nonessential and may even go in an entirely different direction—and then pick up that first thought again. So again, make them count.
If you don’t know the keyboard shortcuts to type em dashes, I’m here to help. For Mac users, hit Shift+Option+Hyphen (-). For Windows users, Ctrl+Alt+Hyphen (-).
If you’ve used Shift+Hyphen, you are typing an en dash, which is rarely used in fiction. The few times the en dash is used is as the mark between ranges of numbers, such as scores or date ranges.
I hope this helped sort out some of the drama around em dashes. There’s more to learn about this unassuming punctuation mark than I covered, but this will get you started editing your romance.