When it comes to formatting and punctuation issues, hyphens and dashes take the cake. Their use in books is incredibly inconsistent, which leads to a lot of confusion for anyone trying to learn them. This article will give a thorough breakdown of each kind and their uses as they pertain to fiction. Keep in mind that the rules I’m covering are the ones that are the most beneficial for fiction writing—there are some that won’t be addressed in this post. And all rules mentioned are based on The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition.
Phrasal adjectives are a short group of words (usually two but sometimes three or more) that link together to modify another noun. They typically precede the noun and are very common in fiction writing.
Example 1: rose-colored glasses
Example 2: four-chambered heart
A fantastic resource for this can be found on The Chicago Manual of Style website: https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/dam/cmos/tables/pdfs/table07-hyphens.pdf
(Please note that the hyphenation table is no longer accessible on the website without a subscription. Unfortunate but true.)
Phrasal adjectives almost always call for a hyphen if they're followed by a noun. The linked chart shows the breakdown of various combinations of adjectives and how they should be punctuated, including permanently hyphenated words and exceptions. The CMOS advises following Merriam-Webster’s dictionary for determining which words and phrases should always be hyphenated. Some of examples of this are the words life-form, run-down (not to be confused with rundown, which holds a different meaning), and short-lived.
Hyphens are also used for compound names, including surnames, first names, and other names.
Example 1: Merriam-Webster
Example 2: Mary-Kay
Example 3: Theta-Gamma
The most common word division breaks where you’d find hyphens would be line breaks, syllable breaks (often used for pronunciation purposes), and prefixes and suffixes. Which isn’t all that common in fiction writing. However, you will often see it in dialogue, particularly with stuttering.
Example: “W-w-where’d you l-l-leave it?” Tom asked.
Hyphens can also be used to separate letters and numbers. That’s that type of thing you see with phone numbers, ID numbers, and the like. However, a great use for separation hyphens in fiction writing is when have a word that you need to spell out completely or partially.
Example: The sign read: “C-A-U-T.” The rest had long since worn off.
Dates, Times, and Page Numbers
The en dash’s main purpose is to replace the word to. The most typical occurrence of this would be with dates, times, and page numbers.
Example 1: He held office from 1929–1932.
Example 2: The event is Saturday, 2:30p.m.–4:30p.m.
Example 3: Tonight’s assignment is to read pages 32–45.
You also might see this with scoring/votes and with an unfinished number range.
Example 4: We won our last game 13–2.
Example 5: The magazine (2003–) has produced six volumes so far.
However, you should always use the word “to” instead of an en dash if “from” precedes the range.
Example 6: He joined us from 11a.m. to 12p.m. but had to leave for lunch after that.
Directions and Compound Adjectives
En dashes are also sometimes used with words, as can be the case with directions.
Example 1: I took the London–Paris train last week.
And sometimes—very rarely—an en dash is used with compound adjectives. This is where it gets tricky because the intended meaning can often get muddled by using this method, so it’s usually best to reword and find a more elegant solution when possible.
Example 2a: I’d like to find more Taylor Swift–style music.
Example 2b: I’d like to find more artists like Taylor Swift.
Version 2b of the above example flows much better and is less confusing than the first, so it’s easily the better choice.
And with two sets of compound adjectives where the sets are acting as coordinate adjectives to each other, a comma is the best option.
Example 3: This run-down, high-maintenance property will end up costing a lot of money.
The last use of en dashes is one that you probably won’t find in most fiction writing, but it’s useful to know nonetheless. You will sometimes find universities with multiple campus locations using an en dash to include the location name.
Example: I put my application in for Fordham University–Westchester.
Em dashes are used to set off phrases and clauses in a manuscript that require an abrupt break, either to draw attention to it or because there is a large shift in the train of thought. This is one of the most useful tools an author has in fiction writing when used correctly and sparingly. Note that em dashes should NOT be substituted with ellipses; the two serve different purposes.
Em Dashes vs. Ellipses
Em dashes are used for interruption or to set off an explanatory element. An ellipsis is used to indicate hesitation or trailing off.
Example 1: “Lucy, where did you put—”
“It’s none of your business!” Lucy shouted from the other room.
Example 2: I stumbled down the stairs—the power had gone out earlier that evening—before I found my way to the bathroom.
Example 3: “I don’t know…” I admitted. “I hadn’t really thought much about it.”
Sometimes the interruptions can come in the form of narrative thoughts.
Example: Justin’s feet pounded against the ground as he blazed down the trail. Awesome. If he kept up the pace, he’d beat—a tree root caught his foot, and he was sent sprawling into the dirt.
And if you have a character that is having trouble forming a sentence due to the circumstances at hand and/or heighted emotions, em dashes can be used to indicate stammering between words (not syllables).
Example: “What I meant was—why can’t we—oh, just forget it,” Julie spat out.
Words and Phrases
An em dash can also be used to set off noun or pronoun at the beginning of the sentence.
Example: Cowards—they were the ones who sought power.
Another common use for the em dash is before the phrases “namely,” “that is,” “for example,” and others similar to those.
Example: We spent most of the afternoon in the garden—that is, until the heat became unbearable.
Note: You should never use em dashes within or immediately following an element that already has a set of em dashes. Not only would this look terrible aesthetically, but it could also cause potential misinterpretation.
The last use of em dashes for fiction is probably one of the trickiest, but it can also be the most useful. If you have a line of dialogue that is split up by an action in the middle, you can use em dashes to set off that action.
Example 1: “Well, the thing is”—Tommy quickly turned his attention to his feet—“it’s just not working out between us.”
Note that the em dashes go outside of the quotation marks in such a case, and the quotation is a continuous line of dialogue that is being split. The first word of the dialogue after the split should be lowercased. You can’t use this method if you have two separate sentences that have an action in between. In that situation, you’d use periods.
Example 2: “You really mean it.” My voice caught in my throat. “I just don’t understand what happened.
One type of em dash that isn't commonly used in fiction writing (though it's probably my favorite) is the 2-em dash. The 2-em dash is used to omit words or parts of words that are missing or illegible, or to conceal a name. Two em dashes are most useful for the genres of fantasy, thriller, and mystery, where characters might come across documents that have damage to them. The example below is from a snippet of a work in progress of mine: book one of the Ansakerr series.
My dearest I——,
If you are reading this, I have long since p—— away. I can only pray that my —— box and this letter have fallen into your hands and your hands alone. There is much you have yet to learn about me. There is still a D——k O—— out there, one more dangerous than you can imagine. For now, you are protected, but be on your toes, my girl. One day soon, I fear the p—— will fade, and you'll need to be ready. He is coming.
The key will lead you to A——. It will hold the answers you’re looking for.
Deepest love and affection,
Notice that most of the missing parts are for key elements, including names, places, and very specific items that are clearly crucial to the plot. If you craft these parts well, you can purposely mislead a reader in the narrative, giving a twist to your story.
Formatting and Stylistic Use
No spaces should be used around hyphens or dashes except in the case of the 2-em dash when it is being used to completely omit a word. This is probably the most common error regarding formatting of hyphens and dashes that I come across. Though there is some debate about spacing among various sources, the CMOS is pretty clear about it. But again, as with anything else in writing, consistency is the most important thing.
As for formatting the different dashes, mainstream word processors include symbols for each that you can insert into your document. In fact, some of them even automatically convert two hyphens used together into an em dash. While most publishers will accept em dashes in the form of two hyphens (in fact, some even request that you submit manuscripts that way), when it comes to actual printing and online publishing of the material, you’ll want to make sure they’re replaced. Your document will look more professional when you use the correct symbol, and your readers will likely notice as well.
Tip: To quickly find and replace any stray instances of two hyphens with an em dash symbol, use your word processor's Replace function.
Lastly, when it comes to use with other punctuation, a question mark or an exclamation mark can precede an em dash, but never a comma, colon, or semicolon. In other words, if you use an em dash where one of the latter punctuation marks would typically be used, the dash takes the place of the punctuation.
Example: He bent down to tie his shoe—but he stopped when he saw Alyssa approaching.