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Em-Dashes: Arrows to the Heart

H.S. Cross, author of "Grievous," discusses how and why she uses em-dashes—instead of quotation marks—to represent conversation in her writing. 

By
H.S. Cross, Writing for
4-minute read
Grievous by H.S. Cross

Take this passage from "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" in which young Stephen Dedalus has returned from a meeting with his school’s headmaster:

The fellows had seen him running. They closed around him in a ring, pushing one against another to hear.

—Tell us! Tell us!

—What did he say?

—Did you go in?

—What did he say?

—Tell us! Tell us!

He told them what he had said and what the rector had said and, when he had told them, all the fellows flung their caps spinning up into the air and cried:

—Hurroo!

The anonymous voices surround Stephen, and we feel as though we are in the middle of that ring with him. Stephen’s actual lines are given in indirect speech (he told them what he had said) because Stephen’s focus at this moment is not what he himself is saying, but what the other boys are doing and saying, particularly the unfamiliar experience for Stephen of being sought-after and cheered.

The em-dash provides an interplay between private thought and public speech, particularly when a character is carrying on a conversation but thinking something different at the same time.

Perhaps of greatest interest to me, the em-dash provides an interplay between private thought and public speech, particularly when a character is carrying on a conversation but thinking something different at the same time. In my novels, everything is narrated in close third person, so the reader has access to the point-of-view character’s sensory, mental, emotional, and imaginative experience. The em-dashes slice through the barriers between interior and exterior, immersing you in that thought/speech multitasking.

When the interlocutors are at cross-purposes—which is really fun to write—it can be hilarious, or painful, or both, watching your guy say and think one thing while the other person seems to be carrying on an entirely different conversation. But that is how life works, isn’t it? How often do we think we understand what the other person is saying, only to find out later that one or both of us got the wrong end of the stick?

Em-dashes can take some getting used to, but once your eye starts scanning them, it is easier to enter into the scene and into a character’s consciousness without the cluttered, controlling reportage of narration with quotation marks. Those little slashes, the width of the letter m, can shoot you right into to the heart of the matter.

—Have fun!

H.S. Cross is the author of "Wilberforce" and, most recently, "Grievous" (FSG, April 2019).

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About the Author

H.S. Cross, Writing for Grammar Girl

H. S. Cross was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and studied at Harvard University. "Wilberforce" is her debut novel. She has taught at Friends Seminary and lives in New York. Cross is at work on a new novel set at St. Stephen's Academy.

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