I’ve got a lot of work stuff on my plate this month. You know what that means. Time for another episode of “How Do I…?”

This time, I’ll be discussing a particular piece of punctuation – dashes. (Yes, grammarians, I understand that there are multiple types of dashes, but I’m only referring to em dashes here.) This bit of punctuation has become my go-to whenever I’m building complex sentences and I’m not sure if commas would work. They’re a handy workaround for all those comma rules nobody can remember. The problem is that you don’t see them in the wild that often, so writers don’t know how to use them. If you’ve never heard of dashes before, take a few minutes to read this overview blog post from Grammarly.

In this spot, I’ll talk in-depth about a couple of situations that are common in creative writing and explain my rationale for using dashes in those cases. Hopefully, this will inspire you to try adding dashes into your own work.

Parenthetical Information

For those of you who don’t know what this is, parenthetical information is a grammatical term for, more or less, optional information. The name is derived from the punctuation that usually surrounds such phrases – parentheses. I don’t know about you, but I tend to skip or skim over parentheses whenever I encounter them in a text. They look fine in academic papers and serve a variety of legitimate uses in that context. But they don’t really belong in creative pieces. Ideally, every word in a story is necessary to convey its meaning. If the details in parentheses aren’t necessary, why bother including them at all?

In truth, parenthetical information as a structural device can be useful for inserting bits of exposition or for adding character or nuance to otherwise run-of-the-mill narration. It just needs to be punctuated differently. That’s where dashes come in.

The white Ethereal Oak – the first tree God Himself planted – stood in the center of the cathedral courtyard.

He saw Elyse – or someone who looked like her – on the balcony above.

In the first sentence, the dashes set off a phrase that quickly explains the mythological significance behind this oak tree. The parenthetical phrase in the second sentence shows the man making an assumption about who he sees on the balcony. Whether that assumption is correct or not is for the rest of the story to explain. Using dashes instead of parentheses in both cases helps emphasize the extra information, so the reader is bound to notice and read it. If the details in the examples above weren’t that important to the overall story, I could replace the dashes with commas to make everything blend together – nothing emphasized yet little chance of the reader deliberately skipping over it.

Mark Sharp Turns in Thought

Dashes are really useful when writing dialogue. They’re best suited for quick shifts between incomplete thoughts, where the character is changing their mind faster than they can get the words out.

Where did – how did – oh, never mind.

In contrast, when the character is bouncing between complete thoughts, those should be treated as a series of complete sentences and get end punctuation as normal.

Yes. No. Maybe?

That’s how I use dashes in my stories. Have you seen writers use them in other scenarios? Have any more questions about dashes? What should I talk about in the next installment of “How Do I…?” I have some notes for a post on ellipses, but I’d love to hear your suggestions.