Revising Leah

September 28, 2008

Dashes! We Don’t Need No Stinking Dashes!

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:21 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

One of the stylistic decisions that I’ve made in recent years as a writer is to misuse overuse the dash. Technically, a dash or a pair of dashes is used to set off a parenthetical word or phrase from the rest of the sentence. It’s like a parenthesis, except that it suggests a quicker reading pace. You don’t linger on the content surrounded by a dash, it’s just something that has been thrown into the text — almost as an afterthought. I started using dashes more and more just a few years ago. I now enjoy using them so much that I sometimes wish I could use them in place of all commas, semicolons, and periods. I often have to stop myself from using them when a pair of commas or parentheses would be the better choice.

The one place where I give myself permission to use dashes as much as I want is in my dialogue.

If you really listen to people when they speak, you’ll find that people don’t usually speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. Were you to transcribe a conversation that you have with someone, what you’d see is a “blizzard of words” — to borrow a phrase — that doesn’t necessarily make sense on paper, but in the act of speaking, it can make sense. Language in speech has its own logic — its own grammar — that is different from language in writing. People speak in fragments or run-on sentences or in extremely tortured and convoluted sentences. When I write dialogue, I go out of my way to mess up my characters’ grammar, in an attempt to capture how real people really speak.

But dialogue also screws with the rules and customs surrounding punctuation. Suddenly, in dialogue, question marks and exclamation points seem to pop up a lot more often. There’s still a place for commas and periods, but they’re not quite as discernible and distinguishable when you hear someone speak as when you see a sentence written out.

Speech allows for a number of utterances that are almost never seen in writing. What do we do, for example, when a character abruptly changes the subject, when another idea forces its way into what he or she is trying to say? What do we do when a character is struggling to find the right word or phrase? When you write, you have the luxury of stopping and thinking about what you mean to say. You can check a dictionary or a thesaurus. You can rephrase a sentence again and again until you get it just right. You can’t do that when you are speaking. So how do you capture that element of speaking when you are writing?

I use dashes. Here are a couple of examples from The Spring:

“You’ve been quiet today — what’s the matter?”

“I’m not sucking up — I’m just being nice.”

In the first case, a period would be the correct punctuation mark after “today,” but in this instance of dialogue it might not be the best punctuation mark. The question emerges from the statement. They’re two distinct sentences, yet they’re not. In the second example, a semicolon would make more sense if this were writing and not speech. But you can’t use a semicolon in dialogue because, well, NOBODY speaks in semicolons. I mean, seriously!

Do you find yourself doing anything out of the ordinary stylistically when you write dialogue?

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