Ode to the em dash

woman's hands typing on a laptop

Just a little post to pay homage to the humble em dash—oft maligned, oft misunderstood, but a punctuation mark that punches way above its weight class. And I know that authors shouldn’t play favourites, but of all the punctuation out there, the em dash is my fave. It’s just so versatile!

Know your em dash

Many will confuse the en dash – and the em dash — but my tip to remember which is which is a simple mnemonic device:

An ‘m’ (em dash) is twice as wide as ‘n’ (en dash) so it is the wider of the two dashes.

The power of the em dash

Use em dashes to:

1. offset parenthetical content from the sentence

e.g. Josh is planning a surprise for Sarah’s fortieth birthday. My thinking is that turning forty is surprise enough—Oh, my god, how on earth am I this old?—and that she hates surprises.

2. denote interrupted speech

e.g.

‘But can’t we just—’

She talks over me. ‘Jaelee, I wasn’t super keen on this in the first place.’

3. to denote interrupted thoughts

‘I will see you tonight,’ says my sexy boyfriend—no, sorry, fiancé!

4. in place of a colon preceding a list

e.g.

a. ‘That is the best part, the countryside—the fields of sunflowers, the towns, the castles.’

b. I round a corner and the wall drops to waist height, revealing a thick blanket of lush green—palm trees, ferns, thick brush with glossy leaves, and high grass.

5. to show a ‘change in direction’ of a thought, or in narration or dialogue

e.g.

a. I look up from the shopping and her cheeks are pink with frustration—or maybe it’s exertion.

b. ‘Yeah, I don’t ever drink beer—unless it’s, like, craft beer.’

6. to expand on a point

e.g.

a. And it’s hot. I mean, crazy, fricking, humid hot. And I’m from Miami—I know heat and I know humidity, but this stuff is next level.

b. Besides, I may have limited culinary skills but I am a master at making toast and tea—the perfect elixir for the infirmed.

You see? A powerful (not so) little dash.

Till next time when we unpack ellipses …

Drama Queen: Becoming a Novelist

Since I can remember, I’ve loved writing. I still have my Year 4 composition book and I was quite the short storyist (I also like to make up words). In my teens I wrote a gripping satirical piece on public toilets and started a novel (to date, still unfinished).

At university, while studying a BA in English and majoring in Literature and Theatre Arts, I wrote piercing exposes about sexism in classic novels and the sexualisation of men in Glam Rock – I know, also gripping stuff. I wrote angst-ridden monologues, which were somewhat sophomoric considering I was in my early twenties and no longer a sulking teen.

I kept a journal from age twelve, one of those small, but fat diaries with a gold lock that my eight year-old sister could easily pick. I upgraded to bigger and better journals, but stopped journalling about fifteen years ago when I realised I spent more time writing about my life than living it.

All of these writings and musings are where I cut my teeth as an author, but the one thing that has served me best as an author is Drama – my time studying performance and plays, my time on stage, and my time as a Drama teacher.

Drama taught me invaluable lessons I draw on every time I write.

Character motivations

Characters must have a motivation. It’s that simple. They must want something, even if they don’t (yet) know that they want it. Characters can also be their own antagonist – just think of how many people you know who self-sabotage. Any time my writing stalls, I ask myself, what does this character want and what will they do to get it?

Character arcs

Not only do characters need a motivation, they must move – and I don’t mean that they need to join a dance class or change their address. Characters – particularly the protagonist – must develop, grow, or change in some way. They must have an arc. They should be different at the end of the story from when the reader first meets them. It’s good for me as a writer to be able to articulate that continuum of growth, that arc.

Back stories

Acting taught me of the importance of back stories. Characters – again, particularly protagonists – need to be as fully fleshed out as possible. They should have histories and there should be reasons for their personality traits, their motivations, their flaws, their relationships. As a writer, I must create histories for my characters, so they ring true to readers.

Setting

In a play, there’s a great deal of attention to setting – how characters interact with it, how it’s referred to and how it is staged. On paper, a richly-developed setting can become almost a character in itself. And how characters engage with the setting can evoke a specific tone or mood. As I travel avidly, I tend to write about places I know well and aim to capture what it is like to be in those places.

Dialogue

I have received some terrific feedback on the realism of my dialogue, which I greatly appreciate because I tend to use a lot of it and I work hard to make it sound A) true to each character and B) natural and realistic.

Writing plays in the noughties helped me develop this skill. I was teaching at a girls’ school and was seeking out plays for student productions. There’s a dearth of well-written, easy-to-stage ensemble pieces which are appropriate for high school students – especially for an all-female cast. So, I wrote plays. (They have since been published on Drama Notebook in the US and have been performed by schools in Australia, the UK and the US.)

I also hone this skill every time I work on one of my novels. Once I finish a conversation, I read it aloud as the characters (with voices – I can’t help myself), and tweak the phrasing, words, tone and inflections. My aim is to make it seem like a real conversation that I happened to capture in print.

Scenes

I follow a lot of authors on social media through Twitter, Facebook, blogs and websites, and I’ve been pleased to see more and more discussions about writing in scenes. Rather than focussing on chapters, the author focuses on a scene where something specific happens – just like in a play. A scene could comprise a whole chapter, or it might be part of one.

I realised recently that as a novelist I always write in scenes – again, perhaps a throw-back to writing plays. It is easier for me to approach the over-arching story in smaller, self-contained chunks. As a reader, I’ve seen a shift in writing towards this format. Likely you’ve seen this too – authors denote the end of a scene within a chapter with a double space or a physical page break that looks something like this:

***

Where I used to have to finish reading a whole chapter before putting a book down, I can now get to the end of a scene and feel like I have a natural place to pause.

A quick nod to grammar

I mentioned that I studied Literature as well as Theatre Arts and it was through my Lit classes that I began my love affair all things grammar. I have since taught English and worked as a professional editor. It means I can conduct decent and thorough editorial passes at my own writing before handing off to a(nother) pro (always get another pair of eyes on a manuscript).

And a quick nod to my contemporaries

A good writer reads. A good writer reads widely. A good writer reads voraciously.

Reading teaches you what to do and what not to do – how to evoke time, place, passion, fear, love, loss and the human condition – how to avoid over-using a word – how to structure a phrase, a sentence, a chapter, a thought – how to make your readers laugh aloud and weep onto the page – how to play with words and ignore the rules for effect.

I want to be a good writer – sorry, make that a great writer – so I read. Every day. Across genres. Indie authors, emerging authors, well established authors, and sometimes super famous authors.