The upstart em dash has been butting her head into fiction more and more in the last few years replacing the tried and true ellipses.
Why? With that question, others arise. Don’t they serve the same purpose? When should I use the em dash instead of the ellipses, where, and how do I write them.
It’s really not a mystery, but it does take a bit of research to ensure you and your authors are using both properly.
Editors, like myself, rely on several things. Colleagues within the industry, but more importantly, the Chicago of Manual Style (CMOS).
Both ellipses and em dashes signify a break within the story. However, they do so in two very different ways.
Ellipses are used for broken thoughts or speech. Think of words like stutter, stumble, stammer, etc. The em dash comes before or between an abrupt interruption. As above both in thought or speech.
“Um…do you…uh, never mind I’ll…” Her thoughts scattered, and she had no clue as to what she was saying. She hurried on to cover her embarrassment. “I’ll figure it out for myself,” she said, nonsensical words that had no meaning. She wondered why lately she lost the ability to speak coherently around her best friend. Because she loved him—she stumbled over the edge of the area rug at that sudden thought.
In the example above I use both ellipses and the em dash. Ellipses show clearly the speaker’s halted thoughts. Even if the explanation afterward had not been given. It’s plain that she’s not thinking and it shows in her slow and broken speech. The em dash in the last sentence demonstrates her thought is interrupted when she stumbles over the rug.
However, don’t be fooled that the em dash is only used during inner thoughts.
Here is an example of an em dash in speech. Notice the abrupt change.
“Someday, someone is going to blindside you—”
“It will never happen. My skills are too good,” he cut in.
Below are a few more examples of em dashes. Note these show how to use them in certain sentences. For full information see section 6.82 in CMOS. Don’t be surprised at the variations your publisher might require though.
“Is Michael here?”
“Good, I brought his present and don’t want him to see it until later.”
“I just hope he”—she gestured with her hands—”appreciates all the trouble you went through to get it.”
“He will,” she said. The more she thought about it, though, she wondered if she should have gotten the black Labrador Retriever instead of the Jack Russell…
I hope this helps, at least in part, to clear up the mystery of ellipses and em dashes.