Thursday, February 22, 2018

More on the Multi-Tasking Em Dash

Single Em Dash to Show a Change of Tone
     You can also use an em dash to indicate an abrupt, on-the-fly change in the way a speaker is saying something. 
     Here, it shows a clock tick's worth of a break followed by a quick change of tone:
     “Let's see, I shut the doors, checked the windows, and—damn, I just remembered! I didn't lock the kitchen door to the garage!”

Single Em Dash to Show Interruption
     A single em dash can also be used to indicate an abrupt end to speech through interruption. The interruption can be self-induced:
     Lance was sure Pritchett knew where Nora was. He had to know. He walked across to where Pritchett was seated and stood over him.
     “Where's Nor—” The rest of the word froze in his throat as he saw Pritchett bring up an ugly-looking knife into the space between them.
     The speaker can be interrupted by someone else:
     “Oh, sure, and did Grayson explain how a salt water creature happened to be thirty miles inland living in clear water?”
     “Stranger things have happened. I know

     “Look here, Ben,” the sheriff broke in, “you work for the state. Now, why don't you keep your nose out of county business, is that clear enough for you?”

Em Dash Pair to Set Off  an Internal Part of Dialogue
     You can use a pair of em dashes to set off an internal part of the dialogue from what's around it, presumably with abrupt, momentary pauses:
     “I didn't know where he was—nobody did—so I went to see the lawyer without him.”

Em Dash Pair to Imbed Narrative Inside Dialogue
     You can imbed some descriptive narrative inside dialogue to inform your reader of a change in the way the dialogue is being spoken as it happens, on the fly; you do this by placing your dashes outside the dialogue. Example: a person is talking with another about, let's say, a lost cat. At midpoint in the sentence the speaker becomes agitated and speaks the rest of the line of dialogue in a louder, more excited tone. The speech isn't interrupted or paused at any time; it just gets louder and more excited as the speaker realizes how serious the situation is. So, how do you represent that seamless change of tone in your punctuation? You place the dashes outside the dialogue at the point where you want to indicate the speaker's change in tone; place a closing quote mark where you want to insert the descriptive narrative, then a dash, then the descriptive narrative (don't capitalize the first word of this), then another dash, and finally a new opening quote mark to indicate the continuing dialogue.
     “Tabby's been gone for an hour now. What if he wandered”—her voice turned suddenly higher and more anxious—“out onto the highway?”
     See? You're enclosing your little bit of narrative inside a pair of em dashes, then imbedding it into the dialogue. It's important to know how to do this right if you want to use this sort of “stage directions”-inside-dialogue technique. An awful lot of writers get this wrong.
     Here's another example, this one showing a simultaneous action executed as dialogue is being spoken. By imbedding it into the dialogue, you can include the simultaneously occurring action without having to interrupt the flow of the dialogue, even momentarily:
Imbed this
     ”—he squirted her forehead with the water gun—“
into this
     “I think maturity is highly overrated.”
and you get
     “I think maturity”—he squirted her forehead with the water gun—“is highly overrated.”
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Next week in my month-long series on punctuation, we'll look at the most misunderstood of all marks; we'll check out the semicolon.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

How to Get the Most from the Colon and Em Dash



The Colon and Em Dash    :  — 
Part 1 of 2

     The colon is used in nonfiction mostly as an introducer for explanatory statements, examples, and series lists. It can be used for all of those purposes in fiction, too, but it finds much use in storytelling in its other function, which it shares with the em dash: setting off and drawing attention to ideas. The colon has a more formal, measured look, while the em dash apposes the ideas in a more abrupt and informal way. Since fiction is often informal or even conversational in style, and since fiction writers usually want set-off matter to have a more dramatic presentation, the em dash is probably used more often, but it’s your call. Both are correct and widely used.

Use a Colon or an Em Dash to Set Off an Idea from What Follows It
     Notice below that either works, but the em dash makes a more abrupt and emphatic lead-in to the information that follows it.
     Mina heard a click on the phone line and realized the downstairs extension had been picked up: somebody else was in the house.
Mina heard a click on the phone line and realized the downstairs extension had been picked up—somebody else was in the house.

You Can Use a Pair of Em Dashes to More Emphatically Set Off Internal Material
     Em dashes used in this way have an effect different from that of parentheses or commas. Whereas parentheses tend to minimize the importance of what’s inside them, and pairs of commas essentially equalize enclosed material with what’s around it, em dash pairs point big flashing arrows inward toward the enclosed material.
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson (the only person we considered to be above suspicion) called to confess.
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson, the only person we considered to be above suspicion, called to confess.
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson—the only person we considered to be above suspicion—called to confess.
     Like material inside parentheses, anything inside a pair of em dashes is compositionally insulated from the larger sentence around it. It can be just about anything you want it to be—a word, a phrase, a sentence fragment, or even, as we see below, an entire independent clause that could stand on its own as a sentence, but is here used as emphasized internal content.
     The Ames brothers had deserted him when things got tough—he was disgusted with himself now for not having seen that coming—and now he was alone.

A pair of em dashes is also handy to clarify the distinction between internally punctuated items.
     The example below has series items separated by commas:
     Jim and Bobby Thomas, the new bobsledding team, and the TV crew were all opposed to the location.
     How many series items are there above? Are “Jim and Bobby Thomas” and “the new bobsledding team” two separate series items separated by a comma, or is “Jim and Bobby Thomas, the new bobsledding team” a single item with an internal comma? There’s no way at all for us to know.
     Jim and Bobby Thomas—the new bobsledding team—and the TV crew were all opposed to the location.
     Above, we’ve changed “the new bobsledding team” from just another item in a series list of separate items into an emphasizing appositive that amplifies on what comes immediately before it. It’s now crystal clear that Jim and Bobby Thomas are the bobsledding team.

     Em dashes are also used to indicate an abrupt break in speech and to indicate a change in the way something is said. We'll cover these handy fiction uses next week.
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     This topic and many others of particular use to storytellers are included in Writers' Devils, the best guide of its kind, available as an e-book for $9.99 at Amaon's Kindle store:
Writers' Devils at Amazon

More on the Multi-Tasking Em Dash

Single Em Dash to Show a Change of Tone      You can also use an em dash to indicate an abrupt, on-the-fly change in the way a speaker ...