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.

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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 ...